What does the future for concerts look like …?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 April 2020 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  6 Comments

A music-loving friend and I were discussing the prospect of concerts resuming after lockdown. It might be months away, but most musicians are eagerly, indeed desperately looking forward to this point.

‘Trouble is’, said my friend, ‘I might not feel all that confident about going back into a concert hall after this.’ I asked why. ‘Well, I don’t fancy mingling with loads of people in the corridors, the bar, the loos and so on’, she said. ‘Also, I really don’t fancy squeezing my way along the row, past lots of people’s knees, to find my seat in the hall.’ That was a point I hadn’t thought about.

‘Another thing that worries me’, she said, ‘is coughing. You know how people always cough at concerts?’ (Editor’s note: Don’t I just!) ‘Well, they’re not suddenly going to stop coughing at concerts just because of this’, she went on. ‘Every time someone coughs near us in a concert hall, we’re all going to freak out’. I could see it was true.

‘What if everyone was wearing face masks?’ I said. ‘Who’s everyone?’ my friend replied. ‘Do you mean just the audience, or the performers too? What about singers, using all that powerful breath control to expel droplets over the front rows of the stalls? They can’t wear masks. What about wind players? They can’t either. Anyway’, she said, ‘I’m not sure if I’ve got the heart to go to a concert where the musicians are wearing face masks. It would be too weird.’

We thought about the idea of physical distancing within a concert hall. Perhaps people would feel better if they weren’t sitting cheek by jowl. Could the seating plan be re-configured? If seats are fixed to the floor, that’s difficult. Only certain seats could be sold – seats dotted here and there throughout the hall. If the seats can be removed, chairs could be set out at appropriate distances on the floor.

In both cases, however, there would be immediate knock-on effects – on box office income, on the price of tickets, on the money available to pay performers. How could concerts remain viable? How could the profession of musician …?

Most musicians, and I hope most music-lovers, agree that the future of music has to be ‘live’. But how to achieve it, post-lockdown? I think musicians and concert planners should start putting their heads together about this.

Exploring the Shelves, 8: Mozart’s piano sonatas

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 April 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  3 Comments

Over the past week or two, as a lockdown project, I’ve been playing through all Mozart’s piano sonatas. There are eighteen of them, mostly in three movements.

Mozart is my favourite composer. His piano writing is always of a high standard. After all, he was a famous keyboard player, and completely understood how to write for the instrument. Yet after playing through all the sonatas I couldn’t help feeling that, as a collection of pieces, they are not quite as glorious as his piano concertos.

As it happens, I’m also studying the B flat piano concerto K595 for a performance in … well, let’s leave that aside for now.  No concert dates are certain at the moment.

Whenever I spend time with the B flat concerto (or any of Mozart’s mature concertos) I’m astonished by the calibre of his thinking. Time and again when he ‘proposes’ something in a musical phrase and one feels one might know an answer that could be given, or a way of continuing that would be logical, his solution is better than anything one might imagine.  A surprisingly long phrase; a change of harmony that throws a new light on things. A corner turned before you were expecting it; a wonderfully simple tune popping up at a moment when the arc of the composition would seem to demand complexity.

For me, feeling awestruck by Mozart’s powers of inspiration is associated more with the concertos than the sonatas. Why would that be? He wrote in both styles throughout his career. Both tend to have the usual trilogy of movements: fast-slow-fast, or grand-lyrical-jolly. Perhaps it is that Mozart’s imagination was always triggered by contrasts in sonority – between groups of instruments in the orchestra, for example; between the sound of violin and piano, or between different types of voices in an opera.

Indeed, the piano concertos often seem like instrumental versions of opera scenes. Mozart makes beautiful play with the contrast between a lone pianist and the orchestral ‘chorus’. The nimble, silvery, quick-speaking action of the piano is contrasted with the orchestra’s heavier, richer, more velvety tones. And the psychological drama inherent in a concerto – the individual pitting their wit against the crowd – springs to life in his musical interplay.

Such dramatic contrasts are not available when writing for the piano alone. There are plenty of contrasts of texture in his sonatas, and some fabulous individual movements (especially slow movements). But when compared with the concertos there’s just a hint of flatness in the sonatas, as though the absence of an orchestra and a public stage had deprived the composer of something important.

Yet this feeling does not extend to all Mozart’s works for piano alone. Some of his stand-alone pieces – the Rondo in A minor K511, the Adagio in B minor K540 – are amongst his most sublime. So why is it that the three-movement sonatas have, at least to my ears, the tiniest flavour of duty about them?

Exploring the shelves, 7: mysterious last movements

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 April 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  1 Comment

It’s amazing how often the last movements of multi-movement works are a disappointment. Time and again, my chamber groups would bemoan the fact that the finale of whatever we were rehearsing wasn’t as inspired as the rest of the piece.

I once observed that composers could have solved the problem by just not writing last movements (a thought which still entertains me).

Finales traditionally follow certain formulas, the most popular being the jolly dance which comforts the listener after the complications of the preceding movements.

Another formula is the turn, sometimes the tongue-in-cheek turn, to the academic. Quite a few last movements feature baroque-style fugal passages and other solemn devices which seem designed to prove that even at this late stage, the composer had another style up his sleeve.

Now and then one comes across a type of last movement of which I’m particularly fond – the mysterious finale. The first one I can think of in Mozart’s A major piano sonata K310 (see photo). It’s marked ‘Presto’ and is fast and quiet for most of the movement. It’s written mainly in simple crotchets and quavers, but in the opening theme, the left hand is silent on the first quaver of each bar, only coming in a moment later with the note which confirms the harmony. This gives an unstable quality to the music. There’s very little rhythmic variation in the whole movement (a type of piano writing which Schubert also used – eg in the finale of his A minor sonata D845).

Coming after the grand, bravura opening movement and the operatic slow movement of K310, Mozart’s quiet final Presto is like some kind of wind getting up and blowing all the ardour away.

Beethoven does the same thing in the finale of his D minor piano sonata opus 31 no 2, ‘Tempest’. Here too, the drama of the earlier movements is made to look rather overblown by the quiet spinning-wheel motion of the finale. Beethoven’s theme is rather like Mozart’s, both featuring a falling minor third, so perhaps Mozart was the model.

A striking example of a mysterious last movement is in Chopin’s B flat minor piano sonata. Its finale is a ‘perpetuum mobile’ with a unique character – restless, obsessive, dangerously quiet. Chopin, who usually marked where he wanted the pedal to be used, didn’t mark any pedal here (except in the last bar). Therefore his finale sounds like several pages of slightly deranged muttering, or some kind of dark prophecy. It certainly puzzled lots of people, even friends who usually admired him, like Schumann and Mendelssohn. But time has allowed us to appreciate its visionary qualities. It’s a vision which, perhaps, Mozart also had.

Richard Morrison’s Times article on musicians in lockdown

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 April 2020 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings  •  1 Comment

A friend has sent me (in the post!) Richard Morrison’s excellent Times article from April 3: ‘Note to artists: it’s not a sign of weakness to be unable to work now.’  This is the link, but The Times is behind a paywall so you can only read it if you’re a subscriber.

Richard Morrison says there’s an assumption that times of crisis will produce outstanding artwork. But over the centuries, many artists felt unable to work in a time of major upheaval, be it war, plague, bereavement or exile. They found themselves incapable of creative thought. In some cases they did go on to produce great work, but only once they had had time to digest what had happened to them – which sometimes took years.

In the present coronavirus crisis, some musicians have risen instantly to the challenge, streaming concerts from their living-rooms and the like. I admire them. Many listeners, stuck indoors, are enjoying their performances. But, as Morrison says, not everyone reacts to the situation by feeling more energetic. ‘Let’s acknowledge the hiatus for what it is’, he writes. ‘Not a surprise holiday, but a massive shock to our routine that is likely to be traumatic for many. And the one thing that the history of art, music and literature teaches us about traumatic disruptions is that, although in the long term they may trigger creative work, in the short term they crush any impulse to create anything.’

This is undoubtedly true for many of us. Most musicians are collaborative, playing in chamber groups, ensembles, bands, orchestras. We are accustomed to using not only our ears but all our senses to make music. We are used to being immersed in – and animated by – soundwaves produced by musicians playing together in the same space. The sudden loss of live music-making has left us feeling depleted.

Recently I’ve found myself thinking of a gifted musician I knew, who died of leukaemia. After one of his spells in hospital he told me that when he was ill, he didn’t feel like listening to music at all. Love of music was something he felt reviving when he was getting better. It was almost as though the appetite for music went hand in hand with the degree of health.

I’m lucky not to have had much experience of hospital, but once when I was in hospital for a fortnight (India, paratyphoid) I wasn’t interested in music for most of the time. It was only when I was on the mend that I reached for the cassette player which someone had brought me and put in the one tape I had, of Heifetz playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. How lovely it was! It’s still associated in my mind with that special feeling of a returning interest in the outside world.

Exploring the shelves, 6: Debussy’s First Arabesque

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 April 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  3 Comments

Hardly an unknown piece, of course, but there are aspects of it we don’t often consider. For example, the pedalling! Debussy doesn’t mark any. What are we to make of that?

Some composers carefully mark where they want the pedal to be used. Some don’t mark pedal at all. Many rely on the pianist to use their common sense and apply pedal where the music seems to need it. (I’m talking here about the right-hand pedal, the sustaining pedal, which lifts the hammers from the strings and allows them to resonate.)

‘Where the music seems to need it’ is a guideline which varies from piano to piano, and from hall to hall.  Pedalling you’ve worked out in a small practice room may suddenly seem too much or too little in a large acoustic, or on a piano with a bigger tone. You have to remain open to change.

Musical scores are sometimes compared with recipes in a cookery book: an indication of how to arrive at the real thing, but not the real thing itself. I’ve always thought that a useful analogy, because we’ve all tried cooking from a recipe. We know that what we do and the way we do it is crucial. If we add or leave out ingredients, or change how long the dish is in the oven, the recipe will come out differently – and maybe not at all as the cookery writer hoped.

By analogy, it makes no sense for a composer to notate everything else but leave out their thoughts on pedalling. It’s as if a cookery writer were to give a cake recipe but leave out the sugar, arguing that ‘everyone knows a cake needs sugar, so we can safely leave them to put in a sensible amount.’

So when we look at a charming, tuneful piece like Debussy’s first Arabesque, how much sugar should we add? Or should we conclude that because he says nothing about the pedal, he wanted a light, dry sound?

It’s interesting to play the Arabesque with no pedal at all. Firstly, you notice that it sounds much more like a piece for clavichord or harpsichord – perhaps a useful thing to notice, as Debussy was very fond of French Baroque music.

Secondly, you notice that although most of the notes are of short duration, Debussy does occasionally indicate a chain of longer notes, for example in the left hand in bars 3 and 4 (see photo). If you’re playing without pedal, these longer bass notes have a quite different effect – a change of texture impossible to achieve if you’ve been pedalling from the start. I admit that it’s a struggle not to use the pedal in bar 5, the end of the phrase, where there is no sustained bass note, yet a crescendo and a slowing down….  it’s hard to achieve that ‘perfumed haze’ without the cushioning effect of the pedal.

In the whole Arabesque there are not many places where a chord or bass note is to be sustained for longer than a beat or two. Those places (eg the end of the middle section, just before the return of the main tempo) are to be cherished. On the last page, there are some long notes in both hands as the piece winds to a close – a change of texture you may miss if your pedalling is on automatic pilot.

Getting to know the piece ‘without make-up’ will draw your attention to the places where a note, a chord or line emerges from the featherlight accompaniment. When you next play the piece with pedal, you’ll probably find you have acquired a new sensitivity to its textures.