Seeking a female word for ‘virtuoso’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 March 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  6 Comments

Yesterday we had a meeting of my piano club, a group of adult amateur pianists interested in developing their playing. The subject of ‘virtuosos’ and ‘virtuoso technique’ came up in relation to a piano piece with some fast, technically difficult ‘show-off’ passages. We wondered where the word ‘virtuoso’ comes from and what it really means?

A little research showed that ‘virtuoso’ comes from the Latin word ‘vir’ = a man, and from the word ‘virtuous’ in an old sense of ‘distinguished by manly qualities; full of manly strength.’ Some of us felt that the phrase ‘a female virtuoso’ is therefore unsatisfactory. It seems perverse to describe a woman as a ‘virtuoso’ once you know that the word signified manliness. But women pianists can be every bit as dazzling as men. Perhaps we need a new word to describe them?

There used to be a word ‘virtuosa’, but the OED says it was a specialised word, ‘now rare’, referring to a learned religious woman. Although some modern dictionaries claim the word is available to signify ‘a female virtuoso’, it has never caught on in the world of music.

So if ‘vir’ is the Latin for ‘man’, how about using the Latin word for ‘woman’? It’s ‘mulier’ (today its descendant is found in the Spanish ‘mujer’, a woman). A female equivalent of ‘virtuoso’ might be something like ‘mulierosa’, ‘full of womanly strength’. I tried to imagine using it in a phrase like, ‘the mulierosa pianist Martha Argerich’. ‘Clara Schumann had a mulierous piano technique.’

Hmmm. But is ‘womanly strength’ the female equivalent of ‘manly strength’, or are women’s strengths different? In that case we still need a good word for ‘a woman musician with a dazzling technique’. The search continues.

Meeting up again with my first piano teacher

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 March 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Teaching  •  1 Comment

A lovely surprise awaited me when I played at the Brunton Theatre on Tuesday. Sitting in the front row was my first piano teacher, Gordon Lindsay (‘Mr Lindsay’, as I knew him). He taught me from when I began piano lessons at the age of seven until I was nine or ten. Since then, apart from glimpsing him in the audience a few years ago at a Queen’s Hall concert of mine, I don’t believe I had set eyes on him.

At the age of 91, Mr Lindsay still had the bright gaze that I remembered. It was he who taught me to read music. I still recall the excitement of learning what those black blobs meant, and how to count up the ‘lines and spaces’ of the stave. I remember we did the first exercise in the book, using just three notes: ‘This is up. This is down. This is up and down.’

On Tuesday I was giving a lecture-recital about Debussy’s ‘Images’. Whenever I talk to the audience, I always instinctively search for sympathetic-looking faces to address. It was easy to find that sympathetic face, because Mr Lindsay was following every word with alert interest, his blue eyes shining. What a pity we had lost touch for so long!

How important is it to perform from memory?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 March 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

I still have mixed feelings about playing from memory. I find that the memorising is the part of my concert preparation which takes the longest. Even after I’ve worked out exactly how I want to play something, there’s a long extra stage which is mostly concerned with memorisation. Memorising cannot be done quickly, or at least, if it’s done quickly it is not reliable. In a two-hour solo programme, ‘reliable’ is what you most definitely need to feel. For me, it requires the co-operation of several kinds of memory: aural, intellectual, photographic, muscle. Only when all these have been tested and found secure can I feel calm on stage.

Why do I play from memory? To be honest, I think it’s largely a matter of not being able to jettison the attitudes drummed into me when I was learning the piano as a child. Although I now see other perspectives, and realise that there are lots of varying attitudes out there, I still feel (rightly or wrongly) that playing from memory is something the audience expects.

I am not one of those who feel that performing from memory is ‘liberating’. Playing from memory, yes – but performing from memory is a different matter. As for ‘liberating’, I probably feel freer in chamber music, where I can have the music in front of me and glance at it if I feel like it. I usually know things more or less from memory anyway, whatever type of music it is, but if the printed score actually isn’t there, it feels different.

In the run-up to my recent Queen’s Hall solo recital, I performed the programme from memory to several different audiences in different cities. My memory was 99% secure every time, but on each occasion I had a terrifying moment or two of ‘blankness’ – and always in a different place! There was no knowing where it might happen. Once it was in Debussy. Once it was in Schubert, and once in Beethoven. The moments were tiny, but enough to make my heart skip a beat.

On the day before my Queen’s Hall recital, I played the whole programme through at home from memory. This time there were half a dozen moments where the dreaded ‘inner voice’ whispered to me, ‘You don’t know this!’ I was rattled. I had to give myself a stern talking-to.

In the event, all went well. The final concert was more secure than all the rest and I enjoyed it.

At drinks afterwards, I mentioned to someone how pleased I was that my memory had functioned securely. She did a ‘double-take’, looked surprised and then said, ‘Oh yes, you did play from memory, didn’t you? It’s only now you say it that I realise there wasn’t any music on the desk. Well, how amazing!’

Perhaps her response wasn’t typical. But amongst all the nice feedback, I don’t think anyone even mentioned the fact that I had played from memory. They took it for granted, I suppose. But it did make me wonder how important it is to do it.

Classical Music magazine article

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 February 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  1 Comment

Finally I have managed to track down a copy of this month’s ‘Classical Music’ magazine, which for some reason has become harder and harder to find in the shops. Knowing there was to be an article about me in the February issue, I tried to find the magazine in a number of relevant shops, and even in several different cities, but drew a blank. (In case you’re wondering: no, the publisher didn’t send me a copy of the magazine.) Even in Blackwell’s Music Shop in Oxford they didn’t have ‘Classical Music’ and said they hadn’t been able to get it for 18 months. In most other shops – including larger branches of WHSmith where I’ve bought it in the past – they just shook their heads when I asked about it.

Eventually I tracked down a copy in the library of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, but it was not for borrowing, so I read it and took a photo on my phone.

Assuming, then, that most of my readers won’t have seen the magazine, I thought I’d at least post a photograph of the article in case anyone wants to enlarge the photo and read it…

Five-star ‘Scotsman’ review of my Queen’s Hall solo recital

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 February 2017 under Concerts, Reviews  •  6 Comments

I haven’t written anything here for a while because I have been busy preparing for a big solo recital programme last Thursday in the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh (and for several ‘run-up’ concerts in different parts of the country). All went well, and after a very happy evening with a great audience on Thursday I was delighted to read a five-star review in today’s Scotsman:

‘This was a beautifully conceived, brilliantly executed programme by a pianist who combines a rock solid technique with a rare ability to communicate her deep understanding of the music she plays. With little fuss, Susan Tomes distils the essence of a piece of music into its purest form in the most profound and moving way. Debussy’s Preludes Book 2 is inspired by a delightful mix of the mundane and fantastical. Like a sound colourist, Tomes brought these 12 sketches vividly to life, from Peter Pan’s dancing fairies to circus jugglers and the more abstract moonlight, mist and fireworks. She also highlighted Debussy’s fascination with peripheral action, the splashes of tumbling notes that twinkle like stars in the distance.

Schubert’s Impromptus No 2 in G flat and No 3 in A flat are familiar repertoire staples, but Tomes unveiled them as if fresh off the page. It was the same for one of Beethoven’s most emotionally intense late sonatas, Op 109 in E major. Totally deaf, the composer was obsessed with Bach, from a religious and musical viewpoint, which influenced the structure and form of the sonata. The deceptively simple theme in the first movement belies a moody undercurrent which rises to the surface every so often and lets off steam in the edgy prestissimo. However, it was the rhapsodic Sarabande with its variations that danced under Tomes’ fingers. It concluded with a repetition of the theme, the final chord pedaled into heartbreaking infinity.’