Susan Oliver caught up with Guest Artist Tom Allen who joins us this week for the Saturday, November 2 concert “Between Us” and they talked about his history with Michael Newnham and the PSO, art and life, and more…

Susan: Michael Newnham, the PSO’s Music Director and Conductor, has called you a “great friend” of the PSO. What is your history with the organization, and what draws you to perform with the orchestra?
Tom: My history with the PSO is directly related to my history with Michael Newnham! For an entire summer, now close to 40 years ago, Mike and I sat beside each other in the trombone section of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. He was a great player with a dark, rich sound. From the Maritimes to the Rockies we forged granite blocks of sound in Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony and Bruckner’s 8th and on the way learned about dedication, precision, passion and how much you can accomplish with very, very little sleep. It was a world-shaping experience for both of us, and set us both on the paths in life that led us to the careers we have now. Since then, we’ve re-connected many times, including several concerts with the PSO that provide dear memories to me. Mike is a great musician and a great friend.


Susan: I love the personal stories behind the music as much as (or more than!) the music theory behind a piece. There are just so many intriguing and dramatic stories about the connections between the works and places, composers and performers. Without giving too much away, why has the relationship between the pianist and composer Clara Schumann and the composers Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms been, for over a century and a half, such a fascinating topic?
Tom: Good stories always start with a knock at the door. There can be any number of things happening within: strife, domestic bliss, horrors untold… and, in truth, there were a little of each of those behind the Schumann’s door on Bilker Straße in Düsseldorf in September of 1853. Robert was barely hanging on to his job as Director of the local Symphony and Choral Society, and Clara was becoming inescapably aware that, although she was busy enough as the mother of their now 8 children, with her husband’s mental state teetering by the day, it was going to have to be her career as a soloist that would keep food on the table. And then, there was a knock at the door, and in walked the handsome, brilliant, naive and lovelorn 20 year-old Johannes Brahms. None of their lives were ever the same.
In terms of drama, fate, romance, eros and gossip, you just can’t find a better beginning. It’s a good thing that’s actually what happened!
Susan: As a concert host, you share interesting facts about the composer, the times, and the work, telling the stories of how and why a piece of music may have become the way it is. What does the addition of storytelling and personal history bring a) to the musical performance, and b) to the audience?
Tom: One of the glories of instrumental music is that it leaves room for narrative. You can be completely absorbed by a Brahms Symphony, for example, and still have all kinds of capacity for whatever story that music may bring to mind. The more complex and beautiful the music, the richer that narrative can be. Knowing even a hint of what made that music sound the way it does just fuels that process – giving imaginary pictures to accompany the soundtrack – no matter whether you are playing it or simply listening.

Susan: You authored The Gift of the Game, a reflection on hockey and the role the game plays in the life of a divorced parent, the ways in which hockey can shape the relationship between fathers and sons. How hockey moulds us. To what degree are we defined by our love of the game and our wish to be admired for our skill on the ice? What are the implications for our culture of a game that so privileges violence?) Are there parallels that can be made in the role that music might play in a similar situation?
Tom: There are, indeed! The strange irony is that, in my case, I struggled to learn how to play hockey so that I could stay close to my at the time hockey-mad teenaged son, and just as I was finally getting it, he became far more interested in music. We’ve since played plenty of music together, and the creative life dominates much of our conversation. I also now play more hockey than he does, but he’s still better than I’ll ever be. 

SusanWhile looking for full-time work as a trombonist, you temped on Wall Street and cooked in a Mexican restaurant. Which did you like better? And, why!
Tom: Hmmm… at the time I was far happier temping. It was the high-80’s and those Wall Street firms were hauling in so much money they could even pay bottom-level schlubs like me a decent wage. I could set my own hours and leave time for a musical life, while actually being able to pay the rent and now and then even have some left over. However, looking back from here, several decades later, there was something very sweet about the cooking life. Most mornings I walked across Central Park to get to the restaurant, and I arrived in time for breakfast: a fresh mango, eggs and salsa and strong, dark coffee. Those first moments, before the rush started, having a big, empty kitchen to myself was the very definition of luxury, and that feeling stays much stronger in my memory than the shrill intensity of clanking coins in the Financial District.

Thank you Tom!