Talking about performance

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 October 2009 under Books, Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

In the past few days I’ve spent some time studying scores of pieces I’m going to be teaching in a masterclass at the RSAMD this week. The date has been in my diary for a long time, but because the academic year only began a couple of weeks ago, it was impossible to find out who the students would be, or what they wanted to play, until now. Not ideal, but I’m familiar with the problem.

As part of my day in Glasgow, I’ve set up a short session after lunch, in a smaller and more private room, where anyone who’s interested can join in a discussion of performance topics. Last December I was the focus of such a seminar in Stockholm, where a group of people who had read my books met to share their responses with me. I found this unexpectedly rewarding and came away with a sheaf of notes I scribbled down as they were speaking. The key to the success of that occasion was that the participants had volunteered, and had had time to think about what they wanted to say. Learning from their example, I’ve sent my Glasgow students a couple of pages of  thoughts on such topics as the difficulty of knowing when you’ve done enough practice. My aim is just to spark discussion.

Not everyone enjoys this kind of discussion, so I’ve made it clear it’s not compulsory, but I know that when I was a student I would have welcomed it. I just hope I won’t find myself sitting in an empty room on Wednesday afternoon.

‘Alison’s House’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 October 2009 under Daily Life, Musings, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

the tiny Orange Tree Theatre

the tiny Orange Tree Theatre

It’s a double-edged feeling when you come across something superb by someone you’ve never heard of. Happy to discover them, but sad that they seem to have fallen through the net of history. That’s how we felt on seeing ‘Alison’s House’, by the American playwright Susan Glaspell, at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. We’d never heard of Glaspell, yet it turned out that she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for this play. In the Orange Tree production there was another surprise, the debut of a very fine actress named Gráinne Keenan, of whom I’m certain we will hear much more.

‘Alison’s House’ is based on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson, with ‘Alison’ representing Emily. The play is set 18 years after ‘Alison’s’ death, and on the last day of the year 1899. During the course of the action, Alison’s family discovers a collection of unpublished poems revealing her love for a man she never married. Only a couple of older people in the family knew of the affair, and they had taken pains to keep it quiet. They’re aghast at the thought that the newly discovered poems might ever become public. But time has moved on, younger members of the family are of an age to take an interest, and their views are different. They believe that the poet’s work belongs not to the family, but ‘to the world’. A fight develops between the older and younger generation, with the younger winning as midnight strikes and a new century begins.

There are lots of parallel examples from the world of music – such as music being suppressed after the composer’s death  by those who believe it wasn’t their best work. Clara Schumann prevented some of Robert Schumann’s late work from seeing the light of day because she believed it was unfair to him to publish anything which demonstrated his mental illness. We talked of such issues for a long time afterwards. Do loved ones have a right to say? When should the world’s judgement be allowed to override the family’s?

Choosing a piano

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 October 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Florestan Trio  •  2 Comments

choosing a piano

choosing a piano

To Steinway Hall in London, to choose a piano for the Florestan Trio’s  Hyperion recording of Shostakovich next January. Whenever I’m able to select an piano, I have to do my research well ahead of time, because the best ones get booked up months in advance. Each piano is slightly different from the next, so for each new project I might make a fresh choice.

In the basement of Steinway Hall lives their ‘concert fleet’, a group of top-quality pianos which go out on hire to concert halls around the country. Because they’re in and out so much, it’s a logistical feat to hit on a day when the pianos I want to try are all in the building at the same time.  So when Steinway phoned today to say that three of the likely pianos were all in the basement, I jumped on the tube and went to try them.

Because the fleet of pianos is constantly updated, and old favourites are  retired, it’s difficult to keep track of them. I rely on the advice of Ulrich Gerharz, Steinway’s chief technician, who has always given shrewd advice about the right piano for any given project. When I told him about our Shostakovich CD, he nominated a particular piano I’d never played, and so I was keen to try it.

Next to it in the basement were two other old favourites I’ve used on previous recordings (I knew the pianos by their serial numbers). I only usually encounter them one at a time, so it was a treat to be able to hop from one to the other for a luxurious hour.  Ulrich was quite right about the Shostakovich piano; I could feel that right away. But I was also able to plan some future bookings by matching other repertoire to particular pianos. Sometimes the difference between pianos  is easy to describe: a more cutting sound, a mellower singing tone, a faster mechanical action. But usually it’s more a matter of finding a piano that feels subtly right when you’re playing a certain piece of music on it. Though pianos are inanimate objects, it doesn’t feel that way when you’re playing them.

Harvest Blues (and Reds)

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 October 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

It’s always seemed rather odd to me that the academic year and the new concert season start in the autumn. I understand that historically it’s to do with the harvest being gathered in, and a season of work being finished, after which it’s time to start new things. Somehow this centuries-old pattern of structuring the year has continued despite the fact that few of us these days are called back to our village in late summer to wield a pitchfork. In our urban lives we’re scarcely aware of the harvest.

our garden this week

our garden this week

As autumn arrives, it often goes slightly against the grain (to continue the harvest image) to summon up energy for new goals and new chapters just as nature is winding down. The air turns crisp and cool, the sun is low on the horizon, the trees turn red, leaves fall and the nights draw in. At the same time, phones start to ring with demands for rehearsals, meetings, travel decisions and all the infrastructure that drives a new concert season. Everything is cranking up again for action. Yet I can’t be alone in looking out of the window and feeling that at this time of year it would be more natural to slow down, curl up somewhere peaceful, and lie fallow.

Aubergine with attitude

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 October 2009 under Daily Life  •  Leave a comment

unusual aubergine

unusual aubergine

I wasn’t intending to buy an aubergine when I went shopping in Sainsbury’s today, but how could I resist this one? Luckily it sneaked past EU guidelines on the acceptable face of vegetables.