Susan Tomes’ relaxed concerts of music and chat

Susan Tomes will play Beethoven at the Brunton. Picture: Contributed
Susan Tomes will play Beethoven at the Brunton. Picture: Contributed
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A SERIES of lunchtime concerts at the Brunton in Musselburgh begins on 3 February with a juicy main course of Beethoven and a side helping of chat.

It’s a relaxed form of presentation that will suit the midday audience, and one that is fast becoming second nature to the opening event’s presenter and performer, Edinburgh-born pianist Susan Tomes.

Don’t doubt for a minute that Tomes has plenty of interest to say about the music she plays. Just read her recent fourth book, Sleeping in Temples, in which she muses, in 16 essays, on issues that challenge and intrigue her in relation to her 30-year career as a leading chamber musician and solo pianist.

Tomes was raised in an unpretentious Edinburgh bungalow, and enjoyed an ordinary childhood as the daughter of a radio and television sales and repair shop owner, but realised early on – particularly as a junior student at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) – that her keen interest in classical music was something that marked her out. The fact she played classical music on the piano meant she was labelled “posh” by her peers at school. That subject, and the general niche position of classical music in today’s society, occupy several of the colourful essays in a book that exudes the same warmth and passion for her subject, and life in general, that shines through her much-admired work as a solo and ensemble pianist.

She considers everything from the psychological healing powers of music, to the hefty price – £11,000 for Tomes in 1988 – a pianist has to pay to own a decent piano, to the practicalities and tensions of being a chamber musician (the story of how conflict among ensemble members once resulted in their refusing to fly together on the same plane).

Tomes spoke to me from her home in Edinburgh, the city she returned to recently with husband Bob, a music historian, after almost 30 years in London.

After heading south to study for a degree at Kings College, Cambridge in the 1970s, Tomes was for years the lynchpin of such successful and original ensembles as Domus – notable for its domed tent that was a portable concert hall – and the highly-respected Florestan Trio.

So what brought her back north? “I’d begun to feel I had seen the best of what London has to offer, but was starting to see the negative things: the pace of life, the feeling of everyone in an hurry and bad tempered, the crowded nature of journeys. We just wondered if we could get a better life somewhere else,” she explains.

Tomes reckoned it might be time “to know the city as an adult”. “I had this fun feeling that I could do what I like now and have my own relationship with my own city.”

Her writing career started with a diary she kept during the adventurous travelling years with Domus. Other than that, Tomes frequently found herself jotting down thoughts on train journeys, or during a quiet moment in the green room of a concert hall, many of which formed the short chapters of her previous books. This latest book was a more substantial project. “I kept a note on my desk of topics that could be interesting to write about. I knew that once I had the right spread of topics the book would fall naturally into shape. I wanted something in there that everyone could connect to.”

What Tomes has discovered, particularly in the wake of her latest publication, is an interesting crossover between those who follow her as a pianist, and those who follow her as a writer. “I find it quite intriguing that I’m getting feedback from people who’ve read my books, but have never heard me play. I like the idea of connecting with people through writing which is slightly different from music,” she says.

At the Brunton, she’ll bring her words and music together. The focus will be Beethoven’s late Piano Sonata in A flat, Op 110, which Tomes describes as “an incredible concentration of ideas where lots happens in a short space of time”, but she will preface the talk with a few of Beethoven’s “Bagatelles”. “They’re seriously good little miniatures, but equally that means I don’t launch into the recital with a lecture.”

• The Brunton’s Lunchtime Classical Concerts open with Susan Tomes on 3 February,; Sleeping in Temples is out now on Boydell Press