Herald review of Friday’s Cottier Chamber concert

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 June 2015 under Concerts, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

Today’s Herald carries a review, by senior critic Michael Tumelty, of Friday’s Cottier Chamber Project opening night. As the review is only accessible online to subscribers, I’ll post it here.

Susan Tomes/Daniel’s Beard, Cottier’s Theatre, Glasgow

‘THERE was a marvellous sense on Friday night of the Cottier Chamber Project setting out its stall and throwing open its doors, with a roll call of its wares on display for opening night: musical market traders to Glasgow’s west end for the next three weeks, with the launch night offering three very different options, back to back with breaks in between, and running at 6.30, 8.30 and from 10.30 to beyond midnight with off-the-wall musical buccaneers, Mr McFall’s Chamber, taking the music towards the wee sma’ hours and into tango territory.

Honours for opening the night, and the festival, fell to the woodwinds of host ensemble Daniel’s Beard which, with a warmth that is the closest we’ve come to the real article on many of these allegedly “summer” days, bathed Cottier’s in the lyrical glow of Samuel Barber’s beautiful Summer Music, from which point the winds were joined for the rest of the concert by one of the UK’s most distinguished chamber pianists, Susan Tomes, now returned to her native Scotland, and making the first of numerous appearances in different strands of the festival.

Instantly, Tomes stamped (gently) her characteristic refinement, polish and understatement onto her music – she forces nothing, puts nothing under pressure – with her pristine pianism effortlessly teasing out the elliptical contours, rhythms and character from Judith Weir’s wonderful Airs from Another Planet, four traditional Scottish tunes, magically transported to an imagined Martian environment. And then Tomes at her most supremely elegant, with four of the wind players, rounded off with a lovely, stylish performance of Mozart’s great Quintet for Piano and Winds.’  The Herald, 7.6.15

Peter Cropper

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 June 2015 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

Sad news about the death of Peter Cropper, inspirational first violinist of the Lindsay Quartet.

I didn’t know Peter so well myself, but always felt connected to the Lindsays because the original viola player of my group Domus, Robin Ireland, moved to become the viola player of the Lindsays. We were always hearing tales of the quartet’s activities. With my chamber companions I often played in the Lindsays’ festival in the Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. It was always a pleasure to see the degree of loyalty which Peter and the quartet had built up in their Sheffield audience, some of whom followed the quartet about on its travels. I remember talking to some folk who didn’t have much money, but had acquired a tent and researched ways of camping as near as possible to where The Lindsays were going to be performing. I began to recognise the fanatical shine in the eyes of the true Lindsay Quartet believer.

It was easy to see why Peter inspired such devotion. He was passionate about quartets and chamber playing in general, and spoke eloquently about the music to the audience before playing it. His own playing was an extraordinary mixture of fire, imagination and strength, with a kind of Beethovenian roughness as part of the mix. I sometimes thought he looked a bit like a German woodcarving of the kind that Beethoven might have had on his mantelpiece.

I remember once when Peter, playing a Beethoven quartet, became so engrossed that he moved further and further to the front of his chair, eventually slipping right off the front and sinking on one knee to the ground without ceasing to play. He righted himself with a smile. Needless to say such all-out commitment to the music made a deep impression on us all.

As one of the London fraternity I always thought it was brave, perhaps foolhardy of Peter to nail his colours to the mast of South Yorkshire and refuse to move to the capital. But when I saw how revered the quartet was in its chosen home territory, I began to understand. Later still I came to think it was exactly the kind of de-centralisation which is increasingly important. London has such an over-supply of good musicians and I think Peter was ahead of his time in seeing that for the health of music-making in the country, there had to be centres of excellence elsewhere. Furthermore, Sheffield was minutes away from glorious countryside, and this was part of its charm for the quartet and its fans.

Peter was a brilliant advocate for chamber music, able to fire up people by his speaking and teaching as well as his playing. Perhaps equally importantly, he was an entrepreneur, tireless in promoting The Lindsays, and later on, energetic in creating opportunities for young players in the North East and teaching them how to promote themselves. Many of us could learn from his example.

Should we promote our own concerts?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 May 2015 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  6 Comments

There’s been quite a lot written lately about the need for musicians to ‘be their own promoters’ and organise their own concerts. In the face of declining opportunities for classical music, many musicians have embraced the idea of putting on their own concerts and starting their own festivals.

My own professional work has always been a blend of invitations and own promotions, dating back to the days of Domus when my chamber partners and I played in our own portable concert hall (the story is told in my first book ‘Beyond the Notes’). I’ve always been involved in starting things from scratch and making things happen.

However, I never had any training for these entrepreneurial tasks, and I never felt  suited to doing them. I learned on the job but found it arduous and ridiculously time-consuming – and I still do. And I’ve long recognised that there are many musicians who, for whatever reason, either can’t or won’t promote their own concerts. None of us was trained in the administrative, legal and financial knowledge needed to put on public events and charge money to attend them. As soon as you broach these matters you can get into deep water; you need expertise to negotiate them safely. What happens, for example, if a member of the audience trips and breaks their ankle at your concert, or has their handbag stolen from under their seat as you play? What if someone has a fit, and you haven’t provided any First Aiders? What if a hired piano falls through the budget staging you couldn’t afford to improve? What if your fellow musicians won’t play without being offered a fee you have no idea you’ll be able to pay?

Although I see why people think we should put on their own concerts, I also think it’s unfair that we find ourselves in this position. Nobody would expect, say, Roger Federer to have to raise money to pay Rafael Nadal to come over and play him in a tennis match. Nobody would expect him to have to print posters and leaflets for the event, and then drive around town distributing them, tying them to railings, and writing constant updates on social media. He wouldn’t have to find wages for everyone involved in making the match happen and then spend weeks trying to get the press interested. Nobody would expect him to pay his own money upfront to hire a venue and then wait months to see whether the ticket income will repay the costs.

I have some young musician friends who recently went out on a limb to promote an enterprising classical series with educational outreach and commissions of new music (all of which is exactly what we musicians are always being told we should do). They did fundraising, hired a concert hall and paid a PR agency to do the marketing. But the unusual programming and the new works turned out not to attract the audiences they needed. The sponsorship money, such as it was, didn’t cover the costs.

After it was all over, they found they had made a substantial loss. When the bills were paid, they had to pay the shortfall out of their own pockets (surprise, surprise: the only people prepared to be flexible about getting paid were themselves). Not only had they worked for a year to promote these events, and not only did they make no profit, but it actually cost them money to put on their own concerts.

Their experience is not unique.  Hiring a ‘quality venue’ and publicising an own promotion can cost thousands of pounds upfront. You may get it back; you may not. You may even make a profit, or what appears on paper to be a profit, but it won’t begin to repay you for the time you’ve spent on the administration, fundraising, publicity and so on. No musician can afford to do that more than occasionally, if they can afford to do it at all. And all of this is incidental to the actual work of practising and rehearsing the music itself.

So when I hear all this talk about how we must bite the bullet and organise our own concerts, I feel very conscious of how few of us will succeed in doing so. We don’t become musicians because we’re good at spreadsheets and technical specifications. We become musicians because nature has given us the gifts to master musical instruments, and because we want to share our music with other people. It’s all very well saying that we must learn to become promoters, but some of the best of us are just not equipped with that entirely different range of skills.

Competitions and boringness

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 May 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  2 Comments

Letter from a reader who mentions that he rarely goes to concerts these days because many performers are there as a result of winning competitions, and he finds that competition winners are usually, like Monty Python’s celebrated accountant, ‘too boring to be of interest’. He asks whether I feel comfortable with being on the jury of competitions which produce such players.

This is a big question, to which the answer is a) yes and b) no. Most people would probably agree that because of marking schemes and jury politics, competitions tend to produce ‘safe’, uncontroversial winners, but anyone who’s been on a jury will know that jury members are desperate to identify interesting players, and to use their power to promote people ‘with something to say’. At least this is true of the juries I’ve been on. We are all familiar with the polished disengaged playing which does the rounds of the competition circuit, but we’re always hoping that the next person or group will step out and make us forget that we’re in an artificial competitive setting at all.

I suppose it is true that juries are often divided by such players. I was on a chamber music jury which fell out quite fiercely about a particular group.  Some of us felt they had a deep grasp of the music and a memorable artistic personality despite technical shortcomings. Other jury members felt that the technical shortcomings were a line that no amount of artistic vision could cross. The group didn’t win a prize, but as time went on I found they had stuck in my memory more than some of the polished performers did, and I’d now say they’re one of the few groups I’d make an effort to go and hear again in concert.

Sometimes, in celebrated cases, unsuccessful competitors actually make a career out of not having won a prize, especially if a famous musician makes a fuss on their behalf. But there’s no reliable strategy for making such a thing happen, and no guarantee that unusual playing will find champions on the jury. So the question remains: if you are not a ‘typical competition winner’ type, should you go in for competitions? This is where I feel torn. Perhaps it’s worth it just to put yourself in front of those listeners who love your style and will follow your progress, and sometimes you strike lucky with a jury who loves you too.

On the other hand, sensitive musicians can be crushed by the brutal process of a competition. What should they do? If they steer clear of competitions entirely, it may (and it probably will) take them much longer to come to the attention of the music-loving public. I tell them, ‘Just build up your own audience.’ But I know that they need to earn money while they slowly build up an audience, and I wonder if they’ll be able to hang on long enough to do so. If it wasn’t a contradiction in terms, I’d favour the idea of a competition for non-competitive players…

Gathering round a new score

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 May 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  9 Comments

I’ve been rehearsing Judith Weir’s ‘Airs from Another Planet’, a superb sextet for piano and wind instruments (in this case, the wind players of the chamber group Daniel’s Beard). It’s for the opening concert of the Cottier Chamber Project in Glasgow on 5 June.

Judith’s piece has the delightful (and typically witty) subtitle, ‘Traditional music from outer space’. We have had fun trying to determine which traditional music is the inspiration for her other-worldly deconstructions. What an imagination!

Someone asked me how long it had taken me to learn the piano part. I truthfully said it had taken many weeks. The piano part is rhythmically very intricate, and its complex flickering harmonies are unguessable. As soon as I started practising it, I realised it was going to take a long time. Even after a good session, the music would slip back the next day to a condition of unfamiliarity. My ear wouldn’t confirm whether or not I’d played exactly those chords before. Slowly I cemented my acquaintance with the score until it felt natural. Don’t get me wrong: I regard this as time well spent for such an intriguing piece.

Nevertheless I couldn’t help sighing wistfully when I heard Bob reminiscing about when Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’ became all the rage in London, after the film hit UK cinemas. Bob and his fellow students rushed out to buy the score. Night after night they gathered round a piano in their student residence, gleefully playing and singing the work over and over again for sheer pleasure. This was only possible, of course, because they could sight-read the score.

West Side Story is a ‘musical’, not an abstract classical piece, but it was also a new work by a serious composer. We couldn’t recall any occasion when our musician friends had rushed out to buy the score of a contemporary classical piece, let alone fought to be the one who got to play the piano at the next merry read-through.

This must be a lot to do with the fact that contemporary notation is often fiendishly complicated. As there is currently no musical ‘lingua franca’, it seems as if every  composer has his or her own language, which performers have to learn from scratch. Although the music may be striking from the outset, it’s not generally sight-readable; even when the language has been deciphered, it often takes ages to settle in the memory. Nobody minds putting in the work if the result is compelling, but it isn’t always.

So it’s hard to imagine a new work detonating joyfully on a bunch of musicians as ‘West Side Story’ did on Bob and his friends. And this must be at least partly because most contemporary works are not sight-readable. It’s a sad situation really. Why is the music of our own time so challenging, even for professional musicians?