Nice messages

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 March 2021 under Concerts, Inspirations, Reviews  •  3 Comments

Thank you to everyone who sent me a nice message after last night’s streaming of the latest concert in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra‘s digital series – on this occasion, a programme curated by their principal cellist Philip Higham and presenting two piano quartets by Mozart and Fauré.

Once again I had the impression that everyone must be stuck at home with more time than usual to think of things like writing to the performers, because I had an unusual number of appreciative responses and I believe my colleagues – Maria Wloszczowska, Felix Tanner and Philip Higham – did too.

The performance is free to watch, and remains online until 11 April. There are programme notes by David Kettle, free to read on the same web page that announces the concert.

Here also is a review of the performance by Vox Carnyx, Scotland’s new classical music website.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra usually offers performances in orchestral format with many more players than a piano quartet, but in my view it’s an excellent and timely initiative to showcase the chamber music skills of individual players. A smaller format – just a few people on stage – lends itself so well to the current restrictions. And this type of music gives so much for talented instrumentalists to get their teeth into.

Speaking as a devoted chamber musician, I hope our current situation will give an extra boost to the profile of chamber music, a joyful repertoire which is so satisfying to play and listen to!

This time last year

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 March 2021 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

It’s now a whole year since concerts started being cancelled in anticipation of the pandemic.

I remember very well that I had been to a birthday coffee party where the extended family sat around a big circular glass-topped table while our reflections ate scones and drank coffee in mirror image. I got home and there was a message from a concert society where I was to play the following week. Although we were not yet in a period of restrictions, the organisers had been reading the runes and had decided to cancel rather than wait to see if their audience turned up or not. That cancellation was particularly shocking, because it was the first and because the date was imminent and I had done a lot of practice for it.

After that came a cascade of other cancellations, Concerts, talks, masterclasses and festivals fell over like a row of dominos. None of the organisers was in touch with any of the others, which made it feel even weirder – they were all just assessing the situation and coming to the same conclusion. Usually I keep a pencil beside my (paper) diary, but now I replaced the pencil with an eraser. The pages of my diary became blank again. I started to take stock of all the travel arrangements that would have to be unpicked. And there were still two weeks to go before national lockdown.

Who would have thought that I would now find myself noting the first anniversary of that memorable week? Since mid-March last year, nobody has played my piano except me (and occasionally my husband when we decided to cheer ourselves up by playing a piano duet). I haven’t once sat by the window to listen to anyone else playing to me. I can’t even hope to get the piano tuned until the end of April! At least there are signs of spring to enjoy in the meantime.

Mozart and Fauré piano quartets – 11 March, 7.30pm

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 March 2021 under Concerts, Inspirations, Musings  •  2 Comments

After a long winter in the deep freeze (in more ways than one) – at last! – a concert to tell you about.

It won’t be performed in front of a live audience – that long-awaited moment is probably still months away-  but it will be broadcast on YouTube and Facebook on March 11.

I’ll be playing piano quartets by Mozart and Fauré with principal players of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: Maria Wloszczowska (violin), Felix Tanner (viola) and Philip Higham (cello). These piano quartets are two of my favourites in the whole repertoire. Fauré’s Piano Quartet in C minor, opus 15 was the first piece I ever recorded, with my group Domus for Hyperion Records, and a memorable experience it was too because that first disc won a Gramophone Award.

So I know the music well – although of course when you tackle it with a different group of people, some of whom you’ve only just met, you have to engage with a whole new set of questions and answers.

Mozart’s G minor piano quartet is the first example we know of a piano quartet, and still one of the best despite a fair amount of competition over 200 years, especially in the Romantic era when piano quartets were very popular.

When I played in a professional piano quartet, most of our audiences wanted to hear one of Mozart’s two piano quartets (in G minor and in E flat major). It sometimes felt as though we were playing one or other of them every Saturday night somewhere or other, but my admiration for them survived undimmed – which was not the case with every piece we performed lots and lots of times.

The SCO Spring series concert of piano quartets will be recorded this week in the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh and broadcast on Thursday 11 March at 7.30pm.

A taste of elsewhere

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 February 2021 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Teaching  •  1 Comment

In a cheese shop the other day, conversation turned to exotic cheeses and someone mentioned Gjetost, the Norwegian goat’s milk cheese which looks like a block of fudge and has a distinctive, caramel element to its taste. It’s a cooked cheese made with whey and cream, very rich and usually eaten in wafer-thin slivers.

Mention of Gjetost took me back to early school days. At the age of seven, my class teacher was Miss Clarke-Wilson, a formidable lady but very popular with us.

For Geography lessons, she had a genius idea. Whenever we started learning about a new country, Miss Clarke-Wilson would (at her own expense, I imagine) bring in samples of food from that country for us to try.

This cannot have been easy to achieve at a time when Edinburgh shops were not known as emporia of foreign food. Nevertheless she managed to get us lychees when we were reading about China, dates to represent Egypt, and most memorably of all, Gjetost to evoke Norway. Years later, when I played in Norway, I joyfully bought a block of Gjetost and tried to eat it in cubes like fudge, but I quickly saw the point of the wafer-thin slices.

Offering children a taste of food from a faraway country was inspired. I doubt if any of us had been further away than England. Apart from looking at pictures, we had no easy way of imagining life in exotic lands. But a taste of their food produced an immediate sense of connection with them. The tastes were unexpected, strange and tantalising. It was instantly clear that life in other countries had new experiences to offer.

Larks ascending

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 February 2021 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Travel  •  2 Comments

One of our regular walks in the nearby hills takes us past a cornfield, which we discovered in the first lockdown.

It was Spring then, and the field was softly green. We were thrilled to see larks emerging from their hiding-places among the rows of corn, rising up into the sky and singing when they reached a height where we often couldn’t see them any more. During the months of lockdown we were often to be seen standing at the edge of that field, gazing sky-wards, hoping to hear larksong.

Of course, over the winter the birds were silent. It felt as if someone had forgotten to switch on the volume in the treetops. Only rooks seemed to have the energy to go on quarrelling.

But today, for the first time since winter, we saw and heard larks again. The cornfield is still a greyish-brown stubble. But from among the rows of stubble, larks rose up, singing as they went. One of them’s in this photo, so high and distant that you can only see him by zooming in. Nevertheless the pale February sky with its wisps of cloud gives an impression of the morning.

It’s probably heretical to admit that I’ve never fallen in love with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, regularly voted the nation’s favourite piece of classical music. It has a lovely atmosphere, but for me it’s rather self-indulgent, prioritising the composer’s emotions rather than evoking nature. When you hear a lark in the countryside, its song is fragile. The bird is often so high in the sky that you strain to hear it; what comes to your ears are delicate fragments blowing past on the wind.

In his setting of George Meredith’s poem, Vaughan Williams beautifully evokes the lines: ‘Our valley is the golden cup/And he the wine that overflows/To lift us with him as he goes’. But to my ear, the song of the lark is less luxuriant than overflowing wine – and perhaps more touching because of it.