Reading Thurber while recovering from Covid

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 July 2022 under Books  •  2 Comments

After managing to avoid Covid for two and a half years, I have now come down with it. It hasn’t been fun – suffice it to say I’m very glad I didn’t get the virus until I was fully vaccinated.

While staying out of everyone’s way, I have had the chance to read. My favourite discovery this week was a little paperback I picked up in a charity shop – The Years with Ross by James Thurber. I’m a big fan of Thurber’s, but I only knew his humorous writings and cartoons. I had never come across the book he wrote in tribute to Harold Ross, founding editor of the New Yorker, who ran the magazine from 1925 until his death in 1951.

Ross was famous for his unorthodox approach to hiring and firing, praising and criticising, amusing and infuriating the stable of brilliant writers who gathered around him. Ross himself was not an intellectual and never pretended to be, but he had an instinct for the kind of writer who would produce the sophisticated, entertaining content he was after. Somehow he assembled a crack team of writers including Thurber, EB White, Dorothy Parker, SJ Perelman, HL Mencken, Bob Benchley and more. Ross couldn’t write like them, but he was not afraid of them. They sent in their copy and he fired back sheaves of queries about things he thought would not be clear to the general reader. This drove the writers nuts, especially when Ross’s queries ruined the delicate mechanisms of their jokes, but they respected his determination not to let the reader feel he had been bamboozled.

In his introduction, Thurber describes his tribute as ‘an ordeal of love’. He somehow managed to collect hundreds, probably thousands of conversations and anecdotes about Harold Ross’s roller-coaster relationships with his writers and cartoonists. Considering that writing biography was not Thurber’s main calling, it must have been a huge effort. But how wonderful to have this glimpse into the heyday of a great magazine! The fun they had, the wit that crackled in the New Yorker office, the pride in producing a magazine which struck a new tone – debonair, clever, funny, well-informed and worldly. The pleasure his writers got from swapping anecdotes about Ross over drinks at the Algonquin Hotel. The sense of New York as the centre of the world, its love affairs, feuds and shenanigans endlessly absorbing. Thurber’s biography evokes a special time in New York’s literary history.

Limelight review of ‘The Piano’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 July 2022 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

Limelight, Australia’s leading arts magazine, has reviewed my book The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces. The book came out a year ago, so I was surprised to learn about a new review.

You can only read the whole review online if you’re a subscriber, but here’s an excerpt:

‘From Bach, it’s on to Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart before the likes of Beethoven, and  given Tomes’s personal prominence as a chamber player, many such works are discussed in lively and engaging detail – compositions both familiar and less so. The author, while dealing with more mainstream composers, refreshingly includes works by lesser-known women composers from the early 19th century to our time including the likes of Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach, Sofia Gubaidulina and Judith Weir.

‘Given her fascination with the art of improvisation she also takes on jazz and examples of concert hall works which have been influenced by it such as Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music and Gershwin’s popular Rhapsody in Blue.

‘Unique insights abound, not only for the professional pianist but with plenty to guide and delight the general reader in the penultimate section in the book, “The Jazz Influence”. This reaches from ragtime and the syncopated music of Scott Joplin and Billy Mayerl through the likes of Art Tatum, Monk and Bill Evans. Even more of a delight is the discussion “Women Jazz Pianists in a Man’s World” where she discusses the greatness of Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Lou Wiliams and Marian McPartland. Then it’s onto Minimalism and, more currently, works by the likes of Weir and Adès.

‘All in all, The Piano is a highly personal and thoroughly engaging guide to the musical history of the instrument. It’s a work which provides many insights and delights for all who are interested, be they practising musicians, listeners or enquiring students. It is a book which can be read as a personal history, or one to be dipped into at will.’

Reviewed for Limelight by Brett Allen-Bayes, 25 July 2022

An old Scottish lullaby

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 July 2022 under Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

There’s news today of an important new women’s health strategy in England. ‘Ministers have vowed to tackle decades of “systemic” and “entrenched” gender health inequality in England with plans to introduce compulsory women’s health training for doctors, more cancer checks and “one-stop shop” hubs across the NHS’, reports The Guardian. I turned on the radio. Women were talking about how they didn’t feel properly listened to by their doctors when they went to discuss ‘female problems’. They said they felt they were expected just to ‘put up with things’.

It brought back a sudden memory of learning an old Scots lullaby at school – one of the folksongs collected and published by Robert Burns. It’s the lament of a woman who has too many children and doesn’t know what to give them:

‘Heeo, weeo, what wou’d I do wi’ you?
Black’s the life that I lead wi’ you;
Mony o’ ye, little for to gie you.
Heeo, weeo, what wou’d I do wi’ you?’

There are several verses, here if you want to read them. One of the verses speaks of building a cradle ‘on the treetop’ and watching the cradle rock in the wind.

I remember singing this song with my school class and being dimly aware that it was about the distress of a mother who didn’t want so many children, but the subject matter was never discussed with us – it was just an opportunity for ‘class singing’ and enjoying a lovely old Scots tune. There were quite a few songs of that ilk, actually.

Yet when I think back on it, it could have been a useful educational opportunity – or ‘teachable moment’ as they say – for us girls (it was a girls’ school). That and so many other songs, poems and passages of literature, alluding to age-old female problems, which could have been starting-points for discussion or raising awareness. As it was, I remember vaguely thinking ‘this is surprisingly sad for a lullaby’. Later I discovered that many lullabies from all over the world are sad, even if sung to soothing melodies.

Mozart’s A major piano concerto K488 in chamber format

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 July 2022 under Musings  •  3 Comments

Last week I was in Cerne Abbas, Dorset, for the Gaudier Ensemble’s annual festival of chamber music in the village church. I think I have played in 27 of the festivals. Of course, the pandemic blew a two-year hole in proceedings and this was my first visit since 2019.

One of the works I was performing this year was Mozart’s glorious piano concerto in A major K488, a work which seems to be on everyone’s Desert Island Discs list. I lost count of the number of people who told me, ‘I love this piece’.

Not many Mozart concertos can be performed with chamber forces – many require trumpets and timpani, and lots of the concertos call for flute, two oboes, two bassoons and two horns (or permutations of the above). Mozart himself suggested that three of the concertos, K413-15, could be done with string quartet if no orchestra was available, but many of the later concertos have elaborate wind parts which cannot be left out. For example, the A major concerto involves the pianist in intricate dialogue with the wind players, featuring clarinets which Mozart didn’t often use in his piano concertos. Thus it was an obvious choice for the Gaudier Ensemble whose founder Richard Hosford is such a fine clarinettist.

We played the piece with single strings, and needed an only slightly augmented wind section – K488 calls for flute, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns (but no brass or drums). Ordinarily, the wind section is at the back of a symphony orchestra, and in a piano concerto the piano is at the very front, which often means that the wind can’t hear (or even see) the pianist properly and vice versa. This is disappointing if one has imagined a crisp interplay. Therefore it was a treat to perform the piece as we did last Friday with the wind players standing right behind me on stage (see photo of rehearsal). Never have I heard the wind parts so clearly or been so energised by the exchange between us.

A visit to Peter Brook in 1982

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 July 2022 under Books, Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  Leave a comment

Hearing of the death of renowned theatre director Peter Brook, I went back to my book Beyond the Notes in which I described going to Paris in 1982 to ask his advice about how to keep our chamber music group Domus alive and in good heart despite the many difficulties we were grappling with. His advice was tremendously helpful and sent us back to our task with renewed energy.

Looking back through what I’d written then, I was struck by his observations on the difference between the world of music, where typically a concert only happens once, and the world of theatre, where plays generally have ‘runs’ of days, weeks or months.

‘We speak about the stages of development of a performance’, I wrote. ‘Brook constantly uses the analogy of cooking, and says that so many performances are arrested at the stage of preparation, ‘the chopping of the food’. Even if they pass from preparation to development, very few people know how to get the impetus which turns development into fruition. … Brook says that he has always envied music its attitude to each performance as a fresh and unique event, and says that actors could learn from that. But he thinks that musicians could learn from the momentum that develops in a performance given many times, as happens in the theatre.

‘In his experience, he said, when a show goes into performance it has a natural curve; it improves for a while and then starts to go stale. But the improvement part of the curve is much longer than one would imagine; in the case of Carmen [which he was then directing in Paris with three different casts taking turns] each cast has done the show 50 times, making 150 performances, and he says that each cast is still improving and consolidating. We are envious. We never get the chance to perform anything more than a couple of times. … Brook thinks this is a terrible waste of the energy put into rehearsal, and says that from the point of view of performance the work can only ever stay at the ‘preparation’ stage; that it’s a pity to deny the work the chance of gathering speed and finding its own proportions in a long run of performances. He says that he has never heard a classical concert which struck him as having made its peace with its own potential.’ (Beyond the Notes, Boydell Press 2004)

It is still the case that musicians generally only get the chance to perform a programme once. It’s rare to have the chance to repeat a concert, and I have never experienced a long run of performances in the same place. Sometimes indeed one may perform a programme again somewhere else, but perhaps not for a long time, and then it may be with different people, requiring a new rehearsal process. Even on a concert tour, you may be switching programmes, and as each concert is in a different venue, with a different piano, there are many variables which make each concert feel unique.

I am often struck by the mismatch between all the work that goes into preparing for a single concert, and the concert itself which flashes by in a couple of hours, possibly never to be repeated. Brook was right, I think, to say that many classical concerts do not make their peace with their own potential. Why have music and theatre developed so differently?