Baby Alpaca

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 September 2009 under Daily Life, Travel  •  Leave a comment

sweet Peruvian alpaca

sweet Peruvian alpaca

Far be it from me to add to the deluge of cute animal pictures on the internet, but I couldn’t resist posting this photo of a baby alpaca, taken by my daughter a few weeks ago near Lake Titicaca in Peru. This alpaca lives in a little compound with his best friend, a sheep.

Guessing the dynamics

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 September 2009 under Concerts, Florestan Trio, Musings  •  Leave a comment

In November, my trio is giving the premiere of a new work which has been written for us – is being written for us, I should say – by Huw Watkins. Earlier in the summer I pestered Huw to let me have what he’d written so far, and though the parts aren’t fully finished yet, he kindly let me have the ‘work in progress’ score of the first two movements. I always like to prepare as far ahead as I can; practising a new piece a little and often, over a long period, is for me a better way of learning something than having a binge at the last minute. There’s nothing more unsettling than being on the platform and not being sure what comes next.

Anyway, I now have the first two movements of Huw’s new trio. At this stage there are no dynamic markings in the score – no loud or soft, no indications of crescendo or diminuendo, no ‘mood’ instructions. So as I get to know the music I have been trying to guess what dynamics the composer is going to add. As yet, I’ve heard only the piano part, but I have a clear idea of what the missing dynamic markings will be, or at least I feel I know what would be ‘natural’. This isn’t always an accurate guide to what composers actually want, because they often intend layers of meaning, contradictions, ironies and so on – which might prompt them to write counter-intuitive dynamics. But as I practise Huw’s new trio I find that instinctively I play certain passages boldly and loudly, others quietly, delicately etc.  It will be fascinating to see whether my guesses are right or wrong.

The student purse then and now

Posted by Susan Tomes on 24 September 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

Several good letters in today’s Guardian on the subject of university fees. Various people point out that the older generation in Britain benefited from non-repayable grants. Today’s students have loans, and the average debt when a student graduates is now £15,000. Current students point out angrily that the older generation had it easy with their grants. And of course they are right: we were lucky.

But there’s one thing I don’t understand. When I was a student, we all felt incredibly short of money all the time, despite having grants. Everyone counted the pennies, made instant coffee for one another, and refrained from doing expensive things. We rarely went clothes shopping, rarely went to cafes, rarely ate out, and certainly never went to non-university entertainments for which we had to buy tickets at ‘real’ prices.

Although today’s students have loans, it also seems that they feel much richer than we did. They all have mobile phones, something my generation couldn’t have afforded. They seem to think it’s normal to meet in coffee bars every day and buy £2 cups of coffee. They travel internationally at the drop of a hat. They go to pop concerts which cost as much as buying opera tickets. They regularly go to clubs with entrance charges, and spend large amounts of money on drinks as well. They seem to buy new outfits constantly.

A young friend of ours recently said to me, ‘You said that everyone at university would be scrimping and saving. Well, they aren’t. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘Let’s not do that, it’s too expensive.’’ I didn’t know what to reply. No doubt the explanation for all this is complex, and it certainly baffles me. Is it that certain things (like travel) have become evilly, artificially cheap, or is it just that there’s a lot more money sloshing around the system these days?

The language of handwriting

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 September 2009 under Books, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

In Monday’s Guardian, Umberto Eco laments the decline in children’s handwriting ability. He gives various reasons why he thinks it’s a shame that we don’t handwrite letters any more, but surprisingly doesn’t talk about the impact that someone’s handwriting can have on the reader.

When I was a teenager, long before we had computers – let alone mobile phones – I knew the handwriting of all my friends and relatives. It was indissolubly linked to my idea of them; I could recognize each person’s handwriting as soon as a letter plopped through the letterbox onto the doormat. The actual form of the handwritten letters, the spacing, the ink colour, the boldness of the script, the way the address was placed on the envelope – all this seemed to convey information about the writer. Someone’s handwriting was an aspect of their personality, and to be deprived of that aspect was to know less of the person. I read and re-read the handwritten letters I received, delighting in the character revealed by nuances in writing style, and by the look of the words on the page.

In the computer age, however, there are many people whose handwriting I have never even seen (and they haven’t seen mine). We communicate by e-mail and text message, and even our rare personal letters are word-processed.  Occasionally I may happen to see a friend’s handwriting on a shopping list or something, and it often gives me a little shock, because their handwriting is not as I imagined. I sometimes adjust my concept of a person because of what I realise on seeing their handwriting. I might think, ‘Oh, if they write like that! ….then I like them better.’ And I can’t feel that I’m wrong to feel that way. As Eco says, handwritten texts can be minor works of art, and like works of art they are windows onto inner worlds.

Goodbye, older women

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

There’s been a lot in the press this summer about middle-aged women and the way they’re unceremoniously dropped from positions such as BBC newsreader or presenter. Newsreader Selina Scott brought the topic to everyone’s attention with her age discrimination claim against Channel Five, and lots of middle-aged women added their own experiences of being expected to slip away quietly and leave the field to younger women. As a middle-aged woman myself I felt enormous empathy. Where exactly are we supposed to go when we slip away, and how are we supposed to finance ourselves in that limbo?

Yesterday I was throwing away a bunch of arts leaflets which I’d had on my desk all summer. One of them was a little BBC Proms booklet covering the whole concert series. Because the topic was fresh in my mind, I looked through all the publicity photos in the booklet.

There were 14 photos of women musicians, all young and glamorous. There were 13 photos of male musicians. Seven of them were middle-aged or older men – fine people like Philip Glass, Daniel Barenboim, Peter Maxwell Davies, Yo Yo Ma, John McCabe. All handsome and characterful. But where were their female counterparts? Middle-aged or older women were completely missing from those publicity shots.

Who lays down the guidelines which dictate that older male artists look interesting, but older women artists don’t? It’s another example of double standards in this supposed age of equal opportunities.