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.

A Rolls-Royce of a recording

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 April 2009 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

Our record producer Andrew Keener sends his ‘suggested version’ of the trio’s newest Haydn disc in the post. He has worked through all the material we recorded over three days in the studio, stitching together his preferred versions of the takes. Now it’s for the members of the trio to listen and comment. For some reason this is always a task I find it hard to undertake, because our own recordings strike me as simultaneously familiar and alien.

Our producer’s work is meticulous, as always, and so is our sound engineer’s. The recorded sound is lustrous and clear, and the musical strands stand out clearly against one another, but I can’t say I enjoy listening. It suddenly strikes me as a ridiculous Rolls Royce of an outcome, beautifully played and recorded as if by a team of superhumans. Nothing has been faked, but the simple process of leaving out all the slips and scratches has made everything seem dauntingly perfect, even to my ears.

Mozart’s sister

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 April 2009 under Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

In the Mozart exhibition in Salzburg I learned some new things about his sister, Nannerl. I knew that Nannerl played the piano too – partly because there’s a famous painting of the two of them side by side at the piano, playing duets – but I hadn’t realised that when they were both young, her family considered her very talented too. As an eighteenth century woman, however, she had no opportunity to become a performer as her brother did. In fact, the more her brother was away from home on concert tours, often with their father in attendance, the more Nannerl was needed to hold the fort at home.

In her thirties (rather elderly to be a bride in those days) she married an older widower with four or five children, and she became stepmother to them, as well as having two children of her own. The exhibition said, ‘She remained an excellent pianist all her life, and wrote many compositions, none of which have survived.’ I hadn’t realised that. Why did nobody try to preserve the music she wrote? Her destiny seems too starkly contrasted with Mozart’s. I stood in front of her portrait for a while, thinking how things would have turned out if it had been girls who were given the opportunities to stride out into the wider world in those days, and men who were confined to the domestic circle. Would it be Nannerl who was world-famous?

Salzburg in the Snow

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 April 2009 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’ve just been to Salzburg to play a concert in the Mozarteum with the Gaudier Ensemble. Leaving London in spring weather, it was startling to find ourselves walking through the Mirabell Gardens a few hours later in heavy snow. How strange travel is! One minute you’re having breakfast in London and the next, you’re gazing up at the snowy mountains wondering what happened. The body can be quickly transferred from A to B, but the mind isn’t so quick to catch up.

We went to visit Mozart’s birthplace in the Getreidegasse, now an exclusive little shopping street. We paid our money and climbed up to the third floor where the Mozart family had their rooms – only to discover that their whole apartment was closed for renovation. All that was open was the little museum at the back of the house.

In the museum bookshop was a cookery book of recipes used by Johanna, the cook who worked for the famous von Trapp family of ‘The Sound of Music’. Johanna’s recipes were collected under the curious title ‘The Sound of Cooking’ and bound in a handsome green hard-back book with the incredible subtitle, ‘Life and Recipes of Trapp Cook.’ Trapp Cook? How could the publishers have allowed such an ugly wording? Surely it wouldn’t have been very hard, in Austria, to find an English speaker to advise on a better way of phrasing it. It never ceases to amaze me, the clumsy translations people offer to the world without even checking with a native speaker whether the result will fall on their ears with a horrible clang.

Musicians’ Collective

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 April 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Went to a jazz gig performed by a group called ‘Way Out West‘, a collective of about twenty jazz musicians who live in this part of London. Seven of them were there on the night, plus two singers out of the three who were advertised. They explained that ‘Way Out West’ accepts invitations all over the place, fielding whoever happens to be free on the night, so that the next time we heard them, the permutation might be different.

I couldn’t help envying them the flexibility. Imagine if one could confidently accept any booking for ‘the Florestan Trio‘, using any three experienced players who were free on the night! At a stroke one would be freed from the restriction of being able to perform when three particular people were available. Such a thing would never be possible in the world of classical music, alas, for the simple reason that all our music is notated in detail. We couldn’t possibly take the risk of waiting until the very evening to know who would be playing, because those people might not have seen or prepared their parts. In big orchestras there is a degree of variable membership, but the variability is agreed long in advance, and nobody performs in a professional symphony concert without prior rehearsal.

In improvised music, even if a skeleton structure is written down, most of the notes actually played are elaborated on the spot. If someone is feeling out of practice, or not particularly inspired, they can choose to play very little when their ‘solo’ comes, or elect to miss it altogether, as happened once or twice at the event I attended. If someone didn’t feel like playing fast, they didn’t. If someone felt like carving a swathe through the others with a burst of unplanned virtuosity, they did. When a couple of people felt like taking a break, they wandered offstage, leaving the others to play the next number as a smaller cohort. If the bandleader needed to tell people something, he pottered about the stage, whispering in people’s ears while the piece was in progress. During the second half, we learned that one of the advertised singers simply hadn’t turned up – no explanations given. No matter: they pulled out some new parts from the bandleader’s folder, and played on without the singer. All this seemed perfectly in keeping with the traditions of jazz, but would be impossible in classical music.

I sat there wishing that I could copy their formula and found a Classical Collective. What fun to leave more things open to the last minute! But as soon as I started thinking it through, I could see that it wasn’t going to work. There simply isn’t enough leeway in what our composers have demanded of us. Indeed, they want every note to be played as they wrote it. There’s no escape from a reciprocal commitment to specifics.