Beyond the Notes, by Susan Tomes

On the road with a chamber group

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The Independent Culture

Why are musicians drawn to the instruments they play? Is their choice determined by character or character shaped by that choice? By the time Susan Tomes gets round to asking this typically probing question, she has already implicitly answered it. Pianists tend to be loners, she observes, but with compensating strengths. Their familiarity with the full score, rather than one melodic part, means they carry the big picture in their heads; they know more than string players do, and think more radically. She's too modest to say so, but this neatly reflects her fitness to write a book revealing the dynamics of chamber-musical life.

Why are musicians drawn to the instruments they play? Is their choice determined by character or character shaped by that choice? By the time Susan Tomes gets round to asking this typically probing question, she has already implicitly answered it. Pianists tend to be loners, she observes, but with compensating strengths. Their familiarity with the full score, rather than one melodic part, means they carry the big picture in their heads; they know more than string players do, and think more radically. She's too modest to say so, but this neatly reflects her fitness to write a book revealing the dynamics of chamber-musical life.

Tomes was the pianist with the ground-breaking Domus ensemble, and is now part of the award-winning Florestan Trio: this is a diary of her experiences with both. Domus took their name from the portable geodesic dome in which they performed. Pioneering outreach work before the concept became fashionable, they were condemned to do it without the cushion of sponsorship. Since they couldn't afford a roadie, Tomes's hands were more in demand for heavy haulage than at the keyboard. She did have the luck not be in the trailer when it was mashed by a lorry.

But the real interest of her account lies in its psychological cross-currents. She describes the gulf between eager-beaver missionaries and those musicians whose deepest desire is to play for connoisseurs, and gradually discovers she belongs with the latter. She also learns that if you present yourself too informally, you won't be listened to with respect. She charts the way the group fell apart - a dispute about concert clothing was the trigger. She also makes the telling point that the repertoire for a piano quartet is desperately limited, with managements requesting one of 10 works with depressing predictability. Trio life is more stable psychologically and, musically, far more varied.

Her travelogues can become mere letters home, but at other times what she has to say is rivetingly unexpected - even on so trivial a thing as eye-contact with fellow players.

She excoriates the use of the word "accompanist" when applied to the pianist in a duo. Contemptuous of music with a high decibel count, she extols chamber music's understated power. Occasionally, she bares her fangs in a devastating piece of criticism, but her usual mode is quietly evocative.

Here is Peter Brook, holding court like a Buddha with his "egg-shaped silences"; here is the egotistic Sandor Vegh, "his violin disappearing into the folds of flesh round his chin, and dwarfed by his enormous hand"; and here is her guru Russell Hoban, a frog delivering wonderfully gnomic thoughts.

Her own metaphor for their dome is a potter's kiln into which unseen powers are drawn. When alienated from her audience, she feels as though playing under a bell-jar. We knew from her recordings that Susan Tomes is a superb chamber player; now we know that she's a superb writer too.

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