Music preview: Winterplay - a little chamber music festival to brighten the dark days

Susan Tomes
Susan Tomes
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If you love classical music and the thought of dreary winter weekends in the house thinking desperately of things to do with the kids is getting you down, why not sign up for a family-friendly musical weekend at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall? It’s called Winterplay – as much a seasonally-convenient title as a play on words to denote the intimate “interplay” required in chamber music, which will dominate the weekend – and it’s the brainchild of local concert pianist Susan Tomes, whose belief, she says, is “that classical music is not an ‘elite’ activity, but a precious resource that should be open to everyone”.

Hence a series of five linked events spread over Saturday 10 and Sunday 11 February, ranging from a children’s musical workshop under the direction of Monica Wilkinson – a Scots-based, Dalcroze-trained specialist in musical training for young children – to chamber music performances by Tomes herself alongside such high calibre artists as the Viennese violinist Erich Höbarth and the recently appointed principal cellist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Philip Higham.

The musical focus is mostly family-friendly Viennese, a mix of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert ranging from duo sonatas and piano trios to Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, in which the aforementioned central performing trio will be joined by two familiar Edinburgh faces, Jessica Beeston on viola and the effervescent SCO principal double bassist Nikita Naumov.

For Tomes, this is about her dipping her toe in the water with a mini-festival model she feels may grow arms and legs enough to become a regular fixture. She’s made this one happen with a bit of financial backing from the Harriet Trust. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be happening,” she says. “I’m doing what I can, but I’m only one person. You have to hold your nerve and keep working away and just have faith that people will find out about it and show up.”

And that means anyone from children to great grandparents, keen to listen to music, talk about it, or even get up and dance to it.

“In her music and movement workshop for 7-10 year olds, Monica will use the music from Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet to get the kids moving to the music,” Tomes explains. “They’ll work on that on their own before the families are let in to watch the resulting mini-performance.”

On the Saturday afternoon, Höbarth and Higham join the pianist in sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven for each of their respective instruments. “Erich is coming all the way from Vienna especially for this,” says Tomes, whose musical association with the violinist is long-standing and strikingly empathetic. The same players perform an all-Beethoven programme that evening, including the glorious “Archduke” Piano Trio, preceded by a introductory talk by Tomes’ husband, the musicologist Robert Philip.

Sunday opens with a morning recital by pupils from St Mary’s Music School, which includes a Schumann Piano Trio and Saint-Saëns’ Piano Quintet with a difference – for purely practical reasons a double bass part has been added to the latter to make it a Sextet. The two-day festival ends with a complete Schubert programme, including the very piece that the primary children will have encountered the previous morning, the wonderful “Trout” Quintet.

Will the idea catch on? “I certainly hope so,” says Tomes. “I have this idea that, in February, winter has been with us for a while, so here we are, midway between Edinburgh Festivals, with a little chamber music festival to brighten the dark days. If it all goes well, I’d like to expand it. For example, I’d love to have a young string quartet next time involved in doing workshops and concerts.”

It’s all part of a genuine passion for the survival of classical music that Tomes has written about in her many evangelising articles and books. Her fifth book, Speaking the Piano – Reflections on Learning and Teaching, is due out in June, and in it she ponders her own experiences as a learner and teacher, and the preparation and knowledge required to really master her instrument and the monumental canon of classical music written for it.

“I started to feel sad about all the things that will be lost if people stop studying classical music in the way I was able to, with very good teachers and alongside other very good students,” she says. “In schools today there is an approach that one should have a go at everything without going into anything too deeply.” It’s with that in mind, and by opening the experience out across the generations, that Tomes hopes Winterplay will help urge young people to actively explore the world of music that has clearly meant so much to her. n

Winterplay is at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 10-11 February, www.thequeenshall.net