(photo: Robert Philip)
(photo: Robert Philip)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career? 

We didn’t have a piano in the house when I was little, but gradually my friends’ parents started reporting that I had been trying to play their piano when I came to their house. My parents were surprised (neither of them had had the opportunity to learn an instrument) but intrigued, and eventually they decided to take the plunge and acquire an upright piano. It was a make of piano I’ve never come across since: Eungblut & Eungblut. I remember that when it arrived in our living-room I already felt it was an old friend and I ‘knew how to play it’, though I can’t really account for that feeling as I hadn’t yet had a piano lesson.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I think I’d have to name various professors I met at masterclasses when I was in my twenties and had officially ‘finished my musical education’. In some ways, it was yet to begin! I met the Hungarian violinist Sandor Vegh at the International Musicians’ Seminar in Prussia Cove, Cornwall. Later on I met the Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Sebok when I was spending a semester at the Banff Centre in Canada. Those two musicians with their very different personalities and pedagogical approaches were hugely influential, opening my eyes and ears to a larger, more profound and multi-layered way of thinking about music.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

I suppose being an introvert in a ‘public performance’ profession has been my greatest challenge. It isn’t straightforward, of course – I seem to have a deep need to communicate music to an audience and get their reaction, and I love to be appreciated, but there are many other aspects of being ‘on show’ that don’t come naturally. I’m very interested in people, but I’m quite a private person and need lots of time to myself. I suppose the friction between those things has been the reason that I took to writing about music and being a musician [I’ve written four books]. I find that writing about performance helps me to come to terms with the self-imposed challenge of being an introvert in an extrovert profession.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

I feel very fortunate in having lots and lots of concerts I’m proud of having been part of. I’ve worked with so many amazing musicians. Recording-wise, it’s a little different because I’ve never much enjoyed the process of making records. Nevertheless I am proud that many of my recordings have been well-received and have meant something to people. I guess my favourite one is still the first: the Domus recording of Fauré piano quartets. We were all novices then, of course, but we also had a very special bond. I can still hear our freshness and idealism when I listen to that recording.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I really hope I can say Mozart’s works, because he has always been my favourite composer, and I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to live up to his beautifully lucid yet deep and subtle music. Other favourites are Schumann, Schubert and the French composers of the end of the nineteenth century; I adore the piano music of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré. Then there are two ‘greats’, Beethoven and Haydn, whom I used not to feel so close to, but with time I’ve come to appreciate them more and more, and when I perform their music I feel more confident that I have something to say about it.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?  

That’s always a blend of things that people ask me to play, and suggestions I put forward if I have the opportunity. Unfortunately, programmes usually have to be planned far in advance, which means that you find yourself committed to play something you suggested two years ago, and may not feel like playing quite so much when it comes to it! But somehow, just because you’re committed to playing a certain work on a certain date,  the appetite to prepare and perform it does develop when the time approaches.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

For years and years I have loved the Wigmore Hall, where I first played as a child and have been fortunate to play in regularly ever since. Other favourites? Well, there was Domus’s white portable geodesic dome, in which we played memorable concerts and tried to forge a new way of presenting chamber music to new audiences. I also remember a wonderful old hall in Bilbao, very similar in character to the Wigmore in a way. I loved the feeling of Carnegie Hall, where the auditorium seems to open up before you in a very pleasing way as you look from the stage. The Konzerthaus in Vienna is pretty special; I was impressed by a beautiful new hall in Zaragoza, and I have a happy memory of playing in Grieg’s house in Bergen, where the audience sang me ‘Happy Birthday’! I always enjoy playing ‘house concerts’, especially in beautiful drawing-rooms; I often feel that these are the kind of rooms, and the kind of audiences, for which a lot of the classical repertoire was conceived. I love the intimate atmosphere and the closeness of the audience.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I don’t really have favourite pieces to perform; I find that whatever I’m working on occupies my imagination and becomes my ‘favourite’, or at least my obsession. Funnily enough, at the moment I don’t listen to all that much music when I’m away from the piano. When you spend a lot of time practising or rehearsing, you don’t particularly feel the desire to listen to even more music just for fun. I often listen to jazz radio when I’m working in the kitchen, but in fact I just as often enjoy silence.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I couldn’t single out particular people from the amazing list of musicians I’ve been lucky to work with. There are so many different ways of being a good musician, and so many ways of collaborating with other musicians. Over the years I have been inspired by the attitude and standard of playing of many of the musicians I’ve met and worked with in Prussia Cove, both during the ‘masterclass seminars’ in April, and during ‘Open Chamber Music’ in September. Many of those people have become my long-standing musical colleagues. People travel from all over the world to be in Prussia Cove, and I’ve lost count of the illuminating and stimulating musical experiences I’ve had there. In general, I’ve always got most out of people who are interested in being good chamber musicians rather than single-minded soloists.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As many writers say when asked which of their books is their favourite, I’d probably say that my most recent concert is the one that’s most vivid in my mind. I don’t have a ‘most memorable’ experience – there have been so many. Just for fun I might mention my first-ever piano trio concert when I was a teenager, still at school. Fellow students and I performed the Arensky piano trio, which we had learned in after-school sessions. Unbelievable fun, and we had such a sense of achievement!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

For me, the most important thing to impart to students is that great music is not ‘entertainment’, nor just a social accomplishment, but a reflection of life. Most of the music I care about is a metaphor for life, of its complexity (and sometimes its simplicity). Great composers have found a way of channelling their thoughts and life experiences into music, in such a way that the rest of us can receive a kind of ‘distilled understanding’ through the music. Once a young musician has grasped this point, working on music becomes much more than a surface task, and they can begin a huge journey of exploration.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

In ten years’ time I’d love to be reading in the press that older women have outstripped every other kind of artist in popularity. They will be top of every concert hall’s agenda; they’ll be the toast of the town because of their wit and wisdom, and governments will plead with them to head important initiatives. Images of glamorous young musicians will disappear from adverts and brochures, to be replaced by iconic portraits of wise women. (We can dream – that’s one thing you learn as a musician!)

Susan Tomes is a leading UK pianist, a rare example of a woman who has achieved several decades as an acclaimed chamber music pianist. In 2013 she was awarded the Cobbett Medal for distinguished services to chamber music.

Born in Edinburgh, she was the first woman to study music at King’s College, Cambridge. She has been at the heart of three internationally admired ensembles: Domus, the Gaudier Ensemble, and the Florestan Trio, winners of the Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 2000. With these groups she has performed and broadcast all over the world. She is a long-standing participant at the International Musicians’ Seminars in Prussia Cove, Cornwall, where she met many of her chamber music partners. She has made over fifty CDs, many of which have become benchmark recordings, winning Gramophone Awards, Classic CD awards, Diapasons d’Or in France, and Deutsche Schallplattenpreise. At Hyperion Records’ 20th anniversary, Gramophone wrote that ‘Susan Tomes’s playing is always magnetic and concentrated whatever the repertory, a rare gift which she consistently employs not for her own glorification but in the cause of corporate music-making.’ Her recital repertoire focuses particularly on French music, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann; as a soloist, she has recorded Mozart piano concertos and 1920s piano music by the Savoy Hotel’s Billy Mayerl.

As well as performing, Susan is a champion of the art of the chamber music pianist, illuminating the role and promoting the status of the collaborative pianist over many years in radio talks, newspaper and magazine articles, keynote speeches, seminars, and masterclasses. She is the author of four books on performance issues: Beyond the Notes (2004), A Musician’s Alphabet (2006), Out of Silence (2010) and Sleeping in Temples (October 2014), which has already been a Books of the Year choice, a Christmas Books selection and Editor’s Choice in various journals. Her books are now studied in ‘performance practice’ courses in various parts of the English-speaking world. She has been a guest on the BBC flagship radio programmes, ‘Today’ and ‘Woman’s Hour’. She has served on many international competition juries and is often invited to give masterclasses at music conservatoires. She is a guest tutor at the European Chamber Music Academy, and holds her own masterclasses every year in London, attracting international chamber groups.

Susan is currently engaged on a long-running duo series with the Austrian violinist Erich Höbarth. They focused on Mozart for two years, and are now exploring the sonatas of Schubert. Susan is the solo pianist on a  record made by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to celebrate Creative Scotland 2012 with the gift of a special CD for every child born in Scotland during the year.

www.susantomes.com

 

 

An introduction by Kathleen Alder

Ideas on napkins can change the world… 

I firmly believe in this principle: that to make great music, we need more than just performers. We need organisers, visionaries, administrators, social media enthusiasts, PR people, composers, marketing managers, photographers, technology personnel, the list is endless. This vast expanse of possibility is why I was determined to become a mentor for Noted’s new Noted Innovation Fellowship. 

I love that there are schemes out there to help young artists start and progress their careers, but I feel that the spotlight needs, not to move, but to be shared with other equally ambitious and talented young people who work in arts administration. The Noted Innovation Fellowship is aimed at 22-35 year olds who have a cutting-edge idea, which will lead the classical music industry into the future. In reality, the funds and expertise needed to lift these ideas from the back of a napkin into the real world aren’t readily available.  As well as receiving £3,500 towards their idea, the winner will also be mentored by some of the biggest names in the non-performance side of classical music and who work for the most prestigious venues, orchestras and businesses. Some of my colleagues involved include: CEO of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Marcus Axt; composer Max Richter; and Grammy Award winning music producer, Chris Alder. This list is continually growing.

The features of the Fellowship do not stop there. Unique ideas require a unique approach and the mentoring is personally tailored to the winner in order to fully realise their potential. You will also be helped to create all aspects of your brand image through Classical Music Design.

I am really excited to hear ideas that have previously sat there undiscovered being pitched throughout the application process, get yours in by 15th February 2015 for a chance to be a leader in the future of the classical music industry. 

WildKat PR is offering a new fellowship for up and coming talent in arts administration. This fellowship has been created as a way to offer financial support, industry opportunities and mentorship.

The idea is to customize the fellowship around the recipient, in order to maximize their full potential and impact on the industry.

The fellowship will also include placements with WildKat’s various partners including: festivals, concert halls, orchestras and artist managers.

This includes:

  • Get support to implement your personal idea/ project that will help shake up the classical music industry and/ or the cultural sector
  • Gain knowledge and experience about PR, via WildKat PR
  • Create your brand (website, image, brochure, logo), with the help of Classical Music Design
  • Have free and full access to industry events and network
  • Get personalized mentorship
  • Receive £3500 to help fund your project

The deadline for applications for the Fellowship is Sunday 15th February 2015. To apply, please visit http://wearenoted.com/

Noted Innovation Fellowship supporters and collaborators include:

Bernhard Kerres, CEO, Hello Stage; Max Richter,
Composer; Daniel Hope, Violinist; Ben Pateman
Executive Producer, Opus Arte/ Royal Opera House; Jasper Hope, CEO, Dubai Opera; Paul Smith CEO, Voces Cantabiles Music

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interviewed in the programme notes for Verdi’s La Traviata at ENO, director Peter Konwitschny explains that the subject matter of the plot remains daring and “socially explosive”, even in our more permissive times. For at the heart of Verdi’s narrative is Violetta, a tart, a prostitute, a whore (earlier productions from another time refer to her more delicately as “a courtesan”). It was Verdi’s apparent sympathy for this character which shocked his audiences. Violetta may not shock us now, coming at the opera with our 21st-century sensibilities, but the manner in which she is viewed and treated by those around her as the narrative unfolds still has the power to make us uneasy. Like Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, Violetta is the “tart with a heart” and the only true human being in the piece.

ENO’s La Traviata was first seen in this production in 2013 and many of the original cast remain, including tenor Ben Johnson, who plays Alfredo as a naive bookworm, complete with duffle coat and specs, suffering the teasing of the boozy chorus in the first scene as he proposes a toast to Violetta. His warmth and passion is convincing throughout the drama, and particularly poignant when he calls out to Violetta from the stalls (disturbing the front row to emphasise his desperation). Elizabeth Zharoff makes her debut in the role of Violetta, playing her a fiesty yet vulnerable mannequin in the opening scene, before she exchanges her stiff crimson party frock for comfy country clothes (a lumberjack shirt and Timberland boots) in Scene 2. Her coloratura singing at the end of Scene 1 is exquisitely precise, freighted with anguish. Anthony Michaels-Moore, who makes his appearance as Alfredo’s father in Scene 2, is a powerful presence, and like the other leading roles, that power is tinged with sensitivity.

Alongside these fine singers, the setting was, for me, crucial to the success of the production. The last time I saw La Traviata was in a film version, all crinolines, ringlets, chandeliers and breathless over-acting which disguised the true nature of the narrative. Here, the simple setting – bordello-red curtains cleverly painted with trompe l’oeil pleats and used to sensual and dramatic effect as the drama plays out (they are torn down in the final scene), and as single chair – allow us to focus on the psychology and raw emotion of La Traviata. And with few visual distractions, one can also appreciate Verdi’s music: the chilly opening bars are played as if heard in the next room, a musical signpost to what happens later, and there is also some wonderfully pared down playing by the wind section in particular, under the direction of Roland Böer.  This production has lost all the ballet music too and some aria repeats, and there is no interval, reducing the running time to a spare 110 minutes. The chorus are sloshed, voyeuristic party-goers, in DJ’s and LBD’s, revelling in schadenfreude at Violetta’s situation and Alfredo’s innocence. In the final scene, when the doctor is summoned to Violetta, he appears in his party hat, cocked at a drunken angle, with streamers instead of stethoscope. This is a production which really gets to the heart of what this opera is about: passionate love, premature death and the fundamental humanity of its tragic heroine.

My husband accompanied me, my regular opera companion being unwell, and I was pleased that he, who is, by his own confession, “opera allergic” (after I forced him to endure Britten’s ‘Death in Venice’ at Glyndebourne some 26 years ago) enjoyed the production and was able to appreciate both the spectacle and emotional impact.

La Traviata continues in repertory at ENO at London’s Coliseum

It is a mark of the popularity of the BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall, and the high calibre of the performers, that these hour-long recitals are regularly sold out. Indeed, when I arrived at the Wigmore to hear Steven Osborne in a programme of music by Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky, there was a long queue of people waiting for returns. I relinquished my spare ticket (concert companion was indisposed) so that someone else could enjoy Osborne’s superb pianistic mastery and sensitive musicality. The theme of the concert was pictures: Mussorgsky’s popular and evergreen Pictures at an Exhibition preceded by a selection of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux from the lesser-known Op.33.

Read my full review

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega

 

Listen to the concert on BBC iPplayer

Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux – an earlier article on the Opus 33

Pianist Clare Hammond (photo Julie Kim)

The piano study or ‘Étude’ has long engaged and challenged pianists, and the practice of writing etudes to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill or technique developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano. Many of us will remember working on studies by the likes of Clementi and Czerny as young piano students. But it was Fryderyk Chopin who elevated the student study into a work of great artistry and beauty, turning humble exercises into glittering concert pieces, and his Opp. 10 and 25 Études remain amongst the most popular works written for piano. Other notable composers of Études were Liszt, Alkan, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy, and the practice of writing piano etudes has continued into the modern area with composers such as Ligeti, Cage and Kapustin.

On her new disc for BIS, British pianist Clare Hammond explores the Étude in works by Lyapunov, Szymanowski, Kapustin and Chin, a truly international line up of composers (Russia, Poland and South Korea). The imaginative programme combines some of the most electrifying and adventurous piano works of the 20th and 21st centuries, ranging from the impassioned late-Romanticism of Sergei Lyapunov to the jazz-inspired rhythms of Nicolai Kapustin and the mercurial, post-Debussyan soundworld of Unsuk Chin. For Clare Hammond the choice of works on this disc represents some of the most innovative, invigorating and imaginative writing for piano and  the opportunity to explore what the piano is truly capable of. All the Études on the disc fulfil the traditional criteria of the Étude (in the Chopinesque sense) of a piece which combines the excitement of technical and virtuosic display with expression, colour and compositional inventiveness.

This disc is not only a showcase for the variety and ingenuity of these composers,  but also a fine vehicle for Clare Hammond to demonstrate a sparkling technical sure-footedness, clarity of touch and musical sensitivity (particularly in the Études by Chin, which are, by Clare’s own admission, extremely difficult). The works by Chin are more closely aligned to Clare’s particular interest in lesser-known and contemporary piano repertoire, for which she has received much praise, and these virtuosic and playful études skip and dance across the keyboard with wit, colour and vitality.

Clare brings a richness to the works by Lyapunov with which the disc begins. They recall the soundworld of Rachmaninoff in their scale and textures, and are modelled directly on Liszt’s set of the same title (Études d’exécution transcendante).

Karol Szymanowski’s Twelve Etudes, Op 33 share Chin’s interest in pianistic colour, and are more closely related the Études of Debussy rather than his fellow countryman Chopin. Fleet and mercurial, Clare deftly captures their transitory moods and luminous colours, dancing rhythms and haunting sonorities, while handling their technical demands with aplomb.

Finally, Five Études in Different Intervals complete this fascinating survey of the enduring appeal of the piano etude. Composed by Nikolai Kapustin, they are characteristic of his output, fusing formal classical structures with idioms drawn from jazz, which Kapustin studied from the age of 16. Clare pulls them off with precision and wit, and an evident relish for this kind of writing for the piano.

‘Étude’ by Clare Hammond is available on BIS Records label and is available from all major online retailers. 

Creating the Definitive Recording – an article by Clare Hammond on the process and experience of creating Étude

by Dr Charles Tebbs

 

My slightly unusual recording of this famous nocturne was inspired after the discovery of a remarkable book over the summer of 2014:  Neal Peres da Costa’s Off the Record: Performing Practices in Romantic Piano Playing.  The basic premise of the book, argued painstakingly and meticulously throughout, is that early recordings (those by pianists born in the nineteenth century) provide a vital and often overlooked window onto 19th-century piano playing.  Far from being the mannerist distortions that later schools of pianism dismissed in favour of so-called fidelity to the score, Peres Da Costa argues that these recordings embody a performance tradition that is quite probably quite close to the playing of Schumann, Brahms and Chopin.  He also charts some of the changes in playing style that occurred during the course of the twentieth century, during which some of the older expressive approaches were deliberately derided and discarded. He refers to a wealth of recordings, pedagogical texts and contemporary accounts of piano playing in support of his argument, and focuses on Chopin’s D flat Nocturne amongst other works.

The musician who spends time listening to the many audio examples Peres Da Costa provides (via an associated website) as well as to full length recordings available elsewhere (see discography below), will be at the very least intrigued by this remarkably different pianistic universe, though to begin with the sound quality and some of the expressive habits of particular pianists can be annoying or puzzling.  Above all it is an emotional, improvisatory, sometimes wildly spontaneous world, though perhaps for that very reason unsuited to the definitive act of recording in the modern sense, in which a masterpiece is perhaps interpreted in an idealised way that will stand the test of being listened to many times.

Read the full article on Charles’s website

Dr Charles Tebbs is a pianist, accompanist and piano teacher based in Nottingham, with a wealth of experience and a diverse range of musical expertise.  He gives regular concerts and recitals and has made a CD of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  His doctorate is in musicology (concerning musical endings) and he has also written prize-winning compositions and music for TV.