Guardian review of ‘Sleeping in Temples’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 January 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  2 Comments

There’s a review of my new book in today’s Guardian. Here’s an excerpt:

‘Fascinating essays from the celebrated pianist … Susan Tomes has devoted her career largely to chamber music – a niche market within the niche market of classical music, and one in which she has achieved a singularly high reputation as an executive musician.

‘…Her professional focus has been the classical duo and chamber repertory, and she has been inspired by some remarkable people, among them the Hungarian violinist and teacher Sandor Vegh, whom she first encountered at the International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall in the late 1970s, and whom she remembers with a mixture of humour and deep affection in “Old People”.

‘Her title refers to an ancient Greek practice whereby individuals would sleep in temples to incubate dreams and so help them to interpret life. For Tomes, it has been Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert who have provided the sacred texts whose “individual notes can feel like words of truth”, yet in this wide-ranging collection she considers in some depth not only matters of pianism and artistic interpretation but also the practical issues, large and small, that performing musicians grapple with every day of their working lives.’ Guardian, 10 Jan 2015

Ex Libris

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 January 2015 under Books, Musings  •  2 Comments

At New Year we played a game we hadn’t played for ages – Ex Libris. It’s a game where all the players have to write the opening or closing sentence of a book which already exists. Each player in turn selects a book from the shelves (obviously you have to have lots of books to hand – this isn’t a game to play on a hiking trip). They read out the ‘blurb’ on the cover, or explain what the book is about, who wrote it, when and where, etc. Then each person has to imagine the opening (or closing) sentence and write it down.

The person who is ‘It’ gathers up all the suggestions, retires to somewhere where the others can’t see them shuffling the papers (behind the sofa in our case) and reads out the sentences, including the book’s real opening sentence, smuggled in amongst the rest. The other players then have to guess which is the real opening sentence. Anyone who guesses correctly gets a point. Anyone whose invented sentence is chosen as the ‘real’ one also gets a point. Guessing correctly is fun, but it’s even more satisfying to make up a sentence which other people think is the real one.

It’s amazing how skilful and imaginative people can be in coming up with a plausible sentence of the right style, era, atmosphere etc. We had players of every age, from schoolchildren to senior citizens, and they were all really good. Time after time we found that the players’ spontaneous inventions were chosen as the most likely ‘real’ opening, and sometimes they seemed almost more apt than the author’s own.

Browsing the shelves for suitable books, I noticed an interesting thing. Many of the books I picked up, even books I knew were fabulous, had quite neutral opening sentences, not hinting at the richness to come, not seeking to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck. Indeed, the closing sentence was often ‘quiet’ and modest as well. Yet when we played the game, we all tried to pack our single sentence with as much promise and colour as we could. Nobody wanted to waste their turn by writing a few matter-of-fact words. Yet this is what a confident author often does in reality. They begin with a single step, not a flourish.

International Piano magazine review

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 January 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  2 Comments

There’s a nice review of my new book, Sleeping in Temples, in the Jan/Feb issue of International Piano magazine. I know from my own attempts that it isn’t always easy to track down this interesting magazine, so I thought I’d take the chance to reproduce an excerpt here:

‘Unlike other pianists, whose blogs can too often be egoistic whinges about the rigours of being worshipped on tour, Tomes writes with enough literary panache to blend into the tradition of the British essay. Her writing is somewhat akin to GK Chesterton’s ‘A Piece of Chalk’ or ‘What I Found In My Pocket’. … The book’s somewhat esoteric title refers to an ancient Greek attempt to ‘incubate dreams’, which Tomes likens to spending a lifetime with piano masterworks ….   a captivating reverie of a book.’

I have been very fortunate with the specialist music magazines’ reaction to my book, but my goal is still to see it mentioned in the mainstream press, which so often chooses to ignore news from the classical music world. An ambition for the new year!

Freedom to add, change and take away

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 December 2014 under Concerts, Musings  •  5 Comments

I’ve been listening to recordings of pieces I’m currently working on. One is a Moment Musical by Schubert, represented by many different performances, including a YouTube clip of Horowitz playing it in front of a rapt audience in, I think, Carnegie Hall.

Horowitz’s touch is wonderful, and he clearly had the audience in the palm of his hand, but I can’t help feeling puzzled by how free he felt to add and change things for greater effect. He plays staccato where Schubert marks legato, and more loudly where Schubert marks ‘quieter’. He adds tiny ornaments to the melodic line, introduces new notes into the middle of certain chords for a more ‘sentimental’ harmony, holds certain bass notes for longer than prescribed, and plays a few ‘passing note’ harmonies on the beat rather than off the beat, to make them more noticeable. All tiny changes, beautifully played, but not what Schubert wrote.

Does it matter? From the roar of approval which greets the final chord, I can only conclude that most people in the audience were thrilled. Yes, there were probably half a dozen pianists who frowned pedantically at Horowitz’s twinkly amendments, but their disapproval would easily have been drowned out by the shouts and cheers.

Times have changed, though, and partly because of the influence of the period instrument movement we have become more attentive to exactly what the composer asked – and a good thing too, in my view. For if we assume the freedom to add or take away whatever we like, how do we know where to stop? In we find that adding a little trill to a well-known melody makes people smile, why not try a schmaltzy little harmony? Might it not be more effective to change the printed dynamics? Why not slow down, if that would seem more touching?

One might argue that such interaction between composer and pianist is a good thing, expressive of relaxation and spontaneity. It might be described as the currently fashionable ‘ownership of the material’, or as updating old music for a modern audience. But I feel uncomfortable if I sense it’s done to draw attention to the performer, rather than to illuminate the music. Is an original text just to be treated as source material, to be varied as the mood takes us? Some might say yes: after all, music is a practical art. But the danger is that by making innovations, we may actually be obscuring the beauty of the music rather than enhancing it. We’re saying we know better than the composer did, and that seems to me a cheap kind of victory.

Dame Fanny’s observations

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 December 2014 under Concerts, Musings  •  7 Comments

Dame Fanny Waterman, who is standing down from the Leeds Piano Competition she co-founded in 1961, has caused quite a storm with her remarks about the decline of piano-playing in the UK. She attributes this partly to the growing popularity of electric pianos (‘a waste of time’) and partly to the late start of piano pupils in the UK, who miss the chance to emulate the achievements of children in the Far East, capable of ‘amazing’ performances when they are only four years old.

‘Asked if there has been a deterioration in the standard of British playing, Waterman replied: “Definitely.” When she was growing up, she said, there were “so many” great British pianists, including Myra Hess and Clifford Curzon. She was upset at how few Britons today even entered the Leeds competition, dwindling from 24 in 2000 to six in 2012.’

Obviously this whole topic is complex. However, there are some important points to be made in response. First of all, there are many wonderful British pianists today. I don’t want to name them for fear of leaving someone out, but I bet they are easily as good as the ones named by Dame Fanny.

Secondly, one might ask whether ‘the number of pianists who go in for competitions’ is an accurate gauge of a country’s musicianship. Speaking as someone who has to read a lot of CVs in the course of teaching, writing references and serving on competition juries, I know that practically everyone these days can boast a string of awards. Winning an international prize used to be special when competitions were few and far between, but there are so many now that the whole thing has turned into a kind of circuit round which all young professionals feel compelled to canter.

Many aspiring performers now set aside a few years to enter as many international competitions as they can cram into their diaries, reasoning that the same repertoire can be used again and again, and that sooner or later a jury is bound to take a shine to them, if not in Rome then perhaps in Helsinki or Brussels. This seems to be borne out by the sheer number of musicians who can cite umpteen first, second, third, ‘specially commissioned piece’ and ‘audience’ prizes on their CVs. These days my eyes almost glaze over when I read the list. I’d almost sit up with more interest if someone declared that they would never dream of going in for a competition and wished to be judged purely by their playing on the day.

Most would agree that it takes a certain kind of nerve and stamina to do well on the competition circuit. Those who’ve learned to jump through the hoops are not necessarily the most interesting artists. Indeed, many young musicians have told me they’re aware that ‘eccentric’ interpretations are likely to see them leaving the competition, because a highly individual approach is sure to irritate one or other member of the jury. One gets to know the type of player who can reliably turn out an uncontroversial performance of impeccable technical standard, but who makes very little appeal to the imagination. The sensitive artist, the poet, the nervous but erratically inspired performer doesn’t often thrive in the conditions of a competition. They may touch everyone with their imaginative performance of this or that, only to fall at the next hurdle when nerves get the better of them. In the history of competitions there are one or two exceptional artists who have bitten their way through the stressful rounds while remaining in touch with their visionary side, but there are far more prize winners whose visionary side has been hammered into invisibility.

So I’m not convinced that competitions really indicate where the talent is, nor am I sure that preparing for them is the best use of a talented musician’s time. Yes, prizes can catapult you into the public eye, but when you get there you need more than reliability and lack of controversy to sustain a career. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, a competition produces one winner, but ever so many losers. The experience of losing may be character-forming for some, but is profoundly discouraging for others. My feeling is that some of the best musicianship is probably to be found in the ‘discouraged’ group. So I don’t find it alarming if today’s pianists don’t see competitions as the pinnacle of their endeavours.