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.

Getting up early for a flower

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 June 2009 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

the rose I got up to see

the rose I got up to see

When I was a student, I had a friend whose mother was a keen gardener. She was a pianist too, so I felt she was a kindred spirit. In the holidays I sometimes went to stay with the family for a few days.

One day my friend said to me, ‘You know, my mother actually got up early today because she had a feeling that a certain flower was going to open this morning in the garden. She said she didn’t want to miss it. Can you believe that?’ We thought it was incredibly sweet, but also incomprehensible. How could anyone actually think that flowers were important enough to get up early for? Clearly the only things that were important were: who was in love with whom, who got what in their exam results, and how we were going get through the summer on a very limited budget. Getting out of bed for a flower was not part of our world-view.

Yet recently I have found myself going out early into the garden on several occasions to see if a particular flower has opened, and to photograph it if it has. I seem to have turned into that kind of person. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis!

Writing in the recession

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 June 2009 under Books, Daily Life  •  Leave a comment

The Author, the newsletter of the Society of Authors, has just dropped on to the doormat. It’s full of doom and gloom about the effects of the recession on writers, particularly freelance writers. Fewer reviews are being commissioned by newspapers. Rates of pay have been cut. Editors are looking to produce the material they need with ‘in-house’ staff writers so that they don’t have to spend any additional money on freelance contributions. Freelancers are treated rudely and insensitively. Publishers are turning down any book which doesn’t look certain to make money. The ‘succès d’estime’ is now a luxury they can only afford when times are good. One of the newsletter writers commented sadly that if you know any young people considering a literary career, this might be the time to dissuade them.

I’ve experienced all the problems they listed, and all in the past half year. It was almost a relief to hear that it wasn’t just me. But what to do? Setting up one’s own website feels like a constructive step. At least you can publish what you want without waiting months for someone to say yes. It’s fun and satisfying to have your own channel of communication. But publishing your thoughts on your own website can never be an alternative source of income – at least not until someone works out a way of making money from online self-publishing, and that day is clearly a way off.