Messiaen by candlelight

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 July 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  2 Comments

Cerne Abbas church

Cerne Abbas church

The final concerts of my season took place last week at the Cerne Abbas Music Festival in Dorset with the Gaudier Ensemble. During the festival we gave a late-night performance of Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ in a candlelit church, with no other lights except for reading lights clipped to our music stands. It was so dark that we couldn’t see the audience, and they were so quiet that had we not known they were there, we might have imagined ourselves alone in the building.

A few months ago, the four of us performed the same work as part of a longer programme in the large open-plan atrium of a modern school. We wanted to end our concert with the Messiaen. But knowing that his audience was allergic to dissonance, the organiser insisted that we played the Messiaen at the start, because if it was in the second half, he said, ‘they’ll all leave during the interval’. So we played in daylight, with people walking past the windows to and from the sports ground while we played, and also walking down the corridors which connected the atrium to the rest of the school. There was continual movement in our peripheral vision, as well as a sea of fidgeting amongst the listeners. It felt virtually impossible to conjure up any kind of atmosphere.

Late at night in an old church, however, with candles flickering in front of the stained glass and a rapt stillness from the audience, the music’s spiritual qualities rang through loud and clear. At the end there was a silence so long that we wondered whether we should just creep offstage and leave people to reflect in the darkness. I’ve performed this work on a number of different occasions, but have never heard such a long and unembarrassed silence at the end.

You might think that if a piece has sufficiently strong qualities, the performance context wouldn’t matter. Surely the message of the music should come through whether it’s played in a school hall in daylight or in an ancient candlelit church? But I think it’s more a case of trying to provide a perfect setting, like a jeweller does for a precious stone, to help its beauty shine through.

Clapping at the Proms

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 July 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Controversy in the press about whether Proms audiences should be discouraged from clapping so much. What’s under the spotlight is the Prommers’ habit of clapping in between movements, and the growing sport of racing each other to be the first to applaud vociferously when they recognise the closing chords of a piece. The classical music editor of Time Out thinks that things have got out of hand – if that’s not a misleading phrase in the context!

Those on the other side of the argument have pointed out that audiences used to clap between movements in Mozart’s day and, in fact, right up until the twentieth century when a different habit emerged. As classical music and popular music became separate strands (more’s the pity), it became the done thing to remain silent between movements at a classical concert, and to wait until the whole work had finished – even then, often leaving a sliver of reflective silence between the end of the piece and the applause. Performers usually welcome these en route silences, because they create a more fertile ground in which to work. There are usually links – emotional, thematic, structural – between movements, and clapping can break the fragile tissue which holds the movements together in a greater whole.

As a performer myself, I have no ethical objections to people clapping to express their pleasure, but in practice I admit I find it jarring when I’m immersed in the performance of a long work. On the one hand, of course, I very much want people to feel at home in concerts. On the other hand, I don’t want them to feel free to chop up something precious into lots of little bits. Nor do I want them to stop others in the audience from sinking into the music.

One of the problems is that people have got used to music being fired at them in three- or four-minute chunks all day long by entertainment media. Longer pieces of music have begun to seem a little nerve-racking. And we have become more uncomfortable with silence. We’ve got used to radio stations and TV programmes where, the very second something finishes, someone has to speak. Nothing can be allowed to finish in peace, leaving time for digestion. How many times have I finished watching some moving piece of TV drama and been shocked by an announcer’s voice bursting cheerfully in over the closing credits with news of the next programme? It seems as though everyone is afraid of silence. Yet silence is surely music’s favourite partner.

Looking at Toscanini

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 July 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I watched a fascinating TV drama-documentary about conductor Arturo Toscanini. During his lifetime he was famous for his expressive gestures when conducting. Orchestral musicians who played for him said that it was always perfectly clear what he wanted them to do. It was rather shocking therefore to see him on the archive film. His gestures, though clearly full of emotion, seemed rather wooden and predictable by today’s standards. His face showed that he was intensely ‘hearing’ how he imagined the music should go. But his expression seemed turned inward. He didn’t look around much at different sections of the orchestra, nor did he give cues or encouraging glances to players who had to come in with counter-melodies. I could imagine that his soulful, almost sorrowful expression was inspiring, but his gestures seemed not particularly illuminating.

It reminded me of being at a conference where I heard a recording from the National Sound Archive, illustrating actors of previous eras. One actor in particular was known in his own lifetime for the naturalness of his speech, its likeness to the way that ordinary people spoke. But when we heard a recording, his voice couldn’t have sounded more stilted and artificial. In fact, we burst out laughing as we listened. But our laughter died away as we contemplated how much has changed if audiences of that time considered this way of speaking ‘natural’. What did it mean about the mode of speech which we consider natural and idiomatic? Remembering this experience, I looked at Toscanini with his rather workmanlike physical gestures, and wondered how our interpretation of ‘expressive’ can constantly change with passing eras.

No mud-wrestling rings

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 July 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Travel  •  Leave a comment

Listening to Desert Island Discs on radio this morning, I was startled to hear impresario Harvey Goldsmith discussing the ‘riders’ – or additional contractual requests – demanded by some of his pop artists and their entourages to make their lives more pleasant on tour. He said his view was that a happy crew made happy artists, and happy artists gave good concerts, so he was always ready to indulge their requests, even coming up with alternatives should the original request prove unattainable.

Kirsty Young asked him if it was true that one group demanded a mud-wrestling ring backstage, complete with two mud-wrestling contestants for their amusement. ‘Four’, said Goldsmith poker-faced. ‘Four?’ ‘Four mud-wrestling contestants’, he said. Was it true that Italian tenor Pavarotti demanded a special Parma ham-slicing machine in his dressing-room? Goldsmith couldn’t remember precisely, but confirmed that Pavarotti used to travel with a whole suitcase full of Italian food.

Even in the classical world there are stories of opera singers and concerto soloists who demanded that their dressing-rooms be decorated in a certain way, with furniture to match, and certain kinds of food available at all hours of the day. South-facing views, hotel suites with vintage wines, first-class air travel for any ‘friend’ whom the artist suddenly wishes to have near him or her. I know of a violinist whose contract states that he must never be required to leave his hotel before mid-morning.

All this makes me feel that I have been incredibly naïve. ‘Could I possibly have a sandwich between rehearsal and concert?’, I hear myself saying, hungry at the end of a long day which began with a very early cheap flight. This is not to forget or decry the voluntary efforts made by some very kind people to make sure that we are well looked after, sometimes even inviting us into their own homes. But the whole world of first class travel and ‘luxury clauses’ is entirely outside my experience.

Enjoying the beat

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 July 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I’ve started to prepare for the next festival I’m involved in, the annual chamber music festival of the Gaudier Ensemble. It takes place in the lovely old village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset in July. This year I have a few little piano solos and ten different chamber works to prepare, ranging from a Haydn piano concerto with string quartet and double bass to Brahms trios, the Dvorak piano quintet, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

There’s also a programme of early-20th-century music inspired by jazz: Milhaud, Martinu, Walton, Billy Mayerl. As I was practising some of the piano parts today, I noticed how different my posture and body language is when I’m playing jazzy music. It’s to do with the importance of the regular beat for dancing, I think. In many classical works, my concern is often to make the bar-lines disappear so that the phrase-lengths can be longer. I want to give a feeling of progressing through the music in huge strides. I tend to sit fairly still as I play and try to breathe deeply.

However, such an approach doesn’t feel right for jazzy music. The constant re-assertion of the beat, which feels so right for toe-tapping and hand-clapping, makes me bounce along with it as I play. Here the focus is not so much on deep breaths and long phrases as on the delightfulness of the moment, the energy of the pulse, and the utter reliability of the beat. To make those beats disappear would be against the spirit of the music.