Active Silence

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

the church before the first concert

the church before the first concert

We’re just back from the Florestan Festival at Peasmarsh. What an extraordinary thing a festival is. A few hours before the first concert, the church is completely quiet, the country lanes are empty, and you can’t imagine that anyone will really come. You finish the rehearsal feeling almost despondent. All those weeks and months of preparation: will it all be wasted? All of a sudden, cars arrive in the lane, the churchyard fills up with people, people spread their picnics under the trees, dinner is served in the catering tent, a coffee stand is set up on a stone monument, and the festival is off. It remains a little hub of activity for four whole days, all kinds of people ‘playing their part’ in every sense. You never know who you’re going to bump into and what interesting things they’ll say. I just wish I had a little more time to sit on the grass and chat, but with all our rehearsals and concerts there isn’t much spare time.

I don’t know what the festival means to our listeners, but for me the best thing about the festival is the quality of their attention. These days, audiences in other places are often rather free with their coughing, fidgeting and rustling, as though they are so used to hearing music via iPod and radio that they don’t realise there are live musicians in front of them. Bursts of uninhibited coughing can be very distracting, to say the least, when you’re trying to concentrate. In Peasmarsh, on the other hand, it seems that our audience has magically banished all coughs and colds. They’re completely silent during our concerts, but not in a passive way; they seem to create a force field of attentiveness which inspires the musicians to play better. It’s clear to me that their ‘active listening’ is an essential part of the whole event.

Cardiff Singer of the World

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 June 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Despite this week’s rehearsals for the Florestan Festival I’ve managed to watch several rounds of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition on television (the Final is on Sunday). I’ve been following this bi-annual competition for many years and always find it  fascinating. So many different artistic styles from different countries, so many approaches to self-presentation and image.

Each night there are experts whose professional opinion is sought, and members of the public whose reactions are canvassed. The experts always say that they’re looking for someone whose heart and soul shows in their singing, someone who can ‘communicate’. Members of the public say the same thing. But, actually, there are plenty of competitors whose heart shows in their singing, or who communicate well with the audience, but who can’t quite match their ardour with sheer vocal technique. In such cases, the experts are quick to point out the shortcomings. There are also singers who, as Penny Smith memorably said the other night, adopt the Highwayman approach to singing an aria – “stand and deliver!” In those cases, where technique is at the forefront, the experts lament the lack of expressive involvement.

What we’re all hoping for, I suppose, is someone who combines superlative vocal technique with deep musicality, acting ability, expressive power, integrity, a pleasing face and an acceptable approach to fashion. Despite today’s skilful and methodical approach to preparing for competitions, the combination remains rare. Yet I feel I’ve seen several examples during the first three rounds of the competition, making it a true pleasure.

Roses and thorns

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

one of our roses

one of our roses

Roses have started to bloom in the garden. There’s an old rosebush which has been living here for longer than I have. Its roses are pale pink, but this year for the first time the petals are tinged with the faintest gold. Maybe the weather is different this year, or it’s something to do with the compost Bob has been putting on the garden. Either way, the pink-gold roses look unusually nice.

This morning I went out to cut one or two of them for a vase. Reaching into the bush for a particular rose, I pricked my hand on the thorns. When this happens I sometimes think of the old saying, ‘No rose without a thorn’. Unfortunately, since I discovered the extra bit which Schopenhauer added to the saying, I can’t help thinking of that as well. ‘Keine Rose ohne Dornen. Manche Dornen ohne Rosen.’ ‘No rose without a thorn. But many thorns without roses.’

Driving away troublemakers

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 June 2009 under Daily Life  •  1 Comment

There’s another press report on classical music being used to drive troublesome teenagers away from local shops, this time with a twist. The Co-op store in an Aberdeen suburb has been broadcasting a classical playlist at the front of its shop as a ‘deterrent’. But staff were startled when they turned the music off recently, and local teens came in and asked for it to be turned on again.

The topic of ‘classical music as turn-off’ has been popping (if that’s the word) up in the press for several years now, and I never quite know what is being said about classical music. Sometimes the writers seem to take it for granted that classical music is horrible, and will obviously stop people wanting to hang around in places where it is playing. Sometimes it seems that they are merely using classical music as a metaphor for ‘unfashionable’ or ‘old-fashioned’, things that the trendy young would run a mile from.

But the connotations which classical music has for some people are nothing whatever to do with the music itself. The Co-op’s playlist is full of Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach – utterly melodious and warm-hearted music. Shorn of ‘labels’, who could fail to like it? Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’. Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville’. ‘Winter’ from Vivaldi’s ‘The Seasons’. Mozart’s G minor Symphony. This is music whose ‘message’ is nothing but positive.

It makes me sad to think that, in some people’s minds, classical music is a badge of tribe – the ‘tribe’ being that of oldies and losers. Its composers would be stunned and horrified to think that some of their loveliest melodies had become ‘anti-young’ weaponry. Those Scottish teenagers who went in to the Co-op and asked for more evidently had the sense to realise that good music is good music, full stop.

Jarred by canned music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 June 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Florestan Trio  •  Leave a comment

Just back from a successful trip to the Echternach Festival in Luxembourg. We played in a very pretty but wildly over-resonant church whose acoustics were only somewhat subdued by the presence of the audience. During the rehearsal, when the church was empty, we counted a five-second echo. Nevertheless the audience for our concert was extremely warm and appreciative.

My hotel room overlooked the 18th century cobbled square with its fountain, town hall, cafes with wicker chairs and tables on the cobbles, and baskets of flowers trailing from the balconies. My nice old hotel blended perfectly into this scene, except for the canned music playing in all the public spaces.

I was up early and had breakfast by myself, so I had nothing to distract me from this music, no doubt meant to lull me but actually having the opposite effect, because it stopped me from feeling at one with my historical surroundings. After I while I stopped watching the rain bounce off the cobbles outside and focused on the canned music. It was evidently composed to some evil formula which kept it below the threshhold of interest, event or memorability. Singers meandered up and down the same few notes with artificial cheeriness. The pulse never varied, the rhythms were stupidly predictable, there were no key-changes, and all the phrases were the same length. It seemed to say, ‘Don’t look around you! Just relax into this purchasing opportunity.’ And then louder music started up in the square outside. It was market day, and the stallholders had installed blaring pop music to whet people’s appetites.

The other day, we got into a taxi in Berlin and the same kind of music was playing. We asked the driver to turn it off. He said, ‘Whenever I have musicians in the cab they always ask me to turn off the music. That seems funny to me.’