Classical Top Five podcast episode on trios

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 May 2021 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

This week I was the guest on a podcast called The Classical Top Five.

During lockdown, a group of critics and broadcasters have been making their way through various ‘top five’ categories ranging from the serious to the light-hearted, and this week they turned their attention to trios.

There are many different kinds of trios – string trios, wind trios, trios for piano and various instruments – but as my expertise is in the glorious repertoire for violin, cello and piano, I confined myself to those. It was difficult to stick to just five – even a quick scribbling down of my favourites came to about 25 in the first instance!

Tommy Pearson, Richard Bratby and Charlotte Gardner are the resident experts on The Classical Top Five – they have already amassed quite an archive of ‘top five’ discussions available on podcast.

To listen to this week’s episode about trios, click here.

My new book: The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 April 2021 under Books  •  5 Comments

I haven’t said much about my new book during the past year. In the midst of such upheaval it seemed unwise to count on things going as planned. But happily it’s not long now until The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces is published by Yale University Press on July 13th. The date has shone brightly in my imagination during the dark year of lockdown. Almost all my concerts had been cancelled – but I had this book to look forward to!

My previous books have been concerned with performance. I hadn’t focused specifically on repertoire – for a long time I felt that there were lots of people who had done that, were doing that and could do it better than I could. After all, I’m not a historian or a musicologist. But gradually I began to see that I had other qualifications. My experience of playing, rehearsing, performing and recording these pieces has given me a wealth of knowledge about them – not academic knowledge, but what one might call ‘embodied knowledge’, accumulated during years of grappling with piano parts and sharing them with concert audiences.

My original plan was to pick a favourite area of piano repertoire and explore it in great detail. But I worried that such a book would be of limited appeal. I wanted to write something of wider interest. How to do that without spreading myself so thinly that my remarks about any particular piece seemed glib and inadequate? Then someone gave me a present of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, which has delighted many readers. As I browsed through it I wondered if the same approach could be taken to piano music.

Putting the idea into practice was tricky. What criteria should I use to pick the pieces – my own favourites, or tried and trusted masterpieces? Where should I begin? Should I stick to ‘important’ pieces, or was it OK to include little gems, oddities, provocations? My first attempt, based on my favourites, produced a frankly lopsided list with about 30 pieces by Mozart, 20 by Schubert, 20 by Schumann, 20 by Debussy and Ravel, and so on. This wouldn’t do. I had to take a step back and be more objective.

I spent a lot of time shoving around pieces of paper with the names of pieces on them, making mosaics on the floor before I found a pattern which seemed to tell a meaningful story. I decided to start at the point where the harpsichord was supplanted by the piano. That moment in history felt important because as the piano developed, its greater tonal variety inspired a different type of music. To keep my choices to 100, I found that I sometimes had to cheat a bit and include ‘sets’, such as Chopin Preludes or Debussy Preludes, rather than artificially pick out just one. I didn’t feel too badly about this – after all, a symphony can easily last for an hour, but everyone would agree it is just ‘one piece’. So why not allow a 40-minute set of preludes to count as one choice?

Although I tried to be objective, my 100 pieces inevitably reflect my character and interests. Solo pieces occupy the lion’s share, but my love of chamber music led me to include many collaborative pieces which I believe are the best of their composers’ work. My love for jazz made me include some of that too.  I’m sure that being a woman has influenced my approach. Above all, the fact that I’m a pianist has stamped itself upon my choices. I know how a lot of this stuff feels under the hands, how it finds a home in the imagination. I have experience of what it’s like to try to give it shape and bring it to life in front of listeners, and it was a great pleasure to describe it.

Piano tuning on the horizon

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 April 2021 under Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

My poor old piano has not been tuned for almost a year because of the lockdown.

As the tuning became less delightful, I have practised ‘mind over matter’  – a kind of ‘fingers in ears, la la la! I don’t hear anything wrong’ approach. In fact, my piano has held up remarkably well, but the sourness in certain notes is starting to gnaw at my concentration. ‘Non-essential businesses’ are due to open here on April 26, so perhaps it’s simply that I’m allowing myself to notice the tuning more, now that there is a chance of remedy on the horizon.

I’ve always thought it’s silly that pianists are not able to tune their own instruments, and have to pay professional tuners to do it for them. Of course, piano tuning is an art and a skill learned through extensive training. Tuning a piano properly can take several hours. All the same, it seems crazy that pianists don’t have basic tuning in their skillset.

Most musicians can tune their instruments themselves. On many instruments you can also alter the tuning by adjusting where you put your fingers on the strings, by changing the tension of your lips on a wind instrument, and so on. But a pianist is stuck with whatever state the piano is in.

A year of lockdown has focused my mind on our helplessness in this regard. This lockdown has already gone on much longer than any of us imagined. What if there are more lockdowns? If I were responsible for the piano curriculum at a music college, I would probably start to think about adding some basic tuning skills, so that pianists could do first aid on their pianos while waiting for the experts to be allowed in.

The street is just the street … as time goes by

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 April 2021 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

A year ago, when lockdown happened and all my work was cancelled, I spent a lot of time walking around the streets of my neighbourhood – partly for exercise, partly to pass the time, and partly because we were not supposed to be taking the bus so there was no other way to get to the few shops that were open.

A year later, I was invited to do a streamed concert, to be rehearsed in a venue not far from where I live. What a treat! I prepared on my own for the rehearsals, and on the appointed day I walked to the hall.

I had been walking up the road almost daily for the whole of the past year, but suddenly it felt different. My perception of the scene and my place in it had subtly altered. Now I was going somewhere because I had been summoned to do something I loved, something I was good at. People were waiting for me, specifically me. I would be amongst kindred spirits. We were going to try to create something beautiful. I had a purpose beyond going for groceries!

Somehow this sense of purpose altered my perception. It’s hard to put into words, but it was something to do with the balance of elements in the scene. During lockdown, the empty street was the major player in the drama. Its emptiness and quietness were powerful. I was just a beetle moving along the street. On the day I went out cheerfully to rehearse, I was a major player in the scene (or so it felt to me). The street looked down on me indulgently as I passed.

This is the kind of thing which can quickly become pretentious, so I’ll stop there. But I did reflect on it afterwards. The change I felt was no doubt the effect of adrenaline – a regular part of my professional life before the pandemic.

And indeed, when those few days of music-making were over, the adrenaline disappeared. The street was once more in the foreground.
‘You must remember this/ A kiss is just a kiss/ A sigh is just a sigh/ The fundamental things apply/ As time goes by.’

Felix Wurman’s 1982 video about Domus

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 March 2021 under Books, Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  2 Comments

This week I came across the video made by cellist Felix Wurman about  Domus at the beginning of the group’s career.

We were trying to publicise our concerts in our portable concert hall, a large geodesic dome which the players assembled out of aluminium tubes, putting it up and taking it down in each place (more on this tale in Beyond the Notes).

In those days it wasn’t standard practice for classical music groups to make videos. Felix was from Chicago and – along with his natural drive – he brought an enterprising American spirit to everything he did. We would probably never have thought of making a film, but Felix decided we needed one, and he set about making it.

I wasn’t much in favour of making the video, because it took up a lot of time, and let’s face it, I wasn’t media-savvy enough to see the point of it. We had been advised by one of our mentors that we were in danger of frittering away our energies in peripheral activities, all too easy to do when we had so many non-musical things to attend to. We were to remember our core mission: to become a world-class chamber group, known for our playing rather than primarily for our portable concert hall. I took the advice to heart and was in the mood to rehearse. Making the video felt like a distraction that summer.

But now, as well as being 23 minutes of deep nostalgia for those involved, it feels like a historical document.  Felix is sadly no longer with us, but his family has put the Domus video on YouTube.