Herald review of Milngavie 75th anniversary concert

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 November 2017 under Concerts, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

Four stars from The Herald today for my Glasgow concert with Jamie MacDougall and the Maxwell Quartet, marking the 75th anniversary of Milngavie Music Club with a very special programme:

‘To mark the club’s 75th birthday, current president Hugh Macdonald introduced a programme derived from a weekend in 1953 when Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and the Amadeus Quartet played Haydn, Schumann and Vaughan Williams. Back then I am sure that Milngavie would not have been able to look so close to home to find musicians of the calibre of pianist Susan Tomes, tenor Jamie MacDougall and the Maxwell Quartet – the latter hot-foot from winning the Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition. … Vaughan Williams’ song cycle ‘On Wenlock Edge’ was a first for both players and singer, although you would never have guessed it from the commanding performance.

‘…Schumann’s brilliant Piano Quintet from 1842 – by common consent the composer at the height of his powers – has just as eloquent a dialogue. Alongside the dynamic playing of Tomes, the beautiful tone of cellist Duncan Strachan had starring role here, on the journey to a Scherzo that is a delight just on its own and a a final Allegro that is as eloquent an expression of his creativity – and the inspiration of his wife, Clara – as the composer ever achieved.’

Chopin pops up in a jazz concert

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 November 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

Italian jazz pianist Rossano Sportiello was visiting Edinburgh from New York last night and I went to hear him. The jazz musicians in the audience ruefully acknowledged that Sportiello’s elegant appearance had put them to shame. Beautifully pressed grey suit, pink silk tie with matching silk handkerchief tucked in the jacket pocket, a gorgeous haircut … he looked like a wonderful Italian university professor.

After a first half consisting of improvisations based on ‘The Great American Songbook’, he opened the second half with some Duke Ellington, and then announced ‘Now I’d like to play some Chopin’. I imagined it would be an improvisation on a Chopin theme, but no: he played two wistful Mazurkas just as Chopin wrote them. I’m not sure I had ever heard classical pieces smoothly inserted into a jazz recital before, but it worked very well. All the preceding jazz served to focus our attention on Chopin’s way of leading a melodic line or a harmonic change as if it had only just occurred to him. I particularly enjoyed Sportiello’s way with the little ‘cadenzas’, passages of decoration usually printed in tiny notes to make it clear that they are an embellishment of the main line.

Often when teaching I have tried to explain that Chopin cannot have meant his decorative passages to sound wooden or stiff, no matter how intricate the fingering. They’re meant to sound like beautiful wisps of sound, prolonging a particular moment. But how rarely does one hear them played like that! Often they sound distressingly solid. When Rossano Sportiello played them, I realised that improvisation is the key. He made them sound effortless, turning them into delicate breaths of air. Chopin would have been pleased!

Folk song and the power of words

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 November 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  4 Comments

The other night I went to hear a great Irish folk band, Lankum, at the Traverse theatre bar. I first came across them in a BBC Alba television programme when they were called ‘Lynched’, a name they have understandably ditched. Their talent stuck in my head, so when I saw they were performing in Edinburgh I went along.

The performance was sold out and a large cheerful crowd of all ages, shapes and sizes was jostling for space around the bar tables. Whenever I find myself in crowds like this I always long to sweep them up and take them along to listen to my next concert, for it is so pleasant to be among such an audience.

To my ear, folk music tends to be repetitive from the musical point of view, but there are other fascinations. The words usually deal with hardship in some form or another – political, romantic, financial. ‘What will we do if we have no money? Oh true lovers, what will we do then?’, sang Radie Peat with a raw and lonely sadness that hushed the audience.

It struck me that the presence of words makes the message so clear. In the instrumental music I usually play, there is just as much emotion and searching for consolation, but it is not labelled. You have to be prepared to go looking for what’s in it, because nobody tells you beforehand that it’s about the rage of the prisoner or the sorrow of the abandoned lover. If you are the instrumentalist, you constantly have to ask yourself how to get the unspoken message across.

Not for the first time, I thought how helpful it would be if composers had given evocative titles to their pieces, or put words to their most important melodies. I know why they didn’t, but when I go to folk song performances I rather wish they had.

Musicality and where to find it

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 October 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

Last week, when I was in Italy, I went to a concert of a well-known ensemble (I’ll be discreet about who and where). Firstly I should say that the large audience appeared perfectly happy with the performance and applauded enthusiastically, but for me as a professional musician there were signs that the players were demoralised. Their body language said so, both when they were playing and when they weren’t. This was, for example, the first time I had ever seen a professional musician chatting on his phone on stage just before the concert, in full view of the audience. Perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me, but I felt it showed a lack of pride in the occasion.

Concert dress is hotly debated these days – what message are we giving the audience when we choose this or that to wear? – but this group didn’t seem to have discussed it at all. If they had, they evidently hadn’t been able to agree. Their outfits ranged from dark suit and tie to a denim shirt worn with fashionably ripped jeans. There was someone in a lilac shirt and chinos, someone in pale suede boots, and someone in a smart black jacket with waistcoat and formal trousers. Perhaps it was all meant to look delightfully informal, but to me it said, ‘We don’t know any more what our identity is’. I know how difficult it can be to agree on ‘image’, but to allow such a cacophony of concert clothes seemed to show not so much a relaxed attitude as a lack of unity and purpose. I suppose it was hardly surprising that their playing gave me a similar impression. I knew nothing about the set-up but I could imagine there were difficulties behind the scenes.

Afterwards I went for a walk and ended up in a local park. A group of Italian students was sitting under the trees. Eventually one of them got out a guitar, another a violin. Quietly they started ‘jamming’ with a Stephane Grappelli number. And suddenly there was music in the air. Not studied, not expected, not ‘a performance’: just music being played for fun and with natural flair by people who were really into it. I felt myself relaxing. My mood had been a little low, but eavesdropping on this impromptu jazz session restored my good humour. You never know where you’ll find good musicianship!

Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far from the Tree’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 September 2017 under Books, Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

I’m reading Andrew Solomon’s fascinating ‘Far from the Tree’, a 900-page study of parents ‘who learn to deal with their exceptional children and find profound meaning in doing so’.

Many of the chapters focus on conditions which are obviously challenging for families: autism, schizophrenia, deafness, disability, crime, sexual orientation, dwarfs. In the middle of the book comes a chapter called ‘Prodigies’ which focuses mainly on musicians. It begins:

‘Being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying. One of the most startling patterns that emerged during my research was that many people come to value abnormalities that are ostensibly undesirable. Equally, ostensibly desirable variances are often daunting. Many prospective parents who dread the idea of a disabled child will long for an accomplished one. […. ] Like parents of children who are severely challenged, parents of exceptionally talented children are custodians of children beyond their comprehension.’

Musical talent as a type of disability – the idea is not new to me, of course. But it is intriguing to see musical talent located amongst other conditions which skew family life and put enormous, often unwelcome pressure on everyone involved. I am still pondering his observation (on p426) that ‘Some researchers claim that musical predisposition is a function of an autistic-type hypersensitivity to sound. According to the Israeli psychiatrist Pinchas Noy, music is the organising defence of such children against the clatter that assaults them. A number of the musicians described in this chapter likely meet clinical criteria for autistic-spectrum disorders.’

As it happens, I’m currently preparing a lecture-recital about Schumann for 7 October. I’ve been thinking a lot about Schumann’s obsessive musical patterns. Music as an organising defence against the clatter that assaulted him? That makes sense to me.