Feeling free to be themselves

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 August 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  4 Comments

I’ve been thinking about Charles Hazlewood’s article in Monday’s Guardian. He wrote about some open-air orchestral concerts he’s going to conduct in a field in Somerset, explaining that he wants to bring great music out of the intimidating concert hall and into a fun relaxing space. Good for him. I started my professional career doing something just like that with Domus in its geodesic tent, so in some ways I felt completely sympathetic to Charles’s views – until I came to the sentence:

‘I want people to hear really exciting music played by the best, but in a context where they can clap when they want to, chase their toddlers, drink beer, take photos, get lost in the music and generally be themselves.’

And this is where I have to differ. I’ve tried playing music in this kind of setting, and I don’t believe it works. For a start, the kind of music I play is not amplified. A performance of acoustic music can’t thrive when there are competing sound sources.

Secondly, and more importantly, I feel strongly that music is designed to draw us out of ourselves and let us enter another imaginative realm. Where that’s possible, listening to music can be a profound experience. But nobody can be drawn out of themselves if other members of the audience feel free to ‘chase their toddlers, drink beer, take photos and generally be themselves’. There’s so much of that going on all around us as it is. It’s an old paradox: feeling free to behave as you like often means that other people can’t behave as they like. If some people feel free to run about and be noisy, they deny others the possibility of falling silent, forgetting their surroundings and being drawn out of themselves by music. And I can’t believe that those who run about are going to get much out of it either.

That’s entertainment

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 August 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

Last night, I stupidly didn’t watch the first part of the MGM Film Musicals Prom on television, and only turned on for the second half. I’m so used to concerts of this kind being slightly embarrassing; orchestras often sound uncomfortable with the idiom, and there’s an awkward air about the proceedings which I’m often glad to avoid.

What a wonderful surprise I got when I heard the John Wilson Orchestra last night. I have no idea who they really were, but listening to them reminded me of the tales of Hollywood’s great days, when some of Europe’s finest instrumentalists – many of them émigrés to the United States – let loose the full might of their talent on rich and complex film scores which offered them plenty of scope. The Proms information referred only to John Wilson’s orchestra being ‘hand-picked’, which it most certainly was. John Wilson has undertaken the task of restoring some lost MGM orchestral scores, apparently transcribing them by ear from the original sound recordings, an incredible feat. His orchestra sounded like a bunch of hungry lions who had finally been given their favourite meat.

‘Joyful’ was the word which kept coming to mind, and I only wished I had thought to record the whole thing – which I hope will be repeated as soon as possible. In the meantime, you can ‘listen again’ on Radio 3 for the next week.

The Hallé at the Proms

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 July 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Last night we went to hear Mendelssohn’s 2nd Symphony at the Proms, played by the excellent Hallé Orchestra under their conductor Sir Mark Elder. A few weeks ago, Bob reviewed all the available recordings of Mendelssohn’s 2nd Symphony for Radio 3’s CD Review ‘Building a Library’ programme, but he had never heard a live performance of it, so we grabbed the opportunity.

They say you know you’re getting old when policeman start to look young. Well, I have the same feeling about orchestras. I was sitting about half a mile away on the far side of the Albert Hall and couldn’t see very clearly, but it seemed to me that there was hardly anyone in the Orchestra over the age of forty. Surely the Hallé didn’t used to look like this? What happens to their middle-aged and older players? When I survey the youthful orchestra, I can’t help imagining a pile of worn-out musicians in a cupboard somewhere and it makes me feel obscurely troubled.

Admittedly I was in a slightly strange mood because of something that happened as we made our way up Exhibition Road to the Prom. As we crossed a road, an elderly man tripped just in front of us and fell heavily into the road. We helped him up. He was clearly very shaken, but all he said was, ‘Damn! I wanted to hear that concert.’  Then we looked at his hand. His little finger was badly broken, sticking out to the side at a right angle from the other fingers. A woman near us started dialling for an ambulance. The poor man stood there, holding his broken hand in the air and repeating numbly, ‘Damn! I wanted to hear that concert’, as though he couldn’t take in what had happened.

As we sat listening to the music afterwards, I kept having frissons of horror as I imagined trying to play the piano with a hand like that. Seeing hand injuries always makes me feel quite peculiar. I hope that man is being looked after somewhere now.

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.