A walk down Piano Street

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 September 2021 under Books  •  Leave a comment

I did an interview this week about my new book for Piano Street, a Swedish-based website which celebrates all things to do with the piano, pianists and news from the piano world. They asked some interesting questions.

The interview is up on their site now and can be read by clicking here.

‘Es ist genug’: Bach’s chorale opens a BBCSO concert

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 September 2021 under Concerts, Daily Life, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

One of the most depressing sights of lockdown in Edinburgh – for me, anyway – was the sight of the Usher Hall being turned into a Covid test centre. I know that test centres are important. But it seemed a sad change of fortune for the first big concert hall I got to know. In some sense, it’s imprinted on my memory as ‘the’ concert hall to which others are to be compared.

As a child I went to Friday night orchestra concerts there with my Mum, and later with my friends. In teenage years I had a job there selling programmes (in return for hearing the concerts free of charge). In my final school years, I was sometimes asked to turn pages for visiting pianists during the Festival, a very intriguing experience. As a young violinist I played there as a member of the National Youth Orchestra. In student years I reviewed Usher Hall concerts for various newspapers. And as a professional pianist I have performed there myself from time to time in the Edinburgh Festival.  So the Usher Hall holds layers of memories for me.

It was wonderful to be back in the audience yesterday for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s first concert in the Usher Hall since before the pandemic. Certain things looked different, of course – the orchestra was reduced in size, and the players were all sitting separately, one to a stand. Social distancing meant the hall could only be half full, and we were all wearing masks. But there was a quiet air of jubilation amongst the listeners.

The concert opened with the brass, sitting high up in the organ gallery, playing Bach’s chorale ‘Es ist genug’. This is the unusual chorale melody that opens with a four-note phrase spanning a tritone – B flat, C, D and E natural, underpinned by poignant harmonies. If I remember rightly it’s a phrase that Alban Berg uses in his 1935 Violin Concerto and a chorale that he quotes to devastating effect in the last movement.

No sooner had the brass played Bach’s opening phrase yesterday than I felt tears springing to my eyes. Something about the shining brass sound, combined with the majestic rising phrase, felt like an assertion that music had survived. But it wasn’t just the thought that was inspiring. It was the quality of the sound itself. I can’t explain it, but this is the magic of music.

Interview and podcast for ‘The Music Show’ on ABC Radio in Australia

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 September 2021 under Concerts  •  Leave a comment

This week I did an interview about my book ‘The Piano’ with Andrew Ford, the knowledgeable host of ABC’s long-running ‘Music Show‘ in Australia.

He has woven in archive clips of other pianists talking or playing favourite music, so it has become an pleasing mosaic of views on the piano’s wonderful repertoire. The whole thing lasts about an hour.

The interview will be broadcast in Australia on Sunday 19 September at 11.05 Sydney time – they’re ten hours ahead of the UK, so that means 01.05 GMT for any night owls wishing to listen in. The programme stays online afterwards, of course.

There’s also a podcast, available internationally and ready now: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/musicshow/the-piano-susan-tomes/13546988

(Photo: me warming up for the Lammermuir Festival last weekend.)


Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 September 2021 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

Last week I was thinking of writing a blog post about knitting. What is the connection between knitting and pianism, you may ask? Well, I had been reading about the 19th-century pianist Clara Schumann, who continued to tour and earn money for the family after her composer husband Robert had died.

At that time it was still the fashion to have mixed programmes, where an artist might play several times during a concert, their appearances separated by contributions from other artists. In her later years, while waiting for her next turn on stage, Clara Schumann was said to sit amongst the audience, knitting. How I would have liked to see that!

It’s interesting to me that she didn’t knit quietly backstage. She came out into the hall and sat amongst the audience. Clearly she liked to be in the thick of it, and didn’t mind being seen with her knitting. I daresay it was well known that she had many children to look after. One can imagine the scene: ‘Mum! You promised you’d finish that jumper for me, and now you’re going away on another stupid tour!’ Clara: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll come home with your jumper all finished.’

Nor indeed did Madame Schumann sit quietly backstage with the score of the piece she was going to play, studying it one more time before going on stage (as many pianists do). She preferred to do something unconnected to music. Personally, I would not knit during a concert, because knitting makes my hands feel stiff, but no doubt that is just my poor technique. I do however like to go out front and sit in the audience listening to other people play, and all the better if I have a crossword or something like that to look at. People may think I’m not listening, but I am – the fact is that, for me, multi-tasking promotes a relaxed sort of alertness.

Knitting has been in the news because of champion diver Tom Daley, who, while waiting his turn for another Olympic dive, sat amongst the spectators with his knitting and crochet. The sight inspired many young people to take up these craft skills.

As I was pondering this curious link between Clara Schumann and Tom Daley, I happened to turn on For Peat’s Sake, a TV programme about the ancient skill of peat-cutting on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides.

Peat is dug out of the earth, cut into big square slabs, dried out and carried home to use as fuel for the fire. We saw archive photographs of islanders cutting peat in Victorian times. Women with wicker baskets strapped to their backs carried peat slabs piled crazily high. Leaning forward to counterbalance their heavy loads, the women of the island made their way home over the peat bogs. And to my astonishment many of them were knitting as they walked. Considering the terrain, that was quite a skill. Didn’t they need to look at where they were putting their feet? Or were they watching their step while knitting without looking at their hands?

Either way it was a stellar example of multi-tasking. Yet these women seemed unimpressed by their own skill. Their resigned expressions seemed to say, ‘Well, if I have to lug this lot over the fields, I may as well get another sock done’.

So knitting has been a theme of my week.

There is something intriguing about knitting while doing something else. An aunt of mine could knit and watch TV, her needles flashing as she focused on the screen. It was interesting to see because, as a pianist, I was familiar with letting my hands follow an intricate pattern ‘on their own’. And I recognised the sense of active restfulness that can result from it.

A review of my book on Pianodao website

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 September 2021 under Books, Reviews  •  1 Comment

A review of my book has popped up on Pianodao, a website devoted to the piano, pianists and piano education. You can read the whole review by clicking here.

For now, some excerpts:

‘Before the last rays of summer settle into the colours of autumn, let me tell you about this wonderful book, my summer holiday read, but equally suitable for the cozy evenings ahead, or for that matter as a Christmas gift.

‘Indeed, whether you find yourself wanting inspiration for fresh beginnings, a reboot in your piano journey, or simply a brilliant read, Susan Tomes’ The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces is poised to perfectly hit the spot and deliver the tonic you are looking for. … As with all Tomes’ writing, the book can be enjoyed as an extended paean to the piano, and her respectful rapture is equally captured by the gorgeous cover and presentation afforded by publisher Yale University Press, London.

‘Were this book merely a glorified list, it would have value and much interest as such. But of course the selection of pieces is merely the skeleton on which the body of this book is brought to life.

…’The chapters dealing with each selected piece are generally three to four pages in length, giving them ample space for enjoyable storytelling alongside the broader historical narrative, and for humorous diversion alongside technical analysis.

‘As such, the book could equally be digested as a single excellent account of its subject, or dipped into for its 100 pithy and highly readable short chapters, which offer a reference work or even object lesson in how to write the most brilliantly engaging programme note.

‘Personally I have done both, enjoying the book as bedtime reading over a few weeks, as well as dipping back to remind myself of the delicious insights and contextual accounts with which Tomes has populated this fine book. And I cannot recommend highly enough that you do the same.

‘The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces is quite simply an essential purchase for any piano enthusiast, offering as it does a veritable feast of salient information and insight into the instrument and music which we love so much.’

reviewed by Pianodao in September 2021