Trio Masterclasses

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 April 2009 under Florestan Trio  •  1 Comment

My trio has just spent two days giving masterclasses to three excellent postgraduate piano trios: the Trio Duecento Corde from Hungary, the Pescatori Trio from Germany, and the Van Halsema Trio who are currently based in London. Each year, the standard of playing seems to get higher, to the point when we’ve jokingly told some of our ‘students’ they’re so good that we might have to kill them at the end of the weekend.

Each trio typically contains players from several countries – this year, for example, one of ours had members from South Africa, Holland and Germany. And each year I sit there worrying about whether such diversity will tear them apart in the long run. When they are all studying in the same place, it’s easy for them to work together regularly, but when their courses end, the challenges of keeping in touch become enormous. It’s hard enough to stay together when you’re all from the same country. I hate the thought that all their shared knowledge and expertise may melt away.

What I like best about our masterclasses is that we can talk deeply about rather specialist matters we rarely discuss outside our own group. When we meet up with other trios, it turns out that they are preoccupied with the same questions. How to match instrumental tone to musical content. How to make the structure clear in a long movement by Schubert. Whether to help Schumann seem as sane as possible, and how. Whether it’s important to feel the emotions in a piece of music, or to remain slightly detached. How to know who is important at any given moment. Whether to allow variations of tempo within a movement, and why. How to give one another the freedom to play. Sharing these questions with other musicians is stimulating. Sometimes, when we’re all pondering the same thing, it feels as if we’re being gently heated inside a kind of benign pressure cooker.

Dragging her bowl

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 April 2009 under Daily Life  •  Leave a comment

Our tortoiseshell cat Tashi, now nearly 14 years old, has taken to dragging her water bowl around on the wooden floor of the kitchen. From a nearby room we’d occasionally hear a strange, effortful scraping sound from the direction of the kitchen, as though a small convict were moving about in chains. We’d investigate and find the water bowl a couple of feet away from where we had put it, pools of water spilled across the floor. To prevent the spilling, I even changed her plastic bowl for a heavier pottery one, but she learned how to drag that one too.

Eventually Bob sat quietly and watched her until he saw what was happening. She was putting her paw inside the bowl and pulling it towards her until she set the surface of the water in motion. At that point she would quickly lean down to drink. It seemed that a motionless bowl of water was no fun, but a moving surface was attractive. I mentioned it to the vet, who said that many cats prefer to drink from running water. We knew that, because Tashi loves to drink from a running water tap in the garden. But she has had a water bowl on the kitchen floor all her life. Why has she only now, in her mature years, hit on the idea of dragging the bowl to make the water move? They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks… but a cat?

A Bengali Romeo

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 April 2009 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

We went to the Tara Arts Centre in Wandsworth to see ‘People’s Romeo’, a delightful cross-cultural production re-telling Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a simplified form, as might be used by travelling actors in a Bengali market-place. The performance took place in a tiny dark studio. Three musicians, playing Indian instruments, also danced and played minor parts; Romeo was played by Delwar Hossain speaking Bengali, and Juliet was played by Aimee Parkes speaking English. The production began and ended with cheerful Bengali songs and dances, framing the sad story in a gentle unthreatening way.

It was fascinating to see a multi-lingual production, with Romeo addressing Juliet in one language, and her answering in another. Obviously some of the text was lost to us, but in the opening scenes, where the Montagues and Capulets are embroiled in their feud, the use of two mutually incomprehensible languages actually seemed to give the story an extra dimension. It was easy to grasp the idea that communication had broken down between the two families. The effect had rather worn off, however, by the closing scene, where I could hardly stand to hear the dying lovers’ words of endearment in two different languages. It seemed wrong that all their troubles had not demolished the language barrier. As Juliet knelt over Romeo’s body I felt like saying, ‘Please, please, stop speaking English to him!’

On the way out, we complimented the organisers and asked if they had had funding for this performance. They replied that the recession had come early for them when they lost half of their grant last year. Moreover, their policy of letting Under-26’s in free meant that they had made no money from that sector of the audience, which was the majority. The actors, who had been rehearsing intensively for three weeks, were ‘doing it for their train fares’. It made us feel slightly sick when we thought in comparison of all the money that has been lavished on the ailing financial sector recently.

Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 April 2009 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

To the Festival Hall this morning with Bob to attend an Open Rehearsal of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra from Venezuela. By the time we got round to asking about tickets for their two London concerts, they had long been sold out. This open rehearsal is our only chance to hear them, and at 10am the Festival Hall is packed.

Their conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, clearly understands that many of us are there because we couldn’t get into the evening concerts. Although it’s ‘a rehearsal’, he generously treats us to a more or less continuous performance of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra despite the fact that the orchestra has to give a full concert this evening. I had seen their now-famous Prom on television last summer, so I knew they were marvellous, but it was still extraordinarily touching to hear them live. Quite apart from their blazing sound, what’s so striking is the unselfconscious gusto and commitment they bring to classical music.

Before the rehearsal begins, Dudamel has to climb up to the percussion section at the back of the orchestra to discuss something with them. On the way through the orchestra he seems to reach out and touch a number of the players on the shoulder with a natural friendliness, and they reach out and touch him back. This is something I haven’t seen before on the symphony stage.

At the end of the first movement of Tchaikovsky, someone shouts ‘Bravo!’ and the audience bursts into prolonged applause. I am so overcome that I can’t say anything to Bob, and he can’t say anything to me either. I look in my bag for a tissue and wipe my eyes. I hand the tissue to Bob who wipes his eyes as well. And it is still only 10.30 in the morning.

The difficulty of being good all the way through

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 April 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

We went to the Orange Tree Theatre to see the premiere of a play, ‘The Story of Vasco’, translated and adapted by Ted Hughes from an original play by Lebanese writer Georges Schehadé. Hughes’ adaptation had never before been performed in its entirety; the director had rescued it from Hughes’s papers in an American university library.

For at least the first hour of the play we were fascinated and delighted. We couldn’t tell whether the humour and imagery of the script were Schehadé’s or Hughes’, but either way it was like being suddenly whisked into a charming, surreal and poetical world where every character was amusing and touching. It was set in the midst of a raging war. Caesar the scholar kept out of its way in his caravan in the forest with his collection of stuffed dogs, and resigned himself to wandering the world with his charmingly deranged daughter, searching for the real-life versions of men she met in her dreams. The timid barber Vasco, whom she meets in a dream, is chosen for a special military mission precisely because he is so inconspicuous that nobody will suspect him, but having reached his destination in the enemy camp, love inspires him to become a hero after all, at which point he becomes visible to the enemy and is shot dead.

But despite these dramatic events, the final half hour of the play wound down like an old-fashioned clock. Pauses opened up between tableaux; characters seemed to wait uncertainly for the next line. The author seemed lost in the forest too. The tempo flagged, people in the audience started to shuffle, and when the final attitude had been struck, we all rose up without ceremony and departed without stopping at the bar. The play had loosed its grip on our attention, even though the start was so enthralling.

This seems to happen so often, not only in the theatre of course. How many times have I and my colleagues discussed what a pity it is that the last movement of a musical work is so weak or rambling compared to the rest? It’s actually very rare for the Finale to be the best movement. You can feel the composer setting off at the start of the first movement with tremendous drive and determination. Somehow, it often disperses by the time the fourth movement arrives. I used to think it would be a problem simply solved by not having a fourth movement, but then something else would become the last movement, and maybe it is the lastness that’s the problem.