Lyon Chamber Music Competition – jury notes

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 April 2018 under Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’m back from chairing the jury at CIMCL, the Lyon International Chamber Music Competition. It was won by the Trio Messiaen from Paris, who swept the board with almost all of the available prizes. In 2nd place was the Trio Hélios, also from Paris, and in 3rd place was the Trio Mosa, who live in the Netherlands but study in Paris.

At drinks following the gala concert in the Lyon Opera House (see photo), a few people said to me it was a curious coincidence that the top prizewinners were French. I can honestly say it was nothing to do with their nationality. They won because they were the best and would have impressed us anywhere.

Having said which, it was noticeable that many of the candidates were from France, or studying in France. But as one of my fellow jurors said, you can only win a competition if you go in for it in the first place! So I hope groups from more countries will enter this fine competition. As well as offering generous prizes, it also has prizes for career development, and to support educational projects.

I still have the notes I made while I was listening to the candidates. Most of those notes have not been useful to anyone other than me, because not many people asked for feedback. Completely understandable, because their opportunity to ask for feedback came immediately after discovering that they had been eliminated from the competition. Few people wished to speak to members of the jury at that moment. Some stepped forward bravely, but it was obvious that they were not really in the mood to hear our comments.

So if anyone wants to ask for feedback from me, let me know. I’m going to keep my handwritten notes for a week or so. On my home page, just beside my little photo in the left hand margin, there’s an opportunity to ‘click here to send an email’.

Looking forward to spring weather in France

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 April 2018 under Daily Life, Travel  •  3 Comments

Tomorrow I’m off to France to spend a week on the jury of the Lyon International Chamber Music Competition.

This year the competition is for piano trio – the classic combination of piano, violin and cello. From time to time I come across people who think -very reasonably – that ‘a piano trio’ must consist of three pianos and three pianists, so I reckon it’s worth clarifying which instruments are involved in the traditional formulation known to Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and co.

Nineteen trios from around the world have been admitted to the competition. I’m looking forward to hearing different styles of playing, as well as observing different modes of presentation from South East Asia and the USA as well as Europe. In recent years I’ve often felt that ‘the visual element’ of performance plays a bigger and bigger part in everyone’s consciousness. I’m not immune to it myself, naturally, but in fact when people start playing I often listen with eyes closed in order to focus on the purely musical result.

In the UK I am still wearing woollen jumpers every day, with scarves and gloves for outdoors. It’s only a few days, in fact, since we had our last batch of snow in Edinburgh (see photo). Luckily, as I started packing today, it occurred to me to look up the weather for Lyon. What a nice surprise! Temperatures are predicted to be in the high teens and even up to 20 degrees and beyond. Warm spring weather! Out of my suitcase came the jumpers, scarves and gloves.  And then I looked up some pictures of the Lyon opera house, the music conservatoire, and the houseboat ‘La Plateforme’ moored in the Rhône in front of the Préfecture – all locations which are part of the competition at various stages. More pleasant surprises! Add to that the reputation of Lyon as a foodie destination and … I’m really starting to look forward to it all.

Ice dancing

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 March 2018 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

On a walk today I found myself passing the ice skating rink (‘the coolest place in town!’) where my late father was a devoted member of the skating club for about fifty years. He went every Saturday evening and every Sunday afternoon. We children tried ice skating as well, but were not as taken by it as he was.

I was already thinking of myself as a pianist, and at the skating rink it wasn’t long before I started to have ghastly visions of falling on the ice and having my fingers instantly sliced off by the sharp blades of someone’s skates as they whizzed by in mid-arabesque. I became afraid of falling, and that in itself made me a poor skater.

When we looked in at the ice rink today there was a club session in progress, but business was not booming. The organisers said that skating had suffered from the fact that everyone now goes abroad for their holidays. Going to the local ice rink was once a popular holiday activity, but no longer. TV shows such as ‘Dancing on Ice’ have brought a bit of a revival, but ‘people want instant success. They get discouraged when they find it’s going to take them a while to become good at it.’ Hmm. I felt I had encountered that attitude elsewhere.

But how my Dad enjoyed the club in its heyday! He was a ballroom dancer too, with a good sense of rhythm and a steady demeanour. He knew all the tunes. At the ice rink he was a popular partner with the ladies, glamorously attired in their spangly skating outfits. When I was learning to skate, I was occasionally invited to dance. As I gingerly waltzed round the rink my Dad and his partner would keep swinging gracefully into my orbit and out again, Dad’s contented gaze fixed on some distant utopia as he silently whistled along with the electric organ.

When there were skating competitions on the telly, his laconic comments told me what I should be looking for. I still look for those things today when watching the Winter Olympics. Grace, rhythm, balance and musicality – you can’t go wrong with those. And don’t look smug – it’s annoying!

Checking proofs of my new book

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 March 2018 under Books, Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

Over the last few days I have been checking the proofs of my new book, Speaking the Piano, due out in June from Boydell Press (see photo).

Before we got to this point, there have been several other stages of editing. Various friends read the manuscript and gave their advice. My editor at Boydell sent me lots of recommendations. My copy editor did likewise, in great detail. Alongside these interventions I secretly went on tweaking the manuscript myself, often nipping back to my study while the kettle was boiling to alter a word here or there as some minuscule improvement popped into my head. Finally everyone agreed we could move on to the ‘proof’ stage. So now I find myself checking what’s supposed to be the final and perfect version of the text.

After months of tweaking, however, I find it hard to see the proofs as the fixed and stable version. It feels strange to think that the whirligig of time has now settled on these particular sentences, which will soon be printed and go forth with the grandeur of permanence. Because when I look at any page, I can’t help seeing what I wrote before, what I changed, and what I might still change. A whole archaeology of thought processes is evident to me. I can see the ghosts of phrases that could be added to make things yet more clear. As I pause to digest what I’ve read, alternatives swim in front of my inner eye, but I try not to ‘read’ them. The manuscript seems to shimmer with possibilities past and future even as I lay each page aside as ‘correct’.

Well … I guess that’s why writers carry on and write another book!

Snow and cancellations

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 March 2018 under Concerts  •  1 Comment

We’re in the grip of bitter winter weather. For several days it’s felt as if the country has  ground to a halt while ‘The Beast from the East’ roars around us. My inbox is full of mail from fellow free-lancers who, like me, have had concerts cancelled because of the snow and the dangerous travel conditions.

It makes one very aware of the fragility of the free-lance life.  Not only is the concert cancelled, but the fee disappears too. A nice concert organiser will try to find a replacement date later in the season, but often it’s not possible for a myriad practical reasons.

I found myself saying to a neighbour, ‘It’s such a shame – I had done so much work for that concert. In fact, the only bit of the work I hadn’t done was to play the concert itself.’  ‘How interesting!’ he said. ‘I thought the concert was the work.’

Well, it is work, of course, but any concert is the culmination of day-by-day practice, learning of new music, organising rehearsals with other musicians, gradually bringing a programme up to performance standard so that we look and feel as serene as possible on stage. It’s like this for all conscientious musicians, perhaps especially for pianists. Most of the work is in the preparation. The concert itself is like the fairy on the Christmas tree. It’s the thing that people admire, but it’s the last item to be added. When a concert is cancelled at short notice, it feels jarring.

Years ago, my group Domus gave a concert which called for an unusual amount of jumping through hoops: learning new music by special request, travelling back and forth to rehearse, getting ourselves to a rural location half a day’s journey away for the concert. After the concert, as we prepared to drive home in the dark, the treasurer came backstage to give us a cheque (to be divided between five of us). As he handed it over he said with a thin smile, ‘Not bad for two hours’ work’.

From time to time I still think of it and hope that most people realise that a concert is not just “two hours’ work”, but two hours at the apex of a big pyramid.