Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 April 2009 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

To the Festival Hall this morning with Bob to attend an Open Rehearsal of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra from Venezuela. By the time we got round to asking about tickets for their two London concerts, they had long been sold out. This open rehearsal is our only chance to hear them, and at 10am the Festival Hall is packed.

Their conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, clearly understands that many of us are there because we couldn’t get into the evening concerts. Although it’s ‘a rehearsal’, he generously treats us to a more or less continuous performance of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra despite the fact that the orchestra has to give a full concert this evening. I had seen their now-famous Prom on television last summer, so I knew they were marvellous, but it was still extraordinarily touching to hear them live. Quite apart from their blazing sound, what’s so striking is the unselfconscious gusto and commitment they bring to classical music.

Before the rehearsal begins, Dudamel has to climb up to the percussion section at the back of the orchestra to discuss something with them. On the way through the orchestra he seems to reach out and touch a number of the players on the shoulder with a natural friendliness, and they reach out and touch him back. This is something I haven’t seen before on the symphony stage.

At the end of the first movement of Tchaikovsky, someone shouts ‘Bravo!’ and the audience bursts into prolonged applause. I am so overcome that I can’t say anything to Bob, and he can’t say anything to me either. I look in my bag for a tissue and wipe my eyes. I hand the tissue to Bob who wipes his eyes as well. And it is still only 10.30 in the morning.

The difficulty of being good all the way through

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 April 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

We went to the Orange Tree Theatre to see the premiere of a play, ‘The Story of Vasco’, translated and adapted by Ted Hughes from an original play by Lebanese writer Georges Schehadé. Hughes’ adaptation had never before been performed in its entirety; the director had rescued it from Hughes’s papers in an American university library.

For at least the first hour of the play we were fascinated and delighted. We couldn’t tell whether the humour and imagery of the script were Schehadé’s or Hughes’, but either way it was like being suddenly whisked into a charming, surreal and poetical world where every character was amusing and touching. It was set in the midst of a raging war. Caesar the scholar kept out of its way in his caravan in the forest with his collection of stuffed dogs, and resigned himself to wandering the world with his charmingly deranged daughter, searching for the real-life versions of men she met in her dreams. The timid barber Vasco, whom she meets in a dream, is chosen for a special military mission precisely because he is so inconspicuous that nobody will suspect him, but having reached his destination in the enemy camp, love inspires him to become a hero after all, at which point he becomes visible to the enemy and is shot dead.

But despite these dramatic events, the final half hour of the play wound down like an old-fashioned clock. Pauses opened up between tableaux; characters seemed to wait uncertainly for the next line. The author seemed lost in the forest too. The tempo flagged, people in the audience started to shuffle, and when the final attitude had been struck, we all rose up without ceremony and departed without stopping at the bar. The play had loosed its grip on our attention, even though the start was so enthralling.

This seems to happen so often, not only in the theatre of course. How many times have I and my colleagues discussed what a pity it is that the last movement of a musical work is so weak or rambling compared to the rest? It’s actually very rare for the Finale to be the best movement. You can feel the composer setting off at the start of the first movement with tremendous drive and determination. Somehow, it often disperses by the time the fourth movement arrives. I used to think it would be a problem simply solved by not having a fourth movement, but then something else would become the last movement, and maybe it is the lastness that’s the problem.

A Rolls-Royce of a recording

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 April 2009 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

Our record producer Andrew Keener sends his ‘suggested version’ of the trio’s newest Haydn disc in the post. He has worked through all the material we recorded over three days in the studio, stitching together his preferred versions of the takes. Now it’s for the members of the trio to listen and comment. For some reason this is always a task I find it hard to undertake, because our own recordings strike me as simultaneously familiar and alien.

Our producer’s work is meticulous, as always, and so is our sound engineer’s. The recorded sound is lustrous and clear, and the musical strands stand out clearly against one another, but I can’t say I enjoy listening. It suddenly strikes me as a ridiculous Rolls Royce of an outcome, beautifully played and recorded as if by a team of superhumans. Nothing has been faked, but the simple process of leaving out all the slips and scratches has made everything seem dauntingly perfect, even to my ears.

Mozart’s sister

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 April 2009 under Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

In the Mozart exhibition in Salzburg I learned some new things about his sister, Nannerl. I knew that Nannerl played the piano too – partly because there’s a famous painting of the two of them side by side at the piano, playing duets – but I hadn’t realised that when they were both young, her family considered her very talented too. As an eighteenth century woman, however, she had no opportunity to become a performer as her brother did. In fact, the more her brother was away from home on concert tours, often with their father in attendance, the more Nannerl was needed to hold the fort at home.

In her thirties (rather elderly to be a bride in those days) she married an older widower with four or five children, and she became stepmother to them, as well as having two children of her own. The exhibition said, ‘She remained an excellent pianist all her life, and wrote many compositions, none of which have survived.’ I hadn’t realised that. Why did nobody try to preserve the music she wrote? Her destiny seems too starkly contrasted with Mozart’s. I stood in front of her portrait for a while, thinking how things would have turned out if it had been girls who were given the opportunities to stride out into the wider world in those days, and men who were confined to the domestic circle. Would it be Nannerl who was world-famous?

Salzburg in the Snow

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 April 2009 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’ve just been to Salzburg to play a concert in the Mozarteum with the Gaudier Ensemble. Leaving London in spring weather, it was startling to find ourselves walking through the Mirabell Gardens a few hours later in heavy snow. How strange travel is! One minute you’re having breakfast in London and the next, you’re gazing up at the snowy mountains wondering what happened. The body can be quickly transferred from A to B, but the mind isn’t so quick to catch up.

We went to visit Mozart’s birthplace in the Getreidegasse, now an exclusive little shopping street. We paid our money and climbed up to the third floor where the Mozart family had their rooms – only to discover that their whole apartment was closed for renovation. All that was open was the little museum at the back of the house.

In the museum bookshop was a cookery book of recipes used by Johanna, the cook who worked for the famous von Trapp family of ‘The Sound of Music’. Johanna’s recipes were collected under the curious title ‘The Sound of Cooking’ and bound in a handsome green hard-back book with the incredible subtitle, ‘Life and Recipes of Trapp Cook.’ Trapp Cook? How could the publishers have allowed such an ugly wording? Surely it wouldn’t have been very hard, in Austria, to find an English speaker to advise on a better way of phrasing it. It never ceases to amaze me, the clumsy translations people offer to the world without even checking with a native speaker whether the result will fall on their ears with a horrible clang.