Pots of money

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 October 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Japanese tea bowl

Japanese tea bowl

At the weekend we visited lots of different artists’ studios under an ‘Open House’ scheme run by the borough of Wandsworth. We’ve been attending this event for years and always enjoy the chance to see artists in their home settings, often with their art displayed for sale in the midst of their own possessions. I always feel the artists must be so trusting to let strangers come and wander round their homes.

One of the artists was a potter whose work was really beautiful. We got chatting about the difficulty of earning a living as a potter (which he didn’t). He said sadly that in general, pots don’t command the kind of prices that would enable one to give up the day job and devote oneself to pottery. It had always puzzled him, he said, that people are willing to pay hundreds of pounds for a painting even after a casual viewing, but would draw the line at paying hundreds of pounds for a piece of pottery. And yet, as we know, there can be at least as much work and skill in the making of a beautiful bowl. Furthermore, a bowl can last for hundreds or even thousands of years, as archaeologists keep discovering.

We speculated that people’s reluctance to spend money on pottery was perhaps because everyone knows you can drop a beautiful bowl on the floor and shatter it, whereas a painting is far less accident-prone. And because pots can be used domestically, they may seem to belong in the category of mundane objects, not the realm of fine art. Although as I write the words, I imagine how horrified a Japanese or Chinese lover of ceramics would be to hear such blasphemy.

Waving a stick

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

Philippa Ibbotson’s article in Wednesday’s Guardian about ‘the myth of the maestro’ has stirred up a lot of interest. Last time I looked, there were about 130 comments on the Guardian blog. The article questioned the enormous fees paid to orchestral conductors, especially at a time when those fees represent ‘a large slice of a dwindling cake’.

Although the article made some good points, it glossed over the fact that most of a conductor’s work is done in the rehearsals, rather than in the concert itself. The course of the performance is determined largely beforehand and behind closed doors. The conductors who can radically affect the performance during the concert itself are rare (though they do exist). What the public actually sees (‘someone beating time’) doesn’t supply enough information to make a judgement on the conductor’s musical or human skills. We should remember, too, that behind the scenes those resident conductors have many other duties: programme planning, artistic direction, administrative questions, fundraising responsibilities.

The article seemed to confuse two different points: what effect a conductor can have on a performance, and how much conductors are paid. This recession certainly seems a good moment to debate the latter. There is a vast and, in many musicians’ views, unjustifiable differential between what orchestral players are paid and what the conductor gets. The combined wages of the entire 80-piece orchestra are often considerably less than what a top conductor earns. How have we arrived here? I once read that in the former Yugoslavia it was illegal for the top people in a firm to be paid more than ten times the wages of those at the bottom. Wouldn’t a policy like that be fairer?

First review of the trio’s new CD

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 October 2009 under Florestan Trio, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

The Florestan Trio’s new disc, a second volume of Haydn piano trios (Hyperion CDA67757), is just arriving in the shops, and the first review appeared yesterday. The magazine International Record Review (October) has given it their ‘Oustanding’ mark.  The review is mainly about the music itself, but it says:

‘Haydn would doubtless have thought well of Susan Tomes’s quick wit and dexterity …. This is all brilliant ensemble playing by thoughtful and enthusiastic as well as skilful performers.’

Not a museum of glass and stone

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 October 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

in Bodley's Court, King's College

in Bodley's Court, King's College

After lamenting the lack of music in Venice churches, I had the opposite experience yesterday when attending Evensong in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. It’s always uplifting to hear the Chapel resounding to the pure intonation and chiselled phrases of the choir, a mixture of male undergraduates from the College and boys from the nearby Choir School. I’ve heard it many times but never tire of the way the enormous space is filled – and also stilled – with harmony. The service was crowded, and many people sat with their eyes closed as they listened.

It was the start of the academic year and the day when four new choristers, little boys aged about 9 or 10, were formally admitted as members of the choir (founded in 1441). Sunlight struck through the stained glass windows, casting a glow around them as they stood in front of the Dean in their red cassocks and white surplices. The Dean congratulated them, wished them good luck with the great responsibility which goes with being a member of the choir, and mentioned the enormous audience which follows the choir’s activities, not only through their daily Chapel services, but notably on the occasion of the televised Christmas Carol Service, which 100 million people tune into. He talked of the constant need to renew the living purpose of the building, and said that music has always helped to prevent the famous Chapel from becoming ‘a museum of glass and stone’.

Silent churches

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 October 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

morning sun near St Mark's

morning sun near St Mark's

I’ve just been in Venice for a few days. The city was on the cusp of autumn – warm and sunny but with thunderstorms looming, and mist in the morning on the day we left.

We visited about 547 churches. As ever in Italy, I’m disappointed by how rarely one hears any music being made in them. It comes as a surprise that the Italians, with their love of the human voice, seem to have so little tradition of choral music in their churches. No choir ever seems to be rehearsing, no organ being played, and if you happen upon a service the music is restricted to a little priestly chanting. It’s a great shame when those magnificent buildings seem to cry out for music to resonate across them. We searched for announcements of church concerts, but found only the usual touristy offerings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played in historical costume by candlelight.

I’ve always wanted to hear music sung in St Mark’s, whose galleries inspired Monteverdi and others to write for choirs singing antiphonally across the basilica, but I’ve never succeeded in hearing any music but the aforementioned liturgical chanting. On my last visit to Venice we got up early one Sunday and went to St Mark’s, convinced that at least the big Sunday morning services must include choral music. An official stood at the door barring the way to anyone who looked as though they might not be a member of the congregation. We explained that we were there in the hope of hearing music in St Mark’s. To which he memorably replied, ‘There is no music, only singing’, a phrase I’ve had reason to remember once or twice since then. But it turned out that  ‘singing’  meant only the usual chanting, and once again we left without hearing music in that magical place.