The Stradivarius of Wine Glasses

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 May 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Passing the time between a rehearsal and a concert, Bob and I walk along Wigmore Street. We spot a shop selling all kinds of accessories to do with wine drinking. We pop in for some vacuum corks. Inside the shop is a display of luxurious wine glasses: hand-blown, ultra-thin and balanced on stems so long and fine they look as though they would snap in your hand as you twirled the glass. Peering at the price tag, I see ‘£90′. I ask the salesman whether this is for a set of six? ‘No, it’s the price of a single glass.’ Never have I heard of such an expensive glass, so I ask what is special about it. He explains that it is hand-made from very pure glass with a high lead content, and that this makes the glass slightly flexible.

To my astonishment he then takes a large glass off the shelf, pinches its rim between thumb and forefinger, and presses slightly so that I can see the glass flexing. For some reason this is intellectually disturbing, like the scene in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman where the narrator is shown a series of little carved chests made by policeman MacCruiskeen, each chest smaller than the last until they become too small to be seen by the naked eye. A flexible wine glass is something beyond my ken. ‘Does the quality of the glass have an effect on the experience of drinking the wine?’ I wonder. ‘That is like asking whether a fine violin has an effect on the tone,’ he answers smilingly. But is it?

Unsweet Dreams

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 May 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Florestan Trio  •  Leave a comment

This morning my trio had a Coffee Concert at the Wigmore Hall. It meant being in central London at 9am for our rehearsal, so  last night I went to bed quite early, in the hope of being well rested. But this strategy rarely works, and as well as sleeping badly, I had one of my anxiety dreams, roughly number 5,347 in a series which has run parallel to my career.

In last night’s dream, I was out shopping when I suddenly realised I should be on a plane, crossing the Atlantic to take part in a concert tour. So I rushed to Heathrow (which was magically right there in Oxford Street). I boarded the plane with minutes to spare. My colleague Anthony was comfortably installed with piles of DVDs to watch on the flight. I sat down breathlessly beside him, and then suddenly realised I had none of the things I’d need for a concert tour: no passport, no luggage, no music, no clothes – nothing except my handbag. I jumped up in alarm and tried to get off the plane. But it was already moving down to the runway. Suddenly night fell. The plane took off, and with no transition we were out over the Atlantic in the dark. Everyone was asleep, and only I was still awake. I felt very distressed, and woke in a panic.

The strange thing is that I am not a disorganised person in this respect, and I don’t really need to be reminded to plan ahead. Yet my dreams never cease to remind me that things could go wrong at any moment.

Hushed by beauty

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 May 2009 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings  •  Leave a comment

The Still Pool

The Still Pool

Bob and I stopped work a bit early and drove to Richmond Park to walk in the Isabella Plantation, a large enclosed garden within the park. The first time I ever saw the Isabella Plantation in springtime, someone had tipped me off that I shouldn’t miss the sight of it with the azaleas in full bloom. But I was unprepared for the effect of that blaze of beauty. Great banks of white, pale pink, dusky pink, lilac, flame red and purple azaleas lined the little rivers and blossomed in all the groves. Magnolia trees, camellias and rhododendrons towered over them. It isn’t like that every year; for some years now, the blossoming of the various shrubs and trees has been staggered, so we never see them all out at once. However, this year there was a unanimous outburst of colour. It was, as a passing photographer remarked to us, ‘almost too much’.

You sometimes hear of people being ‘hushed by beauty’ and this was certainly the case in the Isabella Plantation. Strangers were smiling at one another as they passed, and there was a happy murmur of appreciation at its most intense by the so-called Still Pool, a dark pond whose waters reflected the fiery display of pinks and purples all around it. People were standing there as if mesmerised. ‘This is England?’ someone said. A little Scottie dog came bursting through the rapt admirers and plunged noisily into the pool, breaking up the deep reflections.

Upon Westminster Bridge

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 May 2009 under Books, Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

The BBC’s poetry season included a sweet programme last night about Wordsworth’s poem ‘Lines Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’. Presenter and poet Owen Sheers shared his lovely insight that the poem has become more, not less resonant over the years. The surprise of finding oneself on the bridge with the sudden sense of air, light, space and the tremendous cityscape has only increased in the context of more and more urban building. It’s true: the poem recites itself in my head every time I walk across the bridge. I had to learn it by heart at school, long before I ever saw London, crossed Westminster Bridge or knew what Wordsworth was talking about. Now his lines come back effortlessly when I see that view, a tribute to my school’s mission to make us memorise poetry when we were little.

For me the revelation of the programme was Owen Sheers’ reading from the journals of Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, who crossed Westminster Bridge with him that day in September 1802 on the top deck of a post-coach. I knew that she was thought to have been a major influence on her brother’s thinking, but it was startling to hear her own description of their journey, either echoing his sentiments or prompting them. Somehow I felt it was the latter. After hearing the way she wrote in her diary I could almost hear her voice saying to him, ‘Dear God, William! The very houses seem asleep.’

Pulses racing in Shostakovich

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 May 2009 under Concerts, Florestan Trio  •  Leave a comment

In my work as a classical performer, nothing beats the feeling of playing to a sold-out Wigmore Hall, with people standing at the back. That was my trio’s fortunate experience in London last night. I had invited a friend who doesn’t often go to concerts of this type. She was very struck by the audience’s intense concentration. Indeed, during quiet passages the hall was so silent that from the piano (I don’t face the audience when I play) it was possible to imagine nobody was there at all. It almost gives one a start when 550 people suddenly cough and rustle things at the end of a movement. 

Closing our programme was the famous piano trio by Shostakovich, rightly described in the notes as ‘chilling and harrowing’. There’s a lot of very anguished, almost brutal music in this work and it demands some powerful physical involvement from the players. Last night, when I finished playing the fast and violent second movement, I paused for a few seconds and then, as always happens at this moment in performances of this work, my heart started to thump madly. I’m not aware of it while I play – it seems to happen when there is a moment of rest. When your heart thumps like that, your vision is slightly disturbed and your hands shake slightly too. And the next thing I had to do was to begin the very slow lament which follows. I had only a few moments to compose myself, and I sat there trying to breathe deeply in the hope of quietening my thumping heart enough that I could set the right kind of mood in the slow movement. I often wonder if composers ever know about or consider the physical effects of their music on the people playing it!