Edward Greenfield: a word of appreciation

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 July 2015 under Books, Musings, Reviews  •  1 Comment

Sad news that Edward Greenfield has died. He was senior music critic of The Guardian for many years, and a longstanding contributor to Gramophone magazine. Although ‘Ted’ was a professional critic, it always seemed to me that he was determined to accentuate the positive, which marked him out from many of his peers.

I had particular reason to be grateful to Ted Greenfield when my first book, Beyond the Notes, was published. The book had had a long and painful journey towards publication. In fact it took ten years. A few well-wishers had encouraged me to publish the manuscript, but none of us knew what a difficult climate it was for ‘niche subjects’, a phrase I grew to hate. The manuscript did the rounds of several publishers, often being kept for months before it was returned. At one point a leading publisher kept it for over a year before returning it to me with the explanation that they were dropping classical music books entirely from their list as sales were just too low.

I was told that my manuscript wasn’t long enough for a book,  that classical music wasn’t interesting to enough people, that I wasn’t known as a writer, so nobody would buy it. I was told to add to it, but also recommended to prune it severely and publish it as a single article in a music magazine. One eminent literary agent told me it was more suited to private publication as a ‘family memoir’. It was only when one publisher commissioned a couple of reports, and those reports turned out to be glowing, that things started moving. Finally I was put in touch with the enterprising Boydell Press, who took a leap of faith and published it in 2004.

After so many setbacks, I felt painfully sensitive to the book’s reception, so when Ted Greenfield reviewed it for The Guardian I couldn’t have been more delighted and relieved. I inhaled his words. In fact, a decade later, I can still quote long passages from memory. Ted Greenfield and I didn’t know one another, so he had no reason to think that I needed a boost at that particular time, but he was the first major reviewer to give me a generous vote of confidence, and I shall never forget the good it did me.

Scottish Journal of Performance: book review

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 June 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

‘Sleeping in Temples is the fourth book by the pianist and author Susan Tomes. The book is drawn from the author’s memories, experiences and thoughts about the music she has been intensely and sincerely committed to as a pianist performing at the highest international standard for many years. Tomes describes the book as being about the music she loves: throughout, this is underpinned by the way she describes the rewards and challenges of being a classical pianist performing ‘longform’ music in an age that perpetuates the instantaneous and immediate.

The book is refreshing in its willingness to cut across fashionable ideologies (the visual aspect of classical performance is given a dressing-down on more than one occasion), as is Tomes’s willingness to articulate her thoughts about music through her lived experience, as opposed to academic discourse.

There is a clarity and directness to this book that opens it to music lovers and makes it useful for performers. The writing is full of vivid anecdotes and Tomes proves herself to be a master storyteller throughout. Tomes introduces the book by saying that ‘being a classical musician is something that mystifies people… including the musicians themselves… I often find it helps me if I attempt to explain it to myself ’. In these explanations I found there to be rich musings about the ontology of music, the chapter titled ‘Play the contents, not the container’ gives an outstanding demonstration of how performance can inform scholarship.

…Performers will also be rewarded by Tomes’s lucid writing about her experiences with Sándor Végh. Tomes describes how ‘Végh believed that music could be made to “speak”, not by imitating actual human words, but by looking deeply into the composer’s markings (such as staccato, legato, dots under a slur, rests) to understand what light and shade they could convey, as well as what texture they could bring to the surface’ (pp.150–151). To me there is a strong sense of authority in Tomes’s ideas about performing music, not least because of her stature as a pianist, but because of the sincerity with which she relays her early experiences.

…To Tomes, the ‘great works’ of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al. are like ‘temples’. Only by way of summary at the end of the book does Tomes tell us that the ancient Greeks used to sleep in temples to help them conjure dreams that might offer a perspective on woken reality. Tomes’s thesis is that long-form classical music is an art that speaks to us about change and transformation. As a practice-led researcher myself who often feels that making any claims about what music is or isn’t is taboo, I found the underpinning theme of the book to be about having confidence in our own feelings about music, and seeking to uncover our feelings without distorting what is already there. Tomes believes that the classical music which we enjoy the most has a narrative because we can hear musical material to which things happen, we can sense narrative because we know what change feels like. She tells us that ‘we instinctively understand what is turmoil and what is calm, or what is certainty and what is doubt’ (p.50). There is a  striking resemblance here to Charles Rosen’s Music and Sentiment where he asserts that ‘grasping the emotional or dramatic meaning [of music] is either immediate or requires only becoming familiar with it’.

Tomes’s dedication to her art is a message to us all. I personally was reminded that before anything else, our duty as a performer is to go about our music making with uncompromising care and honesty.’

Bede Williams in the Scottish Journal of Performance, Vol 2, issue 2, June 2015

Australian radio interview coming up

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 June 2015 under Books, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I recently did an interview with Andrew Ford of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘The Music Show’. We talked mainly about my book ‘Sleeping in Temples’, but strayed onto other topics such as why it is that, in the last movement of Beethoven’s E major piano sonata opus 109, it’s so touching when the theme comes back at the end of the variations.

The interview will be broadcast on Sunday 21st June at 11am Australian time – I’ve given up trying to understand what time you’d need to listen to it ‘live’ if you’re in the UK, but you can listen to the interview here on the show’s website. You can also download the interview.

Herald review of Aurea Quartet and me

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 June 2015 under Concerts, Reviews  •  1 Comment

1970680_929137783791594_5088409592815780663_n[1]On Friday I played Mozart’s K414 concerto with the Aurea Quartet in the Cottier Festival in Glasgow. Today’s Herald carries a delightful review by senior critic Michael Tumelty; as the Herald Online is sometimes tricky for non-subscribers to access, here is the review.


‘THERE are some moments in concert performance where everything, magically, just clicks. It’s the time, it’s the place, it’s the space, it’s the people playing, it’s the music to hand; it’s the crowd, it’s the atmosphere, it’s the occasion and it’s the vibe, as we used to say. It’s the moment, as all these strands feed into, reinforce and enhance one another, resulting in a cumulative effect that transcends definition, when the word synchronicity looms again in my mind.

It comes unbidden, but, to me, it seems the exact word with which to explain the grace and power of the enthralling performances that clearly captivated the large audience which turned out on Friday night for the unexpected but riveting combination of pieces by Mozart and Shostakovich in the Cottier Chamber Project.

I’ve gone on and on here for decades about the fact that it is not necessary in performance to shout in order to be heard. And that was exemplified in the absolutely beautiful performance by Susan Tomes of Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto, K414, in its chamber version, written by the composer himself, for just piano and string quartet. Tomes’ exquisite scaling of the piece in this form was perfectly-matched to the close-up environment, the intimacy of the accompaniment by the Aurea Quartet and the spellbound atmosphere in the venue.

And that actually flowed, almost naturally, with no sense of stylistic dichotomy, into a magnetic performance by the group of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet which was so quietly but fiercely concentrated that the abrupt eruption into the second movement seemed volcanic: a rather special musical experience.’
Herald, 14 June 2015

Herald review of Friday’s Cottier Chamber concert

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 June 2015 under Concerts, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

Today’s Herald carries a review, by senior critic Michael Tumelty, of Friday’s Cottier Chamber Project opening night. As the review is only accessible online to subscribers, I’ll post it here.

Susan Tomes/Daniel’s Beard, Cottier’s Theatre, Glasgow

‘THERE was a marvellous sense on Friday night of the Cottier Chamber Project setting out its stall and throwing open its doors, with a roll call of its wares on display for opening night: musical market traders to Glasgow’s west end for the next three weeks, with the launch night offering three very different options, back to back with breaks in between, and running at 6.30, 8.30 and from 10.30 to beyond midnight with off-the-wall musical buccaneers, Mr McFall’s Chamber, taking the music towards the wee sma’ hours and into tango territory.

Honours for opening the night, and the festival, fell to the woodwinds of host ensemble Daniel’s Beard which, with a warmth that is the closest we’ve come to the real article on many of these allegedly “summer” days, bathed Cottier’s in the lyrical glow of Samuel Barber’s beautiful Summer Music, from which point the winds were joined for the rest of the concert by one of the UK’s most distinguished chamber pianists, Susan Tomes, now returned to her native Scotland, and making the first of numerous appearances in different strands of the festival.

Instantly, Tomes stamped (gently) her characteristic refinement, polish and understatement onto her music – she forces nothing, puts nothing under pressure – with her pristine pianism effortlessly teasing out the elliptical contours, rhythms and character from Judith Weir’s wonderful Airs from Another Planet, four traditional Scottish tunes, magically transported to an imagined Martian environment. And then Tomes at her most supremely elegant, with four of the wind players, rounded off with a lovely, stylish performance of Mozart’s great Quintet for Piano and Winds.’  The Herald, 7.6.15