The changing status of reviews

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 August 2015 under Concerts, Musings, Reviews  •  4 Comments

The news that Alex Ross is now the only full-time classical music critic on an American magazine has got me thinking about the changing status of reviews.

Gone are the days when an ‘important’ concert would routinely be reviewed by all the major papers. When I was a young professional I used to walk down to a newsagent’s shop on the morning after a big concert – yes, on the very morning after a concert! – to see what the critics had made of my or my group’s performance. I rifled secretly through the arts pages to see how many papers were worth buying. Often they were all worth buying.

Reviews were very useful as ‘calling cards’ to attract the interest of promoters, festival directors, grant-making bodies and so on. We used to keep stacks of photocopied reviews and send them around. In a profession where there’s no straightforward way to prove your credentials, reviews were the best way we knew.

With the advent of the internet, music websites sprang up and offered their own reviews. Sometimes those were the only reviews of one’s concert. But managers were very snooty about ‘web’ reviews. We were told not to bother sending ‘links’ because ‘nobody would take them seriously’. I remember applying for a foreign work visa and being told that only hard copies of reviews in prestigious newspapers were acceptable proof that one had some reputation as a performer.

That was fine when there were plenty of newspaper reviews to send. But then press coverage of classical concerts started to dwindle at an alarming rate. A year might go by with lots of concerts but no newspaper reviews at all. Debut concerts, premieres and fiendishly clever programming (usually guarantees of press interest) were no longer routinely reviewed. Newspaper reviews sometimes took three, four, five days to appear, by which time everyone had sort of lost interest. Links started to take the place of hard copy reviews.

Now it’s often said that ‘everyone is a critic’. People voice their opinions on blogs, Twitter and Facebook and more. At the time of writing, however, I’m not aware that any arts manager or festival director would take seriously a review or a complimentary remark posted online by marmaladegirl82, dolphins’R’us or the ProppingUpTheBar blog (to make up some examples). We seem to be in a phase where, in the absence of ‘proper’ newspaper reviews, high-status online reviews are acceptable, but punters’ comments are not.

Where’s it all going? Nobody knows for sure. Soon a festival director may merely need to know that your performance garnered 5,347 ‘likes’ on Facebook.

Pitch rolling

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 July 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

I went to a concert recently (I won’t say where or when). In the group was an older musician playing quite a prominent role on a string instrument. Unfortunately his control of pitch had become unreliable. He was smiling and concentrating, trying to play the right notes, but couldn’t manage it. The pitch wavered all over the place, sometimes horribly sharp, sometimes disturbingly flat. The other players either tried to ignore it or found themselves pulled into its giddy orbit. It was unsettling to watch and listen to.

I happened to know players in the group, and I asked them afterwards if it wasn’t a difficult situation. They explained that it was, but that they didn’t know what to do about it. The player concerned was well respected and had been with them for ages. He was popular with audiences too. His colleagues realised that being a performing musician was still tremendously important to him, in some ways more so than ever. But they were beginning to notice some puzzled expressions on the faces of some of their listeners, and  when the tuning went haywire it was an effort not to show the strain.

Usually musicians themselves are the first to worry about any perceived loss of skills or judgement. They’re famously reluctant to ask for help, and probably step back before they really need to. But then there are others who, for all kinds of reasons, plough on. They may simply need the money. They may feel it’s vital for their mental health to cling on to music and music-making. Sometimes their very difficulties (hearing or otherwise) make it hard to assess the impact of their playing on the rest of the group.

Fellow musicians are all too aware that someone’s hearing problems may have been caused by playing for too long in a noisy environment – next to noisy brass or percussion instruments, for example, or to over-loud amplification. Sufferers may feel that their difficulties are no fault of theirs, and should in all fairness be tolerated by those who know the occupational hazards of this particular workplace. And their colleagues are sympathetic, because they do know the hazards, and sometimes wonder if they themselves will succumb.

So it becomes a question of musical standards versus human needs. In a democratic group there’s no HR manager to step in, rulebook in hand, and deal with the problem in some remote office. Every independent group has to grapple with the situation themselves. Some might ruthlessly get rid of a failing player ‘for the sake of the music’. Others might carry on out of friendship or indecision, until critics and audiences begin to voice their concern openly. Audiences might in fact be tolerant for quite a long time, especially if they have been following the group’s fortunes. But if the musician seems oblivious to the problem, who should eventually tackle it with them? Nobody wants to be the fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread.

25 years of the Cerne Abbas Festival

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 July 2015 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

DSC02579Just back from the 25th anniversary festival run by the Gaudier Ensemble in the lovely old Dorset village of Cerne Abbas (in the photo I’m rehearsing a Mozart piano concerto with (from L to R) Marieke Blankestijn, Lesley Hatfield, Iris Juda, Steve Williams and Christoph Marks. I think I’m right in saying they are veterans of all 25 years of the festival, whereas I have been taking part for a mere 23 years.

During the 25 years of the festival, the core members of the ensemble have fanned out across Europe and now have jobs and families in Austria, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Italy as well as the UK. To give just one example of the quality of players: there are currently four leaders of European symphony orchestras playing violin in the group. There are half a dozen orchestral principals, too, such as artistic director Richard Hosford, principal clarinet in both the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. There are guest artists, music students and local schoolchildren involved in different concerts. All this makes it far too complicated and expensive to gather everyone together more than once a year. Rehearsal has to be done ‘in situ’ in the days running up to the festival. Musicians are matched with village residents willing to have them as house guests. This works amazingly well and often leads to lasting friendships.

The festival has been popular from the beginning, and already when I joined in there was talk of people joining the Friends’ Organisation so that they could get their hands on tickets before everything sold out. Even as a Friend it wasn’t easy for people to get exactly the tickets they wanted; over the years I heard of people driving to Cerne Abbas with their form to hand it in personally to the ‘box office’ (a long-suffering saintly resident of the village) on the first day of booking. One of the things I most like about the festival is seeing the same faces in the audience year after year. They are not all local faces, either: people come from other counties, even from other countries. This year I met a Dutch couple who happened upon the festival by chance while on holiday a decade ago, and have returned every year since.

Every summer when national newspapers publish their guide to ‘music festivals’, they ignore events like this, of which the UK is full. I’ve never been able to understand it, except as a non-supportive attitude towards classical music. In the past I’ve written to editors to complain and (more constructively) send in details of the festival programme. Silence follows, and as far as I know, the Cerne Abbas Music Festival has never been acknowledged in the mainstream press. Critics don’t come and the concerts are never broadcast, despite being a superb example of cross-Europe collaboration.

Sometimes it feels quite jolly to be involved in something that’s an ‘insider tip’. But given the press coverage accorded any pop festival which can assemble some mud and a field to camp in, it’s baffling that a musical success like the Cerne Abbas festival is still an insider tip after twenty-five years!

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