Calligraphy Blues

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 August 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I recently made up a couple of cadenzas for a Haydn piano concerto. I kind of improvised them at the piano, and played them in the concert without ever writing them out. Afterwards, I thought I’d try and note them down before I forgot them entirely. Cadenzas are supposed to be, or at least sound, spontaneous but I’d had one or two nice ideas which I was reluctant to let disappear into the mists of time. So I started to write them down.

What a labour! It’s a while since I had to write music down and I was appalled not only at how long it took, but how strenuous it was for my writing hand. You can speed up your movement to a certain extent, but I found that if I wrote too fast, the note heads became mere diagonal lines instead of little round blobs, and the stems became confusingly detached from the note heads.

And mine were only pieces of music lasting a couple of minutes each. What must it must have been like for Mozart, Beethoven and so on! The sheer time-consuming labour of writing their ideas down on manuscript paper must have far outweighed the time it took to compose the music. I do remember reading somewhere that if someone sat down and simply wrote out all Mozart’s music by hand, working their way through the Collected Mozart Edition with all the symphonies and opera scores and so on, it would take them longer than Mozart’s entire lifetime. Can that be true? As I struggled to write down the details of my flourishes and arpeggios, it felt as if it could be.

The poetry of spam

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 August 2009 under Daily Life  •  Leave a comment

Whenever I delete spam mails from this blog I’m intrigued by their prose style. Sent by shadowy advertisers, this special type of spam is targeted at blogs. I’m still fooled sometimes because they quote the title of one of my own blog posts, and appear to be a response to something I’ve said. The very first spam mail I received on my website said, ‘This post is great. May I copy it to my own website?’ I clicked on ‘reply’ and was about to type a friendly note when I noticed the name of the originating website, definitely on what cartoonist Gary Larson would call ‘the far side.’

Some of the spam mails masquerade as sensible observations.  Some start out normal and career off the rails: ‘The best point about this writer is nakreativil!!!’ was one example. ‘The word Internet has a capital letter inside it, no less!’ , was another. Sometimes they’re unashamed gobbledygook: ‘confound sledges age hot investments regret exponential winter socks’.

Occasionally they contain surprising slivers of philosophy, and perhaps it’s not surprising that this type seems to come from Russia. ‘Cognitive but not convincing’, complained a dubious advertiser this morning. ‘What it lacks is what it does not understand.’ Fair enough.

The second one said, ‘I am always returning moment after moment with anxious haste to this site. Grasp the opportunity for intriguing visions of oversize!’

Sometimes the spam mails have their own poetry. An advert for slimming pills requested plaintively, ‘A soup for me, please.’

Another declared simply, ‘I have little time.’

Flying the Flag

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 August 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Last night’s Prom offered the invigorating spectacle of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra playing beautifully under their fine young conductor Ilan Volkov. One of the good effects of globalisation has been on the standards of orchestral playing. Because of the widespread availability of music both live and recorded, nobody can now hide in a corner and pretend they don’t know how well their fellow musicians are playing elsewhere. And because of the international music circuit, musicians now move between countries much more than they used to, with the result that orchestras are now interestingly multi-cultural. In the case of the BBC Scottish, whom I used to know fairly well when I was a student in Scotland, the improvement in their morale since those days is simply enormous.

As a student I once had the opportunity to play a piano concerto with them. As usual with concerto soloists, I had been practising the piece every day for months and months, but as usual with orchestras, I was given just one rehearsal – part of one rehearsal, actually. The piece was a long one and by the time we’d been through it once, stopping to discuss this and that, it was time for a tea-break. The conductor looked at the orchestra with a twinkle and said, ‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’ll do. After all, we’re not here to be extremely musical.’  Everyone laughed.  And that was the end of my rehearsal. The experience stayed with me for a long time.

So it was cheering, to say the least, to watch the orchestra last night, accomplished, engaged and alert, flying the flag for Scotland in front of an appreciative Proms audience.

‘The Dark Side of Piano Competitions’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 August 2009 under Musings  •  1 Comment

An American friend has sent me an article from last Friday’s New York Times about piano competitions. Michael Johnson, who has served on prestigious competition juries, laments the corruption that allegedly prevails.

Perhaps there are competitions whose juries engage in vote-swapping, fixing, accepting bribes and all the rest of it. I’ve heard the stories too. But there are ways of making it very hard for juries to indulge in such behaviour. In this regard I’d give honourable mention to the Scottish International Piano Competition, whose jury rules were so strict that we didn’t once discuss the pianists we’d heard, not even after the final result had been announced. After ten days with my fellow jurors I had no idea who had voted for whom at any stage, or what anybody thought about the outcome.

Maybe I’ve been lucky, maybe I’m naive, or maybe I’ve never been at the relevant competitions, but I’ve never encountered any tricks or tactics. On the contrary, my fellow jurors have always been anxious to do the right thing and united in hoping that someone will walk out onto the platform and play in such a way that we can push away our score sheets, lay down our pens and simply listen.

It’s true that the technical standard of playing keeps rising, and that there are now staggering numbers of pianists, from more and more countries, who play with amazing control and accuracy. All the same, even amongst these highly-trained and polished players, the artist who ‘speaks straight to the heart’ is still a rarity and is still easy to spot. As György Sebök would have said, ‘the standard of mediocrity is rising all the time.’

A book review in today’s Guardian

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 August 2009 under Books  •  Leave a comment

In the Review section of today’s Guardian, I’ve written a review of Daniel Levitin’s book, ‘The World in Six Songs’.

If you’d like to read the review, here’s the link.