A five-hour opportunity to ponder audience concentration

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 August 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  4 Comments

Last night I went to a stupendous concert performance of Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ at the Edinburgh International Festival. (Thank you, Amber Wagner, Simon O’Neill, Christine Guerke, Bryn Terfel, Karen Cargill, Matthew Rose, conductor Sir Andrew Davis and the RSNO!) The two intervals were kept to a minimum, but the performance still lasted five hours and even though there were no costumes or scenery, the audience was rapt throughout.

We instrumentalists are bombarded by advice to offer shorter concerts, lighter and more mixed programmes, to ‘make contact with the audience’ by chatting to them, taking care not to ‘be intimidating’, etc etc. We’re told that today’s audience doesn’t have the patience for full-length programmes and prefers an hour-long concert to which they can bring a beer. We’re reminded that radio stations like Classic FM thrive by playing movements of things instead of whole pieces.

So I was fascinated by the sight of a packed Usher Hall focusing without strain on five hours of Wagner. Indeed, the roar of applause which greeted the end of each Act was an almost shocking contrast to the hour and a half of quietness that preceded it. It all seemed to make a mockery of the idea that today’s listeners have short concentration spans and need to be catered for accordingly.

Reflecting on it afterwards, I realised that of course in opera there is one element which purely instrumental music doesn’t have: a story. Of course, musicians would say that every piece of abstract music has its own narrative, one which they aim to put across to the audience, but the ‘story’ is not of the overtly dramatic kind that powers ‘Die Walküre’. Take away the singers but leave Wagner’s orchestral music exactly as it is and I expect listeners would be slipping out long before the end. It’s the long arc of the Nibelung myth that enables listeners to follow Wagner’s long-drawn-out exposition patiently.

What can instrumentalists learn from this? We can’t superimpose a storyline on pieces designed as pure music, but we can think about how to map more clearly the ‘journey’ that all good pieces of music invite the imagination to make.

Publicity shots

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 July 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

The Edinburgh Festival and ‘Fringe’ begin this week and the city is plastered with publicity posters. The trend towards anti-glamour continues. Even if a performer wants to look glamorous, they are portrayed in a jarring context. Someone in a beautiful suit lounges in the doorway of a graffiti-covered industrial warehouse. Actors look away from the camera, their faces obscured by deep shadow. Comedians grimace and gurn. ‘Bad hair days’ are the norm. Performers are shown in contexts that have nothing whatever to do with their artistic role. A string quartet walks on the beach. A singer mooches down a disused railway track. Wind players ‘fight’ one another with their clarinets. A cellist ‘sails out to sea’ on his cello.

After passing a whole wall of such posters, I said to my companion, ‘The days of brushing my hair nicely for a publicity photo are over.’

Images have been changing for a while, but classical musicians are still unsure what to do for the best. At least, I don’t know anyone who is sure. We used to be told to dress up, do our hair and make-up nicely and arrange ourselves in an attractive group (girls in front), each person holding their instrument so that viewers would know what played what. Good lighting was imperative, and we rejected any shots where our hair was messed up by the wind. In solo publicity shots I was always required to be playing the piano, or at least leaning against it.

When I started to see images of, say, a chamber group astride motorbikes in the rain, or skulking in sinister wastelands, I wondered what message was being given and whether it was the right one. Since the days when I was part of Domus, travelling with our portable concert hall, we have argued about whether it’s right to pretend that our kind of music is fun, quirky or light-hearted when in fact it’s fundamentally serious and we have worked seriously at it for ages. Yes, we want to attract all sorts of people to come to the concerts, but we don’t want to pretend that this music isn’t what it is.

Most of us are still struggling with this issue. We want to move with the times, but we don’t want to be dishonest. My own publicity has changed to simple head-and-shoulders shots, and I don’t dress up. I don’t mind about hair blowing in the wind, but I haven’t yet felt comfortable about being shown gazing sadly out of a train window, or jumping off a skip in my pyjamas.

The €23 violin

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 July 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  6 Comments

A friend told me a tale of a violinist friend of his who came across a mass-produced violin for sale on eBay for €23. It was even cheaper than it sounds because the price included the violin, a bow, and a case.

He bought the violin, which arrived with a set of terrible strings, so he put on a new set of strings, but that was his only intervention. Then he set about asking people to compare the sound of him playing his own (fine old valuable) violin with the sound of him playing the €23 instrument (in both instances with his own good violin bow). As you might already suspect, not everyone could tell the difference. In a small room, people were pretty sure which was the fine old violin. But in a larger room or a more resonant hall, people often guessed wrongly. He found this distressing.

As a pianist, the result didn’t surprise me, because like (almost) all pianists I have to play different pianos in different venues. I can’t afford to become dependent on the sound of a particular piano, or to think that I cannot ‘sound like me’ on a different instrument. For me, it’s not so much the sound but the way of playing which identifies a pianist. It’s timing, phrasing, the balance between right and left hand. It’s the layering of voices, the approach to tempo, the use of the pedal. All these things can be transferred to whatever piano you’re playing.

I can’t pretend that pure sound quality doesn’t play a part, because some pianos just do sound better than others, but most pianists eventually achieve a Zen-like non-attachment to the sonority of particular pianos. If I think of pianists I know, and whether I could identify them if they played the piano behind a screen, it’s not really ‘their sound’ I’d recognise but rather a composite of elements amounting to what they do musically.

Actually, the same is true of string players, at least in my view. I feel I recognise them from their way of playing on whatever instrument they play. But they generally say that they only feel truly themselves on the instrument which they play every day and in every concert. They are HMHV (Half Man Half Violin).

I have mixed feelings when witnessing this bond. Perhaps I’m just envious, because there’s nothing quite like that for a pianist. But on the whole I feel afraid for them, because basing your musical happiness on the possession of a particular instrument is obviously a fragile thing. I feel they should all perform occasionally on a €23 violin.

Evgeny Kissin’s memoirs reviewed by me in the TLS

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 July 2017 under Books  •  Leave a comment

This week I tweeted a link to my TLS review of pianist Evgeny Kissin’s book, ‘Memoirs and Reflections’. Some readers told me that the Times paywall had barred them from reading the whole review, so for anyone didn’t have a chance to buy the TLS, here is the review:

‘A neuroscientist once told me that few tasks are neurologically more complex than playing virtuoso piano music. Most pianists would agree that it is fearsomely difficult; occasionally, however, someone comes along for whom it all seems easy. Such is Evgeny Kissin, whose mastery of Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov has had audiences queuing round the block since, as a radiant twelve-year-old, he played both Chopin piano concertos in a sensational Moscow concert. In 1997 he was the first pianist honoured with his own Proms solo recital at the Royal Albert Hall. It drew the largest audience yet seen at the Proms, and included an hour of encores. Fellow pianists often attend his concerts to marvel at the accuracy and security of his technique.

It would be of the deepest interest to learn how it feels to be such a pianist, but perhaps it is hardly surprising to find that his gift remains mysterious even to him. Memoirs and Reflections (“compiled and edited by Marina Arshinova”) is a tantalizing collection of snippets which feel like sparks thrown out from the fire rather than an account of the fire itself. As Kissin says in the preface, “the book is not only and indeed, not so much about me as about many other people!” About these other people he is always courteous and appreciative, but his portraits of family members, school teachers and colleagues such as the conductors Herbert von Karajan and Evgeny Svetlanov are slight, and many of his anecdotes would benefit from more historical context. He enthuses about Tikhon Khrennikov’s charm, for example, (“unfailingly the atmosphere [in his home] was one of warmth, cordiality, goodness and love”), without mentioning that Stalin’s appointee as Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers was feared by many.

Kissin was born in Moscow in 1971 and started learning the piano at the age of two. It has been noted that while his playing is exceptionally articulate, Kissin is a reluctant speaker. He was a quiet, intense child, often ill with pneumonia in the winters. He enjoyed the company of older people but was not drawn to play with other children, and confesses that he often practised the piano as an escape from socializing. In some ways, he has been carefully protected – even as an adult he was accompanied on many of his concert tours by his mother and the only piano teacher he has ever had, Anna Pavlovna Kantor – yet he has had to live in the full glare of international adulation. He recounts that when Kantor first laid eyes on him, she “immediately fell in love with me for all her life”. She later moved in with the Kissins, emigrating with them in 1991 to New York and later to London and Paris.

“Never in my life have I striven for fame, and in my youth I even found it a painful burden”, Kissin writes. Touring internationally in his twenties, he sought to escape “a sense of routine”. He quotes with gentle amusement from some of the sillier fanmail he receives. The book opens with an extraordinary quotation from a Russian psychotherapist who glimpsed the young Kissin riding a bicycle and realized that “rushing towards me was some fantastic Being, living beyond the bounds of any words, definition or categories, ages and so on. This was a Being of amazing beauty . . . ”. With quiet detachment, Kissin seems to accept that it is simply his fate to arouse such feelings.

Longstanding fans will probably feel that they have read much of this material elsewhere. It does not help that some of the anecdotes seem stilted in translation, or that the book seems hastily put together: there are some inexcusable typos (a photo of the American pianist Van Cliburn is captioned “Vain Kliburn”; the conductor Zubin Mehta is “Metha”) and some non-explanatory footnotes (“The key of the dominant is opposite to the key of the tonic”). There is a select discography, but no index.

Kissin is now forty-five, a committed Israeli citizen, and recently married, though he does not share his wife’s name with us. (It is Karina Arzumanova; the pair have known each other since childhood.)  He appears to have reached a stage in his life where he needs to contemplate his talent from a greater distance. If being a world-famous pianist was something that happened to him rather than something he chose, it becomes clear that what he does now choose is to celebrate his Jewish heritage. He reads extensively in Yiddish literature and offers recitations of Yiddish poetry alongside performances of piano works by little-known Jewish composers. Having himself composed a little in childhood, he has started once again – he mentions some chamber works and a cycle of piano pieces including the delightfully named “Dodecaphonic Tango”– and is eager to see where this path will lead. These activities clearly bring him a new and valuable sense of mission and agency.’

Times Literary Supplement, 7 July 2017


Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 June 2017 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

For various reasons I’ve been to quite a few amateur performances recently. All were enjoyable, but I noticed something that was common to them all. It puzzled me, but I am not sure if I have simply forgotten what it is like to be a beginner or a non-professional.

What struck me was that as the music became animated in character, the musicians did not become animated along with it. As the tension built up, or the volume increased, they moved their hands and arms faster on their bows, keyboards or whatever, but their physical demeanour didn’t change and their facial expressions certainly didn’t. (Before anyone tells me that this is because they were playing po-faced classical music: they weren’t.) To me the impassivity looked strange, as if there was a barrier between the players and the music, even though they were the ones delivering the music.

Now, I am not suggesting that anyone should ‘act’ when they play music – far from it –  but I would love them to allow themselves to be animated by the spirit of the music as it builds up a head of steam. I long to see something rippling through the orchestra or choir like wind through a field of corn.

‘Animato’ is one of my favourite musical expressions. It suggests being open to the music, letting it into your interior life, allowing its energy to enter your playing.  Actually, doing so is a very good way of dissolving the painful self-consciousness that can inhibit you when you play in public. If you focus on the ‘story’ of the music, you forget about yourself.

It’s quite possible that if I could see a film of myself performing as a young student I might find my own demeanour inexpressive. I always thought I was registering the changing mood of the music, but did it show? I don’t know. At any rate, I now find that I watch people’s body language and search their faces as they play for signs that they are following the inner life of the music. It’s so satisfying when they are!