Playing without effort

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 October 2021 under Musings  •  1 Comment

I’m playing through the whole volume of Mozart sonatas again. The other day I came to the B flat Sonata K333. This has difficult associations for me because I learned it for one of those endless exams one always seems to be taking in teenage years – I can’t now remember if it was for A-levels, a scholarship audition, a competition, a diploma exam or whatever.

Anyway, I always found it hard. At this period of his life, Mozart seemed to enjoy writing virtuosically for the piano and the fingering of certain passages in K333 is very tricky. I remember stumbling over them as a teenager, particularly under exam conditions. As with many passages one has learned to fear, it’s all too easy to tense up when you approach them in performance. I remember feeling so frustrated with myself.

But the other day, playing the sonata at home, I sailed through those passages with perfect ease even though I hadn’t looked at them for a while and had done no work on them.

Perhaps that was the key: there was no work. I wasn’t tense, I hadn’t wrestled with them beforehand, and no teacher was leaning forward to write ‘Practise!!’ on my sheet music. I was able to sidestep the feeling of effort, get into the flow, and just enjoy the shape and direction of the whole phrase, in which individual notes play a non-starring role.

It’s not exactly that my technique is better than it was when I was a teenager –  rather, I now understand better how not to get over-involved. I’m more able to sit back, glance at the fingering and trust my hands to find their way. And they do!

A friend of mine, given to sending me inspiring messages out of the blue, recently texted me, ‘We are so lucky to know the meaning of a long phrase.’ It’s true – seeing the long phrase can free us from over-focusing on a mass of detail.

Continual assessment

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 October 2021 under Concerts, Musings, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

A friend of mine has been musing on this question:

How many other professionals are subjected to continual public assessment the way musicians are?

For a long time, musicians have put up with being publicly reviewed because good reviews can bring them quickly to the attention of ‘movers and shakers’ around the world. At least, this used to be the case when classical music was in a healthier state and there were more concert series, clubs, festivals and radio programmes functioning as potential employers.

A successful concert, praised by a respected critic, could trigger an array of invitations to perform elsewhere. Freelance musicians relied on this mysterious but lively network. The effect has faded in recent years, as the strength of the classical music scene has weakened. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that a five-star review may now be a stand-alone event, not the start of a ripple effect.

When you think about it, there can’t be many professions where your work is described, assessed and judgement passed in the pages of national newspapers. Most people, once trained, can rely on going about their business in peace unless something goes drastically wrong. Actors have to put up with reviews as well, of course, but musicians are perhaps uniquely burdened by the existence of 100 years of recordings, mostly edited to within an inch of their lives to diguise, correct and eliminate flaws.

Now that recorded music is so easily accessible and everyone has their own playlists, a lot of repertoire has become fixed in people’s minds in famous interpretations. The standard of performance on record has become the marker that live musicians must match and try to surpass, even when tired or stressed. In the past, before recordings, audiences were much more open-minded about what pleased them.

In the music world, continual assessment goes on right through one’s career (though as my friend said, there’s no compensation in the form of high fees – not in the classical field anyway). There never seems to be a point where an individual musician can rest easy, rising above the chatter.  You’re only as good as your last performance; if an artist has an off-day, commentators – professional or otherwise – will point it out. How many other jobs are subjected to such scrutiny?

‘Gramophone’ review of my book

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

The October issue of the venerable Gramophone magazine has a review of my new book.
I reproduce some of it here as the magazine is behind a paywall.

The reviewer, Jeremy Nicholas, has quibbles about my choice of pieces, wondering why I included this and not that, but he goes on to say:

‘If one ignores the lopsided selection, what we have here is a genuinely inspiring and rewarding study. It is like reading a series of extremely informative, revealing and entertaining CD booklets. Tomes writes like a dream and with such elegance, her erudition worn so lightly and her ‘insider knowledge’ dispensed so generously, that even those with a minimal interest in the subject must want to share this journey with her.

‘Perhaps her most important gift is to make the reader stop reading and go and listen to (or physically play) the music she is writing about. Whether she is introducing someone to a work, reminding someone else of an old favourite or waxing lyrical about a particular moment or passage in a piece, Tomes’ glowing affection and profound appreciation of the music are never less than stimulating. Here she is on the opening of Brahms’s D minor Concerto, having set the work in the context of Brahms’s career: ‘The piece begins with a stormy and defiant orchestral episode, almost like the first scene of an opera. When the soloist enters, it is as thought a curtain has risen to reveal the main character sitting at a window, lost in thought.’ Spot on. I shall never be able to listen to that passage again without that image in my mind. And I wager you will now stop reading this review to go and play that particular section to see if you agree.

‘There is not a single chapter that does not engage the reader in this way (Tomes even managed to mitigate my lifelong disdain for the music of John Cage) though I was dismayed to learn that Poulenc’s Babar the Elephant is now viewed by some people as ‘insensitive’ (apparently, it’s a ‘parody of French colonialism’) and ‘makes uncomfortable reading’.

‘As an introduction for the newcomer wanting to get a satisfactory overview of the development of the piano’s repertoire, there is no other book that tackles the subject in quite the same way; the novice will come away none the wiser that the music selection is so subjective. Seasoned pianophiles will learn much and relish the little asides and anecdotes with which Tomes peppers her prose. Finally, I would urge readers to study the last chapter entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World – Where is Piano Music Heading?’ from which I learned much. It has, like much of the rest of the book, helped to open my ears.’

Gramophone, Oct 2021

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.