Today the Herald has an arts supplement with Books of the Year 2016 chosen by various guest selectors. Broadcaster Sheena McDonald has chosen my book ‘Sleeping in Temples‘ as one of her books of the year:
‘What makes a successful concert pianist? The internationally-acclaimed performer Susan Tomes explains using language as felicitously as she does the keyboard in ‘Sleeping in Temples’ (Boydell Press, £19.99), a page-turner and a joy of a book.’
A good Christmas present for a music-lover in your life, perhaps…
It is very sad news that the American violinist Ida Levin has lost her battle with leukaemia.
Ida was devoted to the International Musicians’ Seminars in Prussia Cove, Cornwall. I met her there when she came to study with Sandor Vegh. He immediately liked her and her playing. She in turn instinctively understood his middle-European conviction about the importance of music, particularly chamber music, and she championed his beliefs when she was back home in America.
Through the following years I played with Ida in various different groups during the autumn chamber music seminars. She remained faithful to Prussia Cove even when she was very busy with her career in the US. For a while, we thought we might ‘make a go’ of a wonderful trio we had with the cellist Christoph Richter (see 1995 photo of us at Prussia Cove – Ida is on the right) but practicalities intervened: Ida lived in Los Angeles, Christoph at that time in Germany, and I was in London. The trio faded away, but I enjoyed playing with Ida in those years when we could both manage to get to Cornwall in September. I played with her in a quintet on her last visit to Prussia Cove a couple of years ago. On the day of our concert, she said she felt rough and wondered if she was coming down with ‘a terrible Prussia Cove cold’. It turned out to be something worse.
I was always struck, as everyone must have been, by Ida’s tremendous energy, determination and drive. She was a woman of strong opinions backed up by formidable amounts of research into whatever it was that interested her, from vegetarian diet to politics to which airline one should trust. She was funny, feisty and had great charisma. Her character was perfectly expressed in her playing: strong, warm, intelligent and well-informed. As time went on, she became a terrific mentor to many young musicians, for whom she went the extra mile in a selfless way. When she became ill we all realised that she had great personal courage as well. It is a tribute to her personality that she inspired a ‘support group’ of half a dozen friends who went to extraordinary lengths to look after her and keep her company during various phases of her treatment. She will be greatly missed.
Today I’m making my Christmas cake, a few days ahead of ‘Stir-up Sunday’ which is, I believe, this coming Sunday. It’s a traditional day for families to get together to make steamed Christmas puddings, and in these days when most households have their own ovens, baked Christmas cakes, though if you consult cookery books, many bakers think that Christmas puddings and cakes should be made long before November.
Over breakfast we were discussing why ‘Stir-up Sunday’ lands on the Sunday before Advent. Bob (always good for an answer to an unexpected question) told me that it is so called because of the opening words for the ‘collect of the day’ in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. ‘Excita, quaesumus, Domine, tuorum fidelium voluntates ut divini operis fructum propensius exsequentes, pietatis tuae remedia maiora percipiant’: ‘Stir up, o Lord, we beseech you, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, richly bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be richly rewarded’.
I could just imagine that churchgoers, hearing, ‘Stir up, o Lord’ and the reference to fruit and rich rewards, might indulge in a very practical bit of lateral thinking regarding the making of Christmas pudding.
After my cake was already in the oven, I read that there is an old tradition of stirring the raw mixture from East to West in honour of the journey undertaken by the Three Wise Men. When I tried to picture that mixing technique, I first thought it must mean mixing anti-clockwise, but then I realised that stirring clockwise also goes from East to West if you are allowed to go round the bottom half of the circle rather than the top (phew).
Clearing out old files this week I came across an article called ‘A Talk with Gyorgy Sebok’, from a 1976 edition of Piano Quarterly. It was an interview of the Hungarian piano guru Gyorgy Sebok by a colleague, pianist Seth Carlin. Sebok taught in Indiana University; Carlin at Washington University in St Louis. Alas, neither man is still with us, and the magazine has disappeared too.
The 1976 interview ended with a question which, although posed 40 years ago, struck me as more relevant today than ever. Sebok’s answer is equally relevant:
Seth Carlin: ‘Mr Sebok, you have devoted great energies to developing the musical talent of the oncoming generation, but aren’t you concerned about the young musician who graduates from a conservatory today, and goes into a world where there is really little or no room for him or her?’
Gyorgy Sebok: ‘It depends how you see it. It’s like overpopulation, which scientifically may be true, but you can drive hundreds of miles without seeing anything besides a gas station – so the overpopulation is not obvious. There are a great number of musicians – that’s obvious if you are in Indiana University and you are in one building. But if you travel, then you have the feeling that music is a very rare treasure, that there is no overpopulation of musicians in a real sense. If everyone wants to go round the world, or give a recital in Carnegie Hall, then we are too many. But if we want to live in different communities small and big, and teach and perform music, then we are not enough.’
Yesterday I spoke about my book ‘Sleeping in Temples’ at the Wigtown Book Festival (see photo), a merry gathering in ‘Scotland’s Book Town’ in the rolling hills of Dumfries and Galloway. Arriving there for the first time in driving rain and wind wasn’t the perfect introduction, but when the sun came out I was better able to appreciate the main square with its improbable number of attractive bookstores.
For the talk, my interviewer Robert Philip wanted to include my chapter on ‘What is Interpretation?’ He suggested I take a short example and illustrate – with the help of a piano – some of the issues a player has to consider when preparing the music for performance.
I chose the opening passage of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto. As far as I know, it’s the first concerto which turned the usual format upside-down: instead of a long orchestral introduction, followed by the piano soloist entering with a dramatic flourish, Beethoven starts with the piano on its own. The first six bars of solo piano are marked to be played quietly and gently.
What is one to make of that? What scene is the pianist setting as they play the now-famous opening theme? Is it in the nature of private musing, as though the performer didn’t realise there was a big orchestra sitting behind them? Is it a kind of challenge to the orchestra? Is the pianist allowed to take time and linger over certain beats, or will that confuse matters? Are the little repeated notes to be dry, matter-of-fact, or tentative, mysterious – even pleading? Should the famous opening G major chord be played with all the notes going down at the same time, or ‘rolled’ from bottom to top as Beethoven may have expected to hear it? And so on.
I did a brief illustration, showing different ways to play the theme. Afterwards, at the book signing, a number of people told me how fascinating they found that demonstration. They said it was very hard to get access to this kind of behind-the-scenes information if you are not a musician. They suggested I should do more of it, and I’m going to think about doing so.