Flowering on one day only

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

our first convolvulus flowers

our first convolvulus flowers

The new little convolvulus plant in our garden has just flowered for the first time. Its six delicate purple flowers will be gone by the end of the day. Bob says there should be new flowers tomorrow.

We bought the convolvulus plant in homage to a wonderful sight in the Swiss town of Bern, where I played a concert. In the centre of the old town, luxuriant blue ‘morning glory’ plants trail from every balcony and arcade. Each evening, the day’s display of flowers dies, but the following morning there is a new outpouring.

A plant that produces new flowers every day, discarding the old ones, seems somehow familiar to me because of my life as a musician. Every day, practising by myself, I’m aware that sometimes lovely things occur, are not heard by anyone, and vanish. Happily new things can, with luck, be produced on the next day and the next.

In today’s Guardian, psychologist Linda Blair (writing about something completely different, but let that pass) remarks that it is a mistake to confuse instant happiness with lasting happiness. Instant happiness has its own special quality, as the convolvulus flowers remind me.

‘I don’t hear anything’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 June 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Today I’ve been rehearsing a quintet for piano and strings with some very fine players using some very fine old Italian string instruments. I’m never sure if it’s good to say who owns what, so I’ll just say that these top-league instruments sounded incredible. One of my colleagues said that when she acquired hers, she felt as if she were learning the repertoire all over again because the instrument itself seemed to suggest so many new possibilities.

I know it’s a fallacy to speak as if the instruments ‘sound’ all by themselves. Fritz Kreisler once responded to being told that his violin sounded amazing by looking ‘puzzled’, holding  the violin to his ear, pretending to listen and then saying, ‘I don’t hear anything.’  Brusque but effective! Let’s not forget it’s the player who makes the sound, and a really good player can sound convincing on practically any instrument. That’s not to say they won’t sound their best on a world-class instrument.

When I find myself in the company of exceptional old string instruments, I can’t help feeling sad that there’s nothing quite equivalent for pianists. With pianos it is almost the other way round: the best ones are the newest. Steinway’s concert fleet consists of pianos less than ten years old. Of course a lot can be done to maintain and renovate the tone of an older piano, but generally speaking pianos deteriorate as time goes on. There’s no equivalent of a Stradivarius violin which has only now reached the peak of its powers after several hundred years. If you were to take a keyboard instrument made in the same year as a Strad, first of all, it would be a wreck by now, and secondly, it would be a harpsichord. Keyboard instruments have changed and developed enormously, whereas violins, violas and cellos are much as they were, give or take a few modifications. String players know that these actual instruments have been played, admired and loved since the 17th or 18th century. If a pianist is particularly fond of an old piano, however, it’s usually for reasons other than the sheer glory of its tone.

Gold grasshoppers

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 May 2009 under Daily Life  •  Leave a comment

My whole day has been brightened by a lovely thing my daughter told me. She is studying Classics at university and has been reading the Greek historian Thucydides. Writing in the 5th century BC about ‘the ancients’, Thucydides described some of their customs.

When he said ‘the ancients’, I wonder if he meant people of centuries before, or did he (as seems more likely) mean his grandparents’ generation? It’s well known that nobody can be more ancient than the older generation of your own family.

Anyway, Thucydides wrote that the ancients liked to wear linen tunics and put gold grasshoppers in their hair. As my daughter said, they must have been a bit like me. Well, not the grasshopper bit exactly, but the linen tunics and the gold ornaments, and I suppose also the ancientry. Thucycides added that although the custom of putting gold grasshoppers in your hair had died out in the part of Greece where he lived, the Ionians were still doing it. Honestly, those Ionians! Always the last to catch up.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 May 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

A friend writes to say that she has been pondering my remarks on Nonfiction and Fiction because of something that recently happened when she was filling in a job application. On the form, she was asked to describe herself as either ‘disabled’ or ‘non-disabled’. Sometimes you can see what motivates such examples of political correctness, but as she pointed out, this one just seems silly. No matter how much we wish to safeguard the rights of disabled people, ‘disabled’ is not the predominant state in society, and if it were, the terminology would have to change. Imagine how perverse it would seem if someone greeted you with the phrase, ‘How are you? Are you non-ill?’

Whatever next? Instead of being asked to tick either the ‘male’ and ‘female’ box on official forms, people will be asked to state whether they are ‘non-women’ or ‘non-men’.

A mosaic of tiny pages

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 May 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Florestan Trio  •  3 Comments

I’ve been putting together a special performing score of my Haydn piano concerto for the Florestan Festival. I’m going to be directing the performance ‘from the keyboard’, and I don’t want to have too many pages to turn. There’s so much else going on in the festival – both musical and non-musical – that I’ve decided not to try and memorise the orchestral score as well as the solo part. But if I use my usual piano part, which has a great many pages, someone will have to sit beside me and turn the pages. I could ask someone to do that, but I’d like to try and have an uncluttered stage.

I’ve been to the art materials shop and bought several sheets of large, stiff art paper and a tube of paper glue. I’ve photocopied every page of the Haydn score and reduced it to a quarter of its size. I now have a pile of tiny pages from which I’ll create a mosaic, sticking 12 little pages on each sheet of art paper. I could have made the pages tinier, but I wouldn’t be able to read them. I’m trying to lay them out cleverly so that the few page turns come at moments when I’m not playing.

Roll on, e-book readers for piano music! Maybe they do exist; I’m not gadget-minded, so I may well be ignorant of something that’s already there. But I’ve never heard of a device which can be placed on the music desk of the piano and used to perform from. Where would it be plugged in, and if it wasn’t, what would happen if the batteries failed during a concert? How would the pages be turned if the pianist’s hands are occupied with playing the notes? Obviously you can’t shout, ‘Turn!’ into a little microphone. Friends have suggested that the tempo of the music could be somehow pre-set into the e-reader, so that the pages scroll past at a relevant speed. But anyone familiar with printed music will know that that’s not going to work. Depending on the density of notes on any given page, one printed page may pass more quickly than another in performance. The scrolling tempo of the pages would somehow have to be linked to the speed of real-time performance, so that if there is some delay, you don’t find that the e-score has moved imperturbably on to page 42 when you’re still trying to play page 36.