Costume drama

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 March 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Every year I feel I have to update my wardrobe of concert clothes, which is a pain because each season I have less and less of a clear idea of how I should look. But what I wear has always been noticed by people in the audience, who comment on it enough to make me feel that I can’t keep appearing in the same outfits. Naturally this feels most unfair when my male colleagues have been wearing the same thing (a suit) for years on end. It’s become difficult to source the right kind of women’s evening wear, and as often as not I find myself looking in charity shops, to which people donate old-fashioned – or ‘vintage’, as it’s now known – clothing that might not be relevant to urban night life any longer, but can still look appropriate on the concert stage.

Or does it? I used to buy long, pretty, flowing dresses, which don’t seem right any more. For women there is no equivalent of the ‘uniform’ that men adopt by wearing dinner jackets, dark suits, tail coats, and so on. Must it be something with a skirt, or are trousers OK? Should it be colourful, or is black the most practical? If I’m appearing in, say, fifty concerts each year I can’t keep wearing the same thing, nor can I keep running to the dry cleaner’s with my outfits. But things you can wash by hand at home are never the things which look grand on the platform. I’ve noticed that students and young professional women musicians have taken to wearing trousers and a simple strap top or smart sleeveless blouse. Somehow I don’t feel this style would suit me, not after years of hearing people say that pianists should keep their arms covered.

The key thing seems to be to look as though you made an effort. But an effort to look like what? Funky, executive, debutante, bohemian? Musicians were once expected to look affluent and aristocratic, two things we’re mostly not. Now the outlook has changed; in the search for new audiences, we want to break the perceived link between classical music and privilege, and the look has to change too. All my musician friends agree that we should try to look a bit more special than the audience does. But the audience doesn’t have a single look. They come to concerts in a vast range of clothing styles, from the most casual of jeans to the smartest Chanel two-pieces. It’s easy to look grander than the jeans-wearers, but not easy to outflank the couture set. I sometimes wish a clever designer would create a ‘uniform’ for me, though I confess I can’t imagine what it would be. Maybe one of those nice fashion writers, like Hadley Freeman at the Guardian, could take me in hand and show me what would send out the right message, if only we could agree what the message is.

Where are the best reviews?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 March 2009 under Daily Life, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

My trio’s latest record came out recently. Friends were soon sending us reviews they’d found, in newspapers and magazines as well as on the web. I read them all and I started to realise something interesting: the best writing was often found in amateur publications, such as websites run by musical enthusiasts. Admittedly the worst writing crops up in these places too. But on this occasion it seemed that the professionals were no match for the best of the amateurs. In the writing of the professional critics there was a distinct flavour of stale cliché, whereas some of the amateurs had clearly spent a lot of time trying to put their insights into words, with good effect.

A few years ago, a musician could not quote a web review in any official capacity because web reviews were not considered ‘bona fide’. However, things are changing, and of course they’re likely to change further as the print editions of newspapers surrender to the huge appetite for internet news. Recently someone at The Guardian remarked to me that it’s almost a misnomer to call it ‘a newspaper’ first and foremost, because the web audience is so much bigger than the print audience, and far more international. Of course the news usually breaks on the website first. Sometimes, when there isn’t space for many arts reviews in the print edition, extra reviews are published on the newspaper’s website. So I think it won’t be for much longer that promoters and embassies and visa issuers can insist on being sent only hard copies of published reviews.

Other forms of arts and leisure activities have already developed extensive ‘user reviews’ which must be far more widely consulted than official guidebooks. If I want to go out for dinner, I look at a customer review site like London Eating to see what recent diners have said about the restaurant. Similarly with hotels: I consult a site like TripAdvisor and am happy to be guided by other visitors, particularly if they happen to mention the kind of things that are important to me. One great advantage of such customer review websites is that they can be far more up-to-date than a book which was handed in to the editor a year before it was printed, and has been on the shelves for another six months since then. Naturally the author cannot know that in the interim, the chef has resigned and the drains have begun to smell, but yesterday’s customer knows.

My guess is that many new kinds of music review sites will come to be taken seriously, not only the ones attached to prestigious newspapers. Of course a newspaper can only support a tiny number of critics, far fewer than the number of well-informed enthusiasts who have something to say but nowhere to say it. Now that it’s so easy to type in to the search box, for example, ‘Florestan Trio Schubert’ and be presented with a whole range of responses, readers will gradually notice where insightful writing is to be found.

The joy of cake

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 March 2009 under Daily Life  •  Leave a comment

It’s a funny thing, but when you spend hours of every day on something as intangible as music, you become very conscious that there’s nothing to show for it at the end of the day. You may have twisted your brain into wild unruly shapes (shapes resembling Beethoven) and strained the muscles of your arms until they ache, but you still can’t stagger out of the practice room holding aloft a Thing that you’ve succeeded in making, a Thing you can call your own and show other people, or put down on a table and use. Even if your time in rehearsal has wrought a whole new interpretation of some piece or other, it is still only potential energy until it meets its audience (which may be weeks or months away), and in the meantime there is nothing that you can actually point to as evidence that you’ve been spending your time constructively. Part of the loveliness of music is its evanescence, but sometimes that quality of not-remaining seems to cry out for its opposite, something that is really there, something created by your labours.

This is one of the reasons that cake plays such a positive role in my life. Growing up in Scotland, of course, cake played an important role. Going out to meet up with friends or relatives, whether in their own homes or in cafes, was an activity blessed with cake, and we all looked forward to it. A home-made cake announced that the maker thought you were worth some effort, and its solid hit of calories often seemed a perfect bulwark against the homeward journey in biting Scottish winds.

For years, on Saturday afternoons, I would come home from music lessons to find the house filled with a warm aroma and my Mum putting the finishing touches to a fruit cake or a Victoria sponge filled with jam or cream. It somehow set up an association between music and cake which continues to this day. If I have a lot of ‘brain work’ to do, either at the piano or at my computer, I often try to find time in the morning to bake a cake. It pleases me to know that even if Beethoven or Schubert have restricted their nutrients to spiritual ones, out there on a plate in my kitchen is a round, buttery-smelling, reassuringly heavy object which didn’t exist beforehand, but which I made, and which exists now without any doubt. Even if I can’t prove that I have made any headway with the sonata I’ve been practising, I can show people the cake and offer them a slice, or eat it myself if there’s no-one there. For me it’s a perfect refutation of the doctrine that the things of this world are only illusion.

Moist Lemon Cake
6 oz (170g) self-raising flour
6 oz (170g) sugar
6 oz (170g) butter
3 eggs
juice and zest of a lemon
a handful of dried coconut (optional)
a handful of ground almonds (optional)

Method: Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well, and add the grated zest of lemon. Sift the flour and fold it in to the mixture, adding some coconut and/or ground almonds if you like the taste (the recipe works perfectly without them though). Pour the mixture into a greased cake tin, preferably with baking parchment on the bottom. Cook slowly on a low shelf of the oven for one hour at gas mark 3 (160 deg C). While it’s cooking, squeeze the juice of a lemon into a bowl and sweeten it with sugar to taste. Take the cake out of the oven, let it rest for ten minutes in the tin, and then turn it onto a plate. While the cake is still warm, prick holes all over the top with a fine skewer or with a fork, making sure you go down almost to the bottom of the cake. Pour the sweetened lemon juice slowly over the top of the cake so that it drizzles down into the holes. Eat as soon as you like.

Things of note

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 March 2009 under Daily Life, Musings, Website Updates  •  2 Comments

Welcome to my blog. I thought I wanted a static website, but my website designer had other ideas. As I’m old enough to be his mother I tried to tell him not to be silly, but somehow I found myself agreeing to try a blog.

I hope to give an insight into the world of a classical pianist. People are often a bit puzzled or intimidated by classical music, and they wonder why musicians like me persevere in a field which today sometimes seems quite marginal. I’d like to try and supply some answers. For me, there is no music more satisfying.

As well as the blog posts, this site gives information about my concerts, my books and my recordings.