Is there a way to avoid concert clashes?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 February 2019 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  3 Comments

I’m preparing for next weekend’s Winterplay, my mini-festival of collaborative music at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. We have a children’s music-and-movement workshop led by Monica Wilkinson, a music and words event with Janice Galloway, a pre-concert talk by Robert Philip and a trio concert. Violinist Erich Höbarth is about to arrive from Vienna and I’m so looking forward to rehearsing piano trios with him and cellist Philip Higham.

I keep thinking about the observation that a career in music is 90% admin and 10% music-making. Not quite true, because one has to practise one’s instrument every day, but it certainly feels as if the work of organising concerts is vastly out of kilter with the time spent giving the concerts themselves.

I find myself wishing there was a centralised concert diary where one could check what else is scheduled. Nothing like that seems to exist. I try to find out, from season brochures and advance publicity, what other concerts might whisk away my listeners on the night I need them. You might think that the music world was small enough that we’d all know about one another’s plans, but in fact there are many independent circles within the music scene.

I sent out a big concert mailing the other day and then sat back and glumly read the responses:

‘I’m going to a baroque concert that evening’
‘We’ve been invited to a jazz event’
‘Alas, it’s a choir evening’
‘Our children’s school has a pupils’ concert that night, sorry’
‘My amateur orchestra has a rehearsal then’

And these are only the musical events! People also mention sports events, weddings, holidays and half-term activities which no organiser could possibly factor in. But surely it would be sensible for concert organisers to have a way of checking what other musical events are planned on the date they have in mind?

Bob tells me to keep calm. ‘All the people who saw your mail and thought ‘I’ll go to that’ probably didn’t bother to tell you so. They’ll just turn up.’ Amen to that.

Musicians still in the dark about Brexit

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 January 2019 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Teaching, Travel  •  2 Comments

As the Brexit story accelerates, musicians are still in the dark about what will happen to their freedom of movement after we leave the EU. For two and a half years now I have been listening to colleagues and students worrying about whether they will still be able to study here, or if they are from the UK, whether they will still be able to afford to study in cities like Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam or Brussels where they are happy. Will the Erasmus scheme still be open to UK students? What will happen to student fees? Will they still be able to go in for that competition in Paris or Rome? I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve asked young musicians whether we might meet again on the same course next year, only to be told, ‘I have no idea. Will we still be eligible?’

Young professional musicians are the group I most often work with. They are desperate for clarity. Many of them are from European countries. They love London and were thinking of staying here, getting jobs here, basing their performing careers here, settling down with partners they met here. Now there’s talk of a minimum salary level of £30,000 being required of European migrants after Brexit. That would rule out most of the young musicians I know. When you are paid £128 for an orchestral concert it takes a long time to earn £30,000.

I occasionally serve on the jury of international competitions. The other day, when I was talking to one of them about the extra paperwork that might be required for me after Brexit, an administrator ‘jokingly’ remarked that it might be easier for them just to choose their jury members from European countries. I’m one of those jury members now, but not for much longer.

When I think back over my working life I realise that one of my greatest pleasures has been discovering other European countries and their cultures. I suppose I was predisposed to like them because most of my favourite composers (see photo) had lived there. My professional life began more or less as the UK joined the EU and travel to other European countries became ‘frictionless’. As I ventured further afield, my eyes and ears were opened to other ways of doing things. Breathing the same air as Mozart, Schubert or Debussy made everything easier to imagine, their music easier to ‘speak naturally’. A bit of extra paperwork won’t stop us going to those places, of course, but it feels like a step backwards.

Donald Tovey’s piano playing is brought to life

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 January 2019 under Books, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

One of my Christmas presents was a memoir, ‘Divided Loyalties – a Scotswoman in occupied France’ by Janet Teissier du Cros. It was written by an Edinburgh-born woman who married a Frenchman and spent the years of the Second World War in the Cévennes region of France during the German occupation.

In her Edinburgh years, the author was a talented young pianist who studied with Donald Tovey, then professor of music at Edinburgh University. Tovey is now remembered mainly for his essays on musical analysis, but he considered himself a practising musician first and foremost. In fact, many of his essays started life as programme notes for concerts which he himself conducted. He was also a composer and a fine pianist who played recitals with many leading international performers (Casals, Jelly d’Aranyi) when they visited Edinburgh.

Janet Teissier du Cros gives a wonderful portrait of Tovey’s piano-playing which evokes it more vividly than I’ve seen elsewhere. I am a fan of Tovey’s writing on music, but hadn’t really grasped what a superb performer he was:

‘To say that he unwittingly bewitched me with his playing, as Othello bewitched Desdemona with his story-telling, would be an understatement. It was something even beyond that. I believe that no-one who heard Tovey play when he was at the height of his powers will ever forget the experience, or cease to feel that there was something there which no other pianist possessed. Not only had he the great executant’s powers; he understood the whole genesis of what he was playing, it spoke to him in the language he best understood and initiated him into the composer’s inmost thoughts, those he could never express in words.

‘Both his understanding – not the cerebral appreciation of the musicologist, but the re-creation of a fellow artist – and his emotion were things he succeeded in transmitting more directly than any other player I ever heard. For as long as he played he made you a person far superior to what in fact you were, and the language became intelligible to you too, which before had simply been intoxicating sound.

‘Every now and then at a crucial moment, it might be some unexpected modulation that cut the ground from under your feet and plunged you reeling and giddy into the fourth dimension, or a blazing forth in the major mode of some tragic minor theme, its message of hope no sooner uttered than you were cast down again by a return to the minor key; whatever it was, you were always warned to the tiptoe of attention by a fleeting glance of blue fire from Tovey’s wide-apart eyes, and for a brief moment you were absorbed into him and understood not with your own heart and mind but with his.’  Janet Teissier du Cros, ‘Divided Loyalties, p11

TLS review of ‘Speaking the Piano’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 January 2019 under Books, Reviews  •  1 Comment

The Times Literary Supplement of January 4 has a lovely review of my book ‘Speaking the Piano‘.

Because of the subscriber paywall, only a snippet of the review is publicly accessible online, but here’s a photo of the review as it appears in print.

And here’s an excerpt:

‘Tomes is a celebrated classical pianist, renowned for her communicative musicianship and her engaging writing on music. This, her fifth book, explores the role of teacher and pupil in mastering this grandest and most bewitching of musical instruments, ‘with its enormous bulk and its heroic air of solitude.’ Part manual, part memoir, part philosophical treatise on the intellectual and emotional rigours of musical performance, the book darts back and forth in time as Tomes recounts her musical journey. …
Fascinating … Tomes is at ease with the paradox of writing about music, that most ineffable of art forms.’

The reviewer, writer Kate Wakeling, was kind enough to tweet that ‘It was a joy to write about Susan Tomes’s wise and gentle book for the TLS.’

Getting dark as you play


Scotsman preview of 2019’s concerts

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 January 2019 under Concerts  •  Leave a comment

The year got off to a flying start with a mention of Winterplay in The Scotsman‘s preview of concerts to look forward to in 2019.

After talking about the Edinburgh International Festival, it goes on to say:

‘On a far smaller scale, though just as rewarding, is pianist Susan Tomes’s Winterplay mini-festival, which returns to Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on 16 February. With a children’s music and movement workshop, a piano and literature afternoon with Tomes and novelist Janice Galloway, and finally a starry trio performance with Tomes, violinist Erich Höbarth and cellist Philip Higham, Winterplay is a bold, brilliantly broad-ranging addition to the capital’s festivals.’

In addition to the events mentioned in The Scotsman, there’s also a pre-concert talk (free to ticket-holders) at 6.30pm by Robert Philip whose previous talks have drawn a large audience.

Winterplay is on Saturday 16 February 2019. Tickets are available online or through the Queen’s Hall box office (0131 668 2019). Join us for this celebration of chamber music!

The dark days of February have been indelibly brightened by Winterplay’. The Scotsman, 2018