Handel’s opera stars

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 May 2009 under Concerts, Travel  •  Leave a comment

picnic in the evening light

picnic in the evening light

Last night we attended the dress rehearsal of Handel’s opera ‘Giulio Cesare’ at Glyndebourne, thanks to a friend in the orchestra who kindly gave us tickets. Dress rehearsals at Glyndebourne, which are free but reserved for friends, family and supporters’ groups of the cast and crew, are possibly more fun than attending a ‘real’ performance because the atmosphere is more relaxed. Glyndebourne is famous for its beautiful gardens and for the length of its intervals, designed so that people can enjoy a picnic on the lawns. Dressing up for the ‘proper’ performances, and picnicking in one’s finery, are a cherished feature of the English summer and people go to enormous lengths to bring tables and tablecloths, ice boxes, picnic hampers and devices from which to suspend a bottle of champagne in the cool lake while they enjoy Act One. It all looks fabulous, but there can be an element of one-upmanship which makes one feel self-conscious.

I had never seen a Handel opera performed live. It was especially fascinating because I knew that three of the main roles were sung in Handel’s time by ‘castrati’, male singers who had been castrated as children so that their voices never broke. In adulthood, these men tended to be very large and their voices were magnificent and extremely loud, backed by a man’s full muscular power. The conductor Toscanini heard one of the last famous castrati, Moreschi, and was asked what he sounded like. Toscanini replied, ‘It is quite simple. He sounded like Ethel Merman.’

Castrating talented young boy singers has been illegal for a long time (I think it was even illegal in Handel’s time), and their roles today are taken either by women or by male countertenors. However excellent their voices – and last night they were superb – they must sound very different from the sheer vocal power and timbre of the castrati for whom Handel wrote. No matter how ‘authentic’ we try to be, that’s one thing that can’t be reproduced today – thank goodness!

A painful index finger

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 May 2009 under Concerts  •  Leave a comment

The index finger of my left hand has been painful for some days. I think I whacked the piano keyboard too hard during a phrase marked ‘brutal’ in a performance of Messiaen last week. Next morning, I picked up a mug of tea and it really hurt to curl my finger around the handle.

Since then I’ve played three more concerts, each with an enormous programme. My index finger didn’t hurt too badly if I was able to keep it curved and play the key with the fingertip, but if I used a flatter hand and hit the key with the first joint of the finger, it hurt. In the heat of performance, one can hardly focus on this kind of thing, but pain was a reminder not to overlook it entirely.

When conditions were calm during the concerts, I re-fingered things so that instead of using my sore index finger, I used the third finger. This could only be done when the music was moving slowly enough. You can’t instantly re-finger something complex which you’ve practised a million times and whose pattern is stored in your subconscious. But it was interesting to try to intervene in my automatic finger-pattern memory of slower passages. It reminded me of piano professor György Sebök saying how hard it is to make changes in habitual routines such as shaving, or combing your hair. He commented that making innovations in such routines can sometimes have a surprisingly liberating effect. And so I found it in my three concerts: a little reminder that things can be different, a tiny sliver of fresh thinking.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 May 2009 under Books  •  1 Comment

I’m reading the American poet Mark Doty’s memoir about his two beloved dogs. It’s a charity shop find in a Large Print Edition, the oversize print giving me the impression that the author is talking to me slowly and in a loud voice. The sensation fades away as I get drawn into this lovely book, which I’m so glad I found ‘by chance’. Actually, a Small Print edition would have suited it better, to be cupped in the palm and pored over like an Elizabethan miniature.

At the front of the book, the author’s other works are listed, some of them in the category Nonfiction. I find this word slightly jarring. Paperbacks are reviewed in literary supplements each week, divided into the categories ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’. It’s as if fiction is the gold standard for literature, and anything which isn’t fiction has to dissent from it by calling itself Nonfiction, as if its lack of made-up-ness is a shortcoming. Puritanically I feel that Fact should be the prevailing standard, and works of the imagination, such as novels, should be described as Non-Fact. Imagine if prose and poetry were categorised only as Prose and Nonprose, or if all serious works were lumped together as Nonhumour!

One of these days I expect I’ll walk into a record store and find classical music filed under Nonpop.

Schubert’s biographer

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 May 2009 under Concerts, Florestan Trio  •  Leave a comment

Practising Schubert’s E flat trio for a concert tonight, I remembered a delightful moment in a talk Bob gave about Schubert’s chamber music at the Florestan Festival a couple of years ago. He told the audience about the earliest known biography of Schubert, written by Heinrich Kreissle von Hellborn, whom Bob described as ‘Schubert’s first full-length biographer’. After a thoughtful pause, he corrected himself. ‘What I mean is that he wrote the first full-length biography of Schubert, not that he was Schubert’s first full-length biographer.’  The audience started to giggle. ‘I didn’t mean to imply that Schubert had had a succession of short, stunted biographers before that.’ 

For a few enjoyable seconds I couldn’t help imagining this gathering of pint-sized 19th century biographers, so short that, as my dad would have said, ‘their legs didn’t even reach the floor’.

More on those disappearing reviews

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 May 2009 under Concerts  •  Leave a comment

Several people have got in touch about the difficulty of musicians getting their concerts reviewed by the press. They point out that where they live, newspapers are ‘letting go’ of their classical music critics and shrinking the team of arts critics generally. The space devoted to arts coverage in newspapers is under threat, and in music we have the particular problem that ‘classical’ is often squeezed out by other, more commercially successful kinds. What newspapers call ‘music’ pages these days are often mainly pop and rock, and on some days there’s no classical music there at all. Editors say that this simply reflects the vastly greater numbers of people who follow pop and rock. But of course it’s a vicious circle; the less they write about us, the less we’re likely to be noticed.

I suppose there’s no reason that reviews have to appear in newspapers. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, there’s some very fine arts writing out there on the web. However, at the time of writing it’s not considered ‘bona fide’ in music circles to supply internet reviews when you’re asked for proof of your professional standing. Not long ago I helped to assemble a bunch of reviews for a grant application. We included both newspaper and internet reviews, but our advisors asked us to drop all the web reviews because ‘they don’t look real’. This attitude will have to change, and no doubt it’s already changing. It will have to be acceptable to produce ‘references’ from other serious and well-regarded sources. As we read of newspapers disappearing in print form, and moving online only, we musicians have to prepare for a future in which there will be no hard copies of reviews, ‘not even for ready money’, as Oscar Wilde would say.