BBC Young Musician

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 April 2014 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  2 Comments

Here it is again, the heart-warming parade of talented young musicians competing to be BBC Young Musician of the Year. With every passing year it seems more remarkable that there is such a wellspring of young talent directed at classical music. It’s tremendously motivating to see it in action.

And here again are all those remarks from listeners – judges, presenters, the general public – about the ones who ‘look as though they’re really enjoying themselves’. The ability to look as if you’re enjoying yourself is also highly prized by people tweeting about the competition. In many people’s minds it seems that the more enjoyment you can show, the ‘better’ you are.

Why does that annoy me? I suppose because I know that preparing for such a competition is actually a very serious matter. It requires hard work and dedication over a long period. The pieces themselves are emotionally complex, and often extremely difficult from a technical point of view. It’s a matter of wonder to me that so many teenagers have attained such a high technical level, a level that seems in fact to rise from year to year. But I know that in their long hours of solitary practice, how they look is a very minor ingredient if it’s an ingredient at all. If you were able to spy on them during their practice hours, I doubt whether you’d see much smiling or gyrating.

So when I see them on the platform, I’d expect them to look absorbed, focused, and involved. I’d expect to see concentration, determination, and perhaps nerves or insecurity. I’d hope to see (and I often do see) grace and stylishness of manner. I’d expect to see body language – even awkward, ungainly body language – which expresses their commitment to music, or their love of the pieces they’re performing. But ‘looking as if they’re enjoying themselves’ is, for me, neither here nor there. They might be feeling all sorts of emotions on the platform, and witnessing those emotions can contribute to my feeling that they’re authentic and interesting. If they are actually enjoying the performing experience, then great! That’s fun to see. But I don’t want them to be encouraged to ‘act enjoyment’ for its own sake, and I don’t want them to think that failure to smile and bounce around makes them any less compelling as musicians.

Plain vs mysterious music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 April 2014 under Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  3 Comments

I’ve just been in Italy, where as usual I tried to discover if there were any churches where one could hear some live sacred music on a Sunday, and once again was told that there is no longer any real tradition of church music performance in Italy, except for the simple ‘responses’ sung by the congregation.

Once in Venice, I went to St Mark’s and asked one of the clergy whether there would be any live music that Sunday morning. He replied, ‘No music. Only singing.’ I’ve always thought this would make a great topic for a university exam question.

While in Italy this time, I had the chance to attend the inauguration of a bishop, which I did partly in the hope that such an important occasion would be accompanied by glorious sacred music. Sadly, it was not. Everything else was splendid, from the ceremonial robes of the welcoming committee, the beautifully polished and decked cathedral, the glossy ‘order of service’ booklets with their lovely art reproductions, and the pleasing appearance of a large and excited congregation in their Sunday best.

However, there was no music at all – sacred or secular – throughout the first hour of the proceedings, which took place outside in the piazza, and once inside the cathedral there was nothing more than hymn singing  – admittedly in several parts when sung by the official choir. But of the wonderful heritage of Italian sacred music there was no sound. By contrast this made me appreciate all the more the English church tradition kept alive in many cathedral churches, ordinary churches, the college choirs of Oxford and Cambridge, and so on. What a remarkable thing, to have five hundred years of sacred music still in daily use and performed with consummate skill by singers and musicians who do it mostly for love.

An Italian friend explained that the church wishes everyone to be able to participate in the singing; therefore the melodies must be simple enough for all to learn. Nobody is to be intimidated or shut out by music beyond their reach. I understand the principle, but can’t help feeling that much is lost through such an approach. Surely it’s a mistake to think that complexity is beyond people’s instinctive understanding. Some of my most striking experiences in churches have come through encountering some stirring or mysterious choral music resonating down the ages. Often it’s music of great intricacy, in a style which has long ago ceased to be ‘daily bread’. But its remoteness has done nothing to dispel its power – quite the reverse. I’m no church-goer, but it seems to me that this music actually makes manifest what the liturgy is talking about.

I’m baffled too as to why music is singled out for simplification. As I listened to the very basic ‘call and response’ chants in the Italian service, I looked around me at gorgeous and sophisticated painting, fresco and sculpture from the Middle Ages onwards. The building itself was lofty and majestic, designed to draw the eye upwards. The colourful brocade robes of the principal participants were antique and elaborate. The structure of the service, and some of its expression, was formal and theatrical. Only the music seemed to be purposely simple, even elementary, and I felt deprived of the complexity which I saw around me in other art-forms.

‘The Real Charlotte’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 April 2014 under Books, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

I’ve just finished reading a wonderful Irish novel written at the close of the 19th century. ‘The Real Charlotte‘ was written by Somerville and Ross, a pair of female cousins who co-authored a number of books including one of my all-time favourites, ‘The Memoirs of an Irish RM’ (‘RM’ meaning Resident Magistrate). The title sounds dry, but the tales are brilliantly funny.

Though I’ve read ‘The Irish RM’ several times over the years, I had never even heard of ‘The Real Charlotte’ until I read Hermione Lee’s biography of another favourite writer, Penelope Fitzgerald. In that biography I read that Penelope Fitzgerald had once numbered ‘The Real Charlotte’ amongst her Desert Island Books. I looked it up and discovered that it had recently been re-issued by Capuchin Classics, so I lost no time in acquiring it.

And what a treat it turned out to be. I can hardly believe that such a fine book has fallen out of the public eye. I tend to assume that anything of real quality will endure, but I suppose I should know by now that this isn’t always so. It’s a little scary to think of the vagaries of fashion and politics which sweep some works of art into the margins, or out of the picture altogether. Anyway, ‘The Real Charlotte’ has been a great discovery. The authors’ understanding of character and motive is remarkable, and their description of life in Ireland at the end of the 19th century is memorably vivid. Even better, the intricate plot closes slowly upon its characters like a giant pair of pincers.  The best compliment I can pay the book is to say that I had lots of other things I should have been doing instead of reading a novel, but ‘The Real Charlotte’ drove them out of my mind, and kept me happily stuck in a chair for hours by the window.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 March 2014 under Concerts, Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings  •  Leave a comment

A young musician friend has been telling me about a fully-funded chamber music group based in Denmark. Each member of the group, which is supported by the Danish Government to expand the reach of chamber music across the country, is paid a full salary and has accommodation provided. They also have a full-time manager who takes care of the practical side of things, from organising local concerts in schools and community centres to arranging for the musicians to travel to cultural centres and perform concerts, both in Denmark and abroad. Yet travelling abroad is only a secondary purpose, for their main task is to establish a presence in the community, bringing live classical music to all sorts of people.

And of course a chamber group is ideal for such a purpose, being smaller, cheaper and more nimble than an orchestra of sixty or eighty people. In Denmark there is also funding for professional development, such as attending masterclasses or making records, and the funding even stretches to counselling and therapy for inter-personal problems that develop within the group.

My mouth was open as I listened to this description, which might as well have been of Shangri-La. A full salary for each person in a chamber group! A dedicated manager and a counsellor on tap! Such a thing is unknown in the UK. From time to time, stories filter out from Scandinavian countries of musicians on government grants equivalent to full-time salaries – I’d heard of similar things happening to string quartets in Norway – but I always wondered if they could be true.

Years ago at a festival in Finland, I met a pianist who had allegedly just received three years’ funding from the Finnish Government to shut himself away and prepare all Beethoven’s piano sonatas for a cycle of performances three years hence – for which he was going to be paid additionally. It was so far from my own experience that I made a point of laughing and saying it probably wasn’t as fun as it sounded. But the story came back to me when I heard about the salaried Danish group. My life and the lives of my chamber music partners would have been utterly different with such possibilities. Well, all I can say is : good for the Scandinavian countries and their enlightened governments! What an admirable example of cultural vision!

Louise Farrenc’s piano music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 March 2014 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  5 Comments

I’ve been learning the piano part of the first piano quintet by Louise Farrenc, a 19th-century French woman composer who enjoyed a fine reputation in her day as a concert pianist and teacher as well as a composer. Unfortunately, at a time when the French music-loving public was fixated upon operas, Madame Farrenc never wrote an opera. She loved instrumental music, and as Saint-Saens complained at one point, anyone who wrote instrumental music in Paris was fated to have to put on the concert themselves, inviting their friends and the press, for the general public wasn’t interested.

Louise Farrenc made her name as a pianist, and when she turned to teaching and was appointed to a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire, she had great success with her students, many of whom won prizes and became professional musicians. Despite her success and the esteem in which she was held, you may not be suprised to learn that for over a decade Louise Farrenc was paid less than her male contemporaries were.

Learning the piano part of her first quintet reminds me of similar experiences with learning the piano parts of works by  Hummel, Berwald, Spohr and early Mendelssohn. It’s a style of writing where the pianist is constantly rushing up and down the keyboard in fluent arpeggios, brilliant scales in thirds, arpeggios in contrary motion and the like. The fingering needs to be worked out in detail in order for the figuration to be secure at the fast tempi the composer indicates.

To my ear this kind of 19th century piano writing, often in sharp contrast to the long melodic lines in the other parts, is like the kind of shading or cross-hatching that an artist would use to give contour to a line drawing. Most of it is, in fact, just virtuosic decoration of the harmony. It’s harmonically simple, but mechanically tricky. As such, the piano writing falls into the category of ‘more difficult than it sounds’, a category which every pianist will recognise with a sigh.