Classical Music magazine article

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 February 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  1 Comment

Finally I have managed to track down a copy of this month’s ‘Classical Music’ magazine, which for some reason has become harder and harder to find in the shops. Knowing there was to be an article about me in the February issue, I tried to find the magazine in a number of relevant shops, and even in several different cities, but drew a blank. (In case you’re wondering: no, the publisher didn’t send me a copy of the magazine.) Even in Blackwell’s Music Shop in Oxford they didn’t have ‘Classical Music’ and said they hadn’t been able to get it for 18 months. In most other shops – including larger branches of WHSmith where I’ve bought it in the past – they just shook their heads when I asked about it.

Eventually I tracked down a copy in the library of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, but it was not for borrowing, so I read it and took a photo on my phone.

Assuming, then, that most of my readers won’t have seen the magazine, I thought I’d at least post a photograph of the article in case anyone wants to enlarge the photo and read it…

Five-star ‘Scotsman’ review of my Queen’s Hall solo recital

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 February 2017 under Concerts, Reviews  •  6 Comments

I haven’t written anything here for a while because I have been busy preparing for a big solo recital programme last Thursday in the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh (and for several ‘run-up’ concerts in different parts of the country). All went well, and after a very happy evening with a great audience on Thursday I was delighted to read a five-star review in today’s Scotsman:

‘This was a beautifully conceived, brilliantly executed programme by a pianist who combines a rock solid technique with a rare ability to communicate her deep understanding of the music she plays. With little fuss, Susan Tomes distils the essence of a piece of music into its purest form in the most profound and moving way. Debussy’s Preludes Book 2 is inspired by a delightful mix of the mundane and fantastical. Like a sound colourist, Tomes brought these 12 sketches vividly to life, from Peter Pan’s dancing fairies to circus jugglers and the more abstract moonlight, mist and fireworks. She also highlighted Debussy’s fascination with peripheral action, the splashes of tumbling notes that twinkle like stars in the distance.

Schubert’s Impromptus No 2 in G flat and No 3 in A flat are familiar repertoire staples, but Tomes unveiled them as if fresh off the page. It was the same for one of Beethoven’s most emotionally intense late sonatas, Op 109 in E major. Totally deaf, the composer was obsessed with Bach, from a religious and musical viewpoint, which influenced the structure and form of the sonata. The deceptively simple theme in the first movement belies a moody undercurrent which rises to the surface every so often and lets off steam in the edgy prestissimo. However, it was the rhapsodic Sarabande with its variations that danced under Tomes’ fingers. It concluded with a repetition of the theme, the final chord pedaled into heartbreaking infinity.’

Ryan Gosling’s piano playing skills

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 January 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  4 Comments

I haven’t yet seen the movie ‘LaLa Land’ (it doesn’t open in the UK until tomorrow). But I enjoyed hearing BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ item this morning on how Ryan Gosling, who plays a struggling jazz musician in the film, learned to play the piano for it. He does all the piano playing in the film, and you only need to google ‘Ryan Gosling piano playing’ to see how adorable everyone finds it.

The woman who taught him described how they worked together two hours a day, five days a week (I think) over a period of months. She admitted that he had largely been spared the drudgery of scales and arpeggios. I was intrigued that learning to read music was not mentioned. According to his teacher he is ‘a musical guy’ and was able to make excellent progress being taught by ear, or so I seemed to gather.

In the BBC studio, another piano teacher swiftly showed one of the presenters how to play one of the stirring themes from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ (familiar to many from the film ‘Billy Elliott’). He pointed out that there were just two simple hand positions required, and much of the theme could be played within one hand position. She grasped the principle straight away, and obviously being musical herself, was able to copy the teacher beautifully.

‘Perhaps that is how all piano teaching should be’, I mused. How many people have told me over the years that they gave up because they hated the daily drudgery of scales and arpeggios!

But there’s a reason why piano technique has to be acquired slowly and securely, and why aspiring classical pianists need to learn to read music – it’s because of the repertoire. Piano music is some of the most glorious music we have, but much of it is very complex. Only an exceptionally gifted person could hope to learn it by ear. Moreover, nobody without a very solid technique could hope to play the best of Bach, Beethoven and Schubert.  In other words there’s a relationship between the length of time taken to master a) notation and b) the instrument, and the richness of the music that slowly moves within your grasp.

Jazz is a different matter because there is a long tradition of learning to play by ear, and most jazz is improvised. There are great jazz pianists with techniques equal to anything in any genre. But with a simple technique you can still join in and play something. Nobody has prescribed what notes you must play. It’s very different to classical music.

After listening to the Today programme, I enjoyed a brief vision of teaching my students entirely by ear. But just a moment’s consideration showed me that such a method wouldn’t, alas, enable them to tackle the great piano pieces they long to play.

Christoph Marks, principal cello of the Gaudier Ensemble

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 January 2017 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  4 Comments

Sad news on New Year’s Day. The very fine German cellist Christoph Marks has died unexpectedly of heart failure. Christoph (on the right of the photo) was the principal cello of the NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hannover, but we in Britain knew him best as principal cello of the Gaudier Ensemble with whom he played for 28 years. He plays on all the group’s highly-praised recordings on the Hyperion label including the Schubert Octet, a wonderful disc of Strauss Dances, and our CD of Mozart piano concertos. For many years Christoph was also a faithful participant in the International Musicians’ Seminars in Prussia Cove, Cornwall.

The Gaudier Ensemble has an annual festival in the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas. A couple of years after the festival began, I joined in as the pianist, and so I played with Christoph for almost 25 years. It was always heartwarming to see the mutual love affair between Christoph and this picturesque old English village. He found his yearly trip to the Dorset countryside a delightful foil to his life in Germany, and our audiences treasured him. I used to enjoy the sight of him walking down Abbey Street in his stately way, being welcomed back by residents who hadn’t seen him since the previous year. Christoph was tall, slim and handsome with a big smile and a naturally bald head. In every way, he shone under the platform lights. It was a measure of his affection for Cerne that he chose to celebrate his 50th birthday by putting on a concert of solo Bach cello suites in the village church, raising money for charity. He stayed with the same lovely people every summer for 27 years, becoming ‘part of the family’ as they fondly said.

In any chamber group, the members find themselves playing particular ‘roles’. Christoph was our diplomat. He always spoke sincerely and considerately in rehearsal. Whenever there was anything tricky to be discussed, we used to push him forward as the spokesman because we knew he would stay calm and phrase things tactfully (indeed, beautifully: his command of English was as elegant as everything else about him). His long experience of orchestral life in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and in the NDR Orchestra had trained him in the art of defusing tension with finesse. He, conversely, savoured our ‘English’ way of doing things, divertingly different from what he was used to. He found our working methods fast and slightly chaotic but also fruitful. He was very proud of the standard of playing in the Gaudier’s concerts and recordings.

Christoph was very popular, both inside the group and with its fans. Over the years, he had become a sort of figurehead of the ensemble. He will be greatly missed.

Christmas Oratorio

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 December 2016 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

Last night I went with friends to a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Originally the six cantatas which comprise the ‘Christmas Oratorio’ were designed to be performed one at a time, in one or other of the two Leipzig churches with which Bach was associated, on the major feast days of the Christmas season (in Bach’s time: 25, 26, 27 December; 1, 2 and 6 of January). Each feast day would have brought half an hour of music taking listeners through the Biblical story of Christmas and the devotional thoughts that it inspires.

Alas, I have never had the chance to hear the six cantatas spread out across the festive season and performed in context. Today the Christmas Oratorio is more often done as a ‘secular’ concert performance. Last night all six of the cantatas were performed in a concert lasting three hours. Even for a ‘professional listener’ like me, it is frankly a challenge to concentrate for that length of time, especially when sitting on hard wooden pews on a winter’s evening. In retrospect I found that most of my favourite music had occurred in the first cantata, though perhaps that simply reflected my diminishing levels of energy.

At the interval there was some discussion about the wisdom of performing all six cantatas in a ‘block’. We all agreed it would be preferable to hear them singly, on different days over Christmas and New Year, but we also agreed that in today’s speeded-up world there is very little chance of getting an audience to turn up six times, and even less of getting the performers to gather up on six different occasions. To gather and rehearse the expert solo singers, chorus, orchestra with unusual instruments (‘natural’ trumpets, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia etc) is a huge undertaking. Logistically and economically one can see why it makes sense to use this grand assembly on a single evening. It is, of course, always wonderful to hear Bach’s incredible musical tapestries performed ‘live’ and to witness his endless spirit of invention, so we were glad to have the chance.

I’m sure that many people in the audience were, like me, still thinking about the dreadful attack on the Christmas Market in Berlin the day before. Our screens were full of the images and there were news updates on people’s phones during the evening. I could see people looking at them. It was the strangest feeling to superimpose those images on the lovely concert scene before us and to ponder sadly on the changes that have come about since Bach wrote his joyful music for the Christmas season of 1734.