What a delight to see us captured in a painting while we were playing on 23rd October 2010 in Connecticut! We documented our travels of Autumn in New England in a five part-blog starting here. In part 5, we remembered our concert at Mark and Beverly’s home. What fond memories we have!! Thank you, Ms Rosebrooks! Hope to meet you in person one day — and see your painting!
Tag Archives: duo
What do you do with 22 students in a classroom of just 15 electric pianos (2 of which do not sound) and one portable synthesizer for 3 hours?
- Let them take turns at the piano, one at a time. Give a lecture to the rest of the class. Swap.
- Put two students on each keyboard and have them play duets.
- Put two students on each keyboard and conduct them like an orchestra.
When I googled “piano orchestra” I found a variety of piano concertos and questions about the role of piano in the orchestra.
Truth is, it is rare to see so many pianos in one room, unless they are all for sale, in which case you can’t play on them as you wish.
On day one, I asked my students to play just the black keys. I split them into several section. One section played successive quarter notes. Another joined with half notes. The third joined with whole notes. I then improvised on high treble.
My father used to play Chinese songs just on black keys. Pentatonic music (using just the 5 notes of the 5 black keys) blend well in any order in any octave.
Now is my chance to deconstruct my favourite works, be they classical concertos or pop songs. Assign the parts to the various pianists. This way, everyone gets to play. Doubling up is fine. The string section does it all the time.
What I want to get across is simple:
- Most students of piano learn to play solo piano works. They advance to become soloists.
- Some learn to accompany choir or other instruments or voice.
- Others move on to become organists.
- Whether you’re an accompanist or organist, you serve the choir or congregation. You’re not equal.
- But when you play in an orchestra, ensemble, or chamber music group, it’s totally different.
- String players know this. Wind players, too. Brass players. Singers in choirs.
- But pianists in a piano orchestra? That’s nearly unheard of.
It’s hard to find pianos you can play in one place. It’s hard to move pianos into one place. It’s hard to find pieces written for many pianos.
But ah! such joy to play together! The full polyphonic sound of a piano orchestra!
[Note: this is my first blog post on an iPad!}
An extraordinary event is set to happen on Sunday 13th February 2011 at 7 pm in Wells, Maine.
Classical guitarist Robert Bekkers will travel from the sunny tropical island of Maui in Hawaii, crossing an ocean and most of the North American continent to the snow-covered town of Wells, Maine. There, he will give a concert with a pianist he has yet to meet — Greg Hall.
On Sunday 13th February 2011, Greg Hall will appear in real life as himself.
Where is Wells, Maine? Robert Bekkers will take the 1.5 hour train ride from Boston going north. It will be an adventure in New England, now covered with snow.
What a change in weather it will be for Robert Bekkers who has been exploring Maui since Thanksgiving Day 2010 when he ended his coast-to-coast concert tour of mainland USA.
Together, Greg Hall and Robert Bekkers will revive that 19th century tradition of cozy house concerts when musicians played music they wrote (compositions) or music not yet written (improvisation). Back then, musicians were both performers and composers.
Bekkers has arranged a number of pieces for piano and guitar, performed and recorded but not yet published though highly sought-after. Hall’s repertoire can be heard online in “Second Life” as well as from his website.
They will play two sets solo — and join the two sets with duo improvisation and sightreading. It is probably the first of its kind.
Bekkers’ solos will be extracted from his “Cappricho” programme (2 page PDF): virtuosic works of Villa-Lobos, Brrios-Mangore, Brouwer, Bach, Walton, Martin, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
Both Hall and Bekkers will be signing their solo and duo CDs during the intermission and after the concert when guests are encouraged to stay and chat. Bekkers is currently producing CDs of live recordings of two concerts of his own piano guitar duo.
GUITAR MEETS PIANO
Greg Hall, piano and Robert Bekkers, guitar
Sunday 13 February 2011
Doors open 6:30 pm for 7 pm concert
Suggested donation $10 at the door
Guests are welcome to bring their own drinks to share (BYOB)
169 Meetinghouse Road, Wells, Maine
Meetinghouse Concert Series
A percentage of the proceeds will go towards the selected charities of the late owners of this house: Animal Welfare Society of West Kennebunk and Maine Children’s Cancer Program, in memory of Dennis and Nella Hudon.
I borrowed the Dover edition of the orchestral version for Bizet’s Carmen opera months ago. The full score looked intimidating, a reminder of the arduous score reading exercises I had to do during my years at conservatory. And so the hard-back book laid on my piano unopened until I found free sheet music of piano solo and duet transcriptions on the Internet.
Eureka! I found a short cut.
It is possible to reduce orchestral music to piano and fewer instruments. It requires a lot more imagination the other way around.
At first, I split up a quatre-main (4-hands, one piano) duet into separate parts for a single guitar and piano. Then I noticed that the piano duet left out many wonderful melodies. To do Carmen justice, I opened the orchestra score, found those beloved themes and allocated them as I saw fit.
Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers stopped me when he saw that I was giving the exciting parts to the piano. It reminded me of my own protests when he had given himself the interesting, virtuoso passages in his arrangements of Bach’s Badinerie, Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and the Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba for our duo.
“I can do that!” he pointed to a chromatic run. “I love scales. Better, let us do it together!”
Now that’s a challenge — to play the fast notes completely in sync with each other! We do that quite a bit in Vivaldi’s Summer from his Four Seasons. I can have the guitar play exactly what I play in the same register or an octave apart. Or we can play a third apart.
“Give me big powerful chords,” he said. He wants to show off, but so do I. We’ll just have to take turns, I decided.
Robert also gave me advice. “To be safe, don’t give the guitar more than two voices at a time.”
Bizet’s opera was set in Seville, Spain where we had visited in April 2009 for a gypsy flamenco project. I remember the flamenco rhythms and the percussive nature of such exotic music. Arranging Carmen brought back memories of that week as well as my visit to the Netherlands Opera production of Carmen at the end of the Holland Festival in Amsterdam.
Technically speaking, the piano and the guitar can replace 16 single-note instruments: 10 fingers on the piano plus 6 strings of the guitar. If we add our feet and elbows, then we can do even more. I love sound of the guitar being used as a percussive instrument. Can I do the same on the piano? Or would I need drumsticks?
What shall I call my arrangement? There are numerous Carmen Suites and Carmen Fantasies on Naxos CD Online and youtube. Mine is not a suite or a fantasy. A suite is structured — mine is a medley of various sticky tunes, and yet it’s more than a medley. A fantasy would require a lot more imagination, dedication, and virtuosity. I want it to be fun and interesting, not like some of the 19th century arrangements of popular opera themes for guitar and piano.
How about Carmen Potpourri for piano and guitar? Coincidentally when I google “Carmen Potpourri” I find our piano guitar duo website and this blog. Maybe that’s what it should be called: Carmen Potpourri for piano and guitar.
We are now preparing a completely new programme for 2010, to debut on 21st January 2010 in Doorn, Netherlands. What sets it apart from previous programmes is that it is full of new transcriptions that are equally fun and exciting for piano and guitar.
We open with Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, whose 4-hand one piano score could easily be read for our piano and guitar combination. While I was visiting Helsinki in mid-November to play the duet with my Finnish friend, Robert Bekkers transcribed it for our duo. It’s a piece that makes me happy every time I play it.
The choice for the second piece is tricky. I’m not sure what to put between the Queen of Sheba and the third piece: Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Perhaps we should choose a lesser known piece, just to break the familiarity of sticky tunes, or as the composer and pianist Daniel Abrams suggested, a solo piano or guitar piece.
Robert arranged Winter for our duo, largely because the Summer concerto worked so well for us. The latter was very exciting and challenging to play in sync. He chose it after spotting a young Korean guitarist playing the fast sections on youtube. Originally written for string orchestra, Winter is much easier to play than Summer. I particularly like the second movement – Largo. How fitting it is to study Winter in the final week of 2009 with snow thawing on the ground. I feel that sweet contentment of being indoors, in the warmth and coziness of a well-insulated Dutch house. Winter has never been like this, where I grew up — in the subtropics.
I first heard Manuel de Falla’s Danse Espagnole from the opera La Vida Breve at a final exam concert at the Utrecht Conservatory in 2008. I was so taken by it that I invited the Spanish violinist Angel Sanchez Marote and the Okinawan pianist Shumpei Tanahara to play it again in our Monument House Concert Series. [A midsummer afternoon tea concert programme PDF] I asked Angel (pronounced An – hul) where to get the music. He said it was one of many popular arrangements by Fritz Kreisler, available at music book stores. Coincidentally, Robert owned an arrangement for two guitars which he rehearsed with his own duo. His guitar part was 80% the same as the violin part in the violin-piano score I found at a second-hand sheet music store in Amsterdam. Needless to say, it was a matter of time before we adjusted the score for our piano guitar duo.
I was delighted to stumble upon a video clip of Angel playing the Spanish Dance, with a different pianist (below).
The only works in our new programme that are original to piano and guitar are the Grand Duo Concertant and Grand Potpourri National which are long enough to fit a concert by themselves. The former was a collaboration between 33 year old Mauro Giuliani and 19 year old Ignaz Moscheles, and the latter between Giuliani and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. The 25-minute Grand Potpourri National is a joy to play. It contains themes of national anthems of the countries in 1815 when it was written. So far we’ve only managed to identify Rule Britannia and Haydn’s Deutschland Uber Alles which became the Austrian national anthem. We’re told there is also Vive Henri IV (French national anthem). What about the others?
When I met the English guitarist and composer David Harvey in London in 2006, he gave me his arrangement of Piazzolla’s Tango Suite no. 2 (from his guitar duos). It’s only now that we have time to include it in our repertoire. We played it recently for my Rotary Club gathering.
We revisit another great Spanish maestro, the blind composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999), whose Fantasia para un Gentilhombre took us through all of 2009. This time, we return to his most famous guitar concerto, if not THE most famous of all guitar concertos: the Aranjuez. Robert had arranged the beautiful slow movement for himself as soloist with an ensemble of flute, bassoon, and guitar in an outdoor summer concert which I organised in London (photo below). Since 2002, we’ve considered studying all three movements of the Concierto de Aranjuez, we’ve never been so convinced until now to include it in our program.
Ever since I saw Bizet’s Carmen in Amsterdam, I promised and vowed to make an arrangement of my favourite pieces from this delightful opera. The orchestral score has been sitting on my grand piano for months while I searched for interesting piano solo and duet arrangements. Perhaps my own arrangement for piano and guitar will be the missing second piece in our new programme. That’s my way of getting back into the swing of composing again.
I made good use of the three hour train journey from Paris to Rotterdam by changing and updating the Piano Guitar Duo concert page based on suggestions from a supportive reader. While at it, I also changed the blog page of the site.
As soon as the Thalys train crossed the border into the Netherlands, I called my friend who lives in Rotterdam but loves Paris. I couldn’t wait to tell him about my 4 days 5 nights in this incredible city.
He brought along young William, to whom I was introduced in March at the Effusion house concert in our Monument House Concert Series in Utrecht. William had begun piano lessons while the other young guest Riley had just begun violin lessons. It was good to see young people enjoy a concert of new music.
I told 7 year old William that we wanted to share our music and interesting stories with the world. Our photos don’t always do that. Neither does audio and video recorded music. This blog is meant to fill the gap.
But something is still missing.
The human touch of a hand drawn interpretation? With narrative?
His father said that he drew comic strips in his spare time. Trilingual in English, Dutch, and French, William is more likely to experience different points of view than someone who is monolingual. Perhaps he also sees the world differently.
Talking to young William, who has natural entrepreneurial tendencies, shed light on new ways of looking at piano and guitar. Youth offers the freedom of imagination that age has forgotten.
No sooner had I arrived in Utrecht, 40 minutes away, did I get an e-mail of a scanned copy of his first interpretation of our piano guitar duo (below). [Click on the image for the 800 x 600 version.]
Before I had time to react, he already churned out yet another.
Suppose he comes to one of our concerts, would he then draw differently? Would it fuel his wild imagination or stifle it? Are there more ingenious ways to react to a concert other than the obvious expressions and words?
Could William add to my collection of Music on Canvas in Paris?
I have asked several artists before him to draw our piano guitar duo.
William of Rotterdam, I shall call him, is the first to do so.
To-date, he is the only one to have done so.
I am told that William is 7 (not 8 as I had written yesterday). Checking the blog statistics, I’m pleasantly surprised to see it jump six-fold, i.e. twice the previous daily high reached. Obviously William has many fans, perhaps even more than we!
The uncertainties we encounter as performers translate to the risks we face and manage on the spot. Before arriving at the venue, we have no idea how we will sound and how the audience will respond to our music. Getting to the venue poses other uncertainties, particularly if the journey is susceptible to traffic congestion and delays.
Musicians who bring their own instruments have one less uncertainty to worry about compared to those who rely on the instruments provided. By this token, pianists have to get used to a lot. Other surprises have to do with room acoustics, audience, and technical adequacy.
One way to control risk is to reduce the number of moving parts. This year we decided to stick to one programme with minor alterations, unlike the previous year of changing programmes every month and nearly custom-tailoring to every venue and occasion. By restricting ourselves to a fixed set of duo works, we were able to focus on the way we play together rather than tackling each piece individually.
As a pianist, I feel more prepared if I know what kind of piano to expect. The top models such as Steinway, Bechstein, and Borsendorfer grand pianos give me confidence that I don’t have to exert extra effort to “control” the instrument. An unknown name or an upright piano gives me an added worry that I’d have to get used to how it sounds, whether I’m able to play repeated notes, if I will need extra pedal control, if it would go out of tune, and how I should sit so that I can still see and hear the guitarist.
Recently I played on a Steinbeck upright. The name rings a bell. It sounds like Steinway — could it be a relative?
The guitarist observed that it was Bechstein in reverse. That’s why it sounds so familiar!
Unfortunately the piano did not behave like either a Steinway or a Bechstein. It was not evenly tuned, making it difficult to play with another instrument in this chamber music setting. Worse, it got progressively out of tune the more I played.
Pianists have a prejudice when it comes to their instrument. Grand pianos look and sound better than uprights in general. The well-known models are more predictable (and reliable) than the unknown ones. Uprights are usually used for rehearsals and not considered instruments for solo or chamber music performance. Equally black is favoured over brown.
Unlike the pianist, the guitarist, who always faces the audience, feels the full impact of audience attention and reaction. Restlessness, movement, and noise can unnerve a performer’s concentration. With my side or back facing the audience, I can choose to ignore such distractions more easily than the guitarist who is more exposed.
“All that glitters is not gold.”
We thought it would be a good concert this afternoon in Amsterdam when we saw the Yamaha grand piano and raised stage. After we sat down to warm up, we noticed that only the treble notes of the piano were resonating. The bass notes drowned almost as soon as they were played.
The guitarist gestured to sit more closely together. He pointed to the floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall glass windows and doors. We were surrounded by glass on three sides. The low system ceilings further dampened the sound.
It was an acoustically challenging situation, not helped by the piano feeling rather new. The action did not allow me to play fast runs or repeated notes.
“We’ll have to take it easy,” he said. “Slower tempos.”
The one hour concert (without intermission) was further exacerbated by the restless audience. Ten minutes before the end, we heard the foot steps of a staff member wheeling a resident out the door. It was so loud that it sounded like a third instrument, only off stage.
We took our bows and walked quickly to the windowless dressing room on the side of the stage. We were exhausted from having to cope with elements incompatible with what we had hoped for.
“Come on,” I urged. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I don’t think they’re used to classical concerts,” he concluded. “You have to arrange the opera overtures for our duo quickly. Those are the tunes they’ll recognise.”
We had forgotten that there is risk in the repertoire. Most of the composers and works for piano guitar duo are unfamiliar to most audiences. Perhaps more familiar works or composers would reduce the uncertainty in audience reaction.
I leaned against the doorway and agreed. It’s about time we focus on getting a CD to send to those venues equipped with grand pianos and good acoustics, those that attract attentive audiences who would appreciate our music.
Only two weeks after he heard us perform in November 2007, Amsterdam-based composer Gijs van Dijk (pronounced like “hey-s”) finished the “Abstract and Dance” for our piano guitar duo. Instead of starting on that piece, we asked if he would write something for our trio with Korean violinist Naeon Kim.
Today Gijs came to hear his “Abstract and Dance” — for the first time. I had assumed “abstract” in the title to mean an abstract, such as a shortened summary of the piece. He had deliberately made the first part increasingly “abstract” or nearly 12-tone. The pun was not intended. It’s interesting how the gist of the piece comes to light after working with the composer. Without his feedback, we would have to rely entirely on what’s specifically written in the piece.
It begins with andantino grazioso but we only followed the metronome setting at quarter note = 84 not at all andantino or gracefully. In the absence of bows and slurs, we didn’t pay much attention to phrasing. Until now the guitarist and I had been focussing on being able to play together, in synchronisation, without hiccups. There were no pedal indications, but I guessed that pedalling was necessary for such a contemporary piece. To be sure, I just had to ask, for I’m accustomed to do very little pedalling for 19th and 18th century pieces to avoid overpowering the guitar.
“Yes, do pedal as you see fit.”
We played through the entire piece without stopping. This is the usual practice, to let the composer hear it in its entirety. And then we’d work through the piece, asking questions, giving suggestions, etc.
One of my secret games with composers is to see if they can tell if I’ve misplayed a note. In a piece full of accidentals like this one, it’s not clear if certain accidentals are meant to be or deliberately left out.
Bar 12 did not indicate a C# as was the case in the previous measure. I had wondered whether there should have been a C# otherwise I would expect a courtesy “natural” to avoid confusion. I played as written, but Gijs stopped me. The C-natural in the bass sounded odd.
“Please add the sharp, just like the previous bar.”
After the second group of clusters in the guitar coinciding with a long bass trill in the piano, a new pattern emerged in bar 31. The composer asked the guitarist to play the new phrase melodically. “Put a slur over it. Can you play it legato?”
This meant I should lead into it melodically too, i.e. add a slur and make it feel like we’re talking to each other. Indeed until now, we were so set on playing the right notes, in the right tempo, at the right time, making the right accents, in the right dynamics, that we hadn’t a clue about the dialogue between the two instruments.
We could view the piece as two people talking or trying to have a conversation. I begin with a dramatic statement in bar one. The guitar attempts to say, “And I have also been …” but gets cut off by two huge sfz (suddenly very loud) chords of mine, as though saying, “I’m not done yet!” I start again, as before. My two gigantic sfz chords cut him off just as he tries to react. I continue like a soliloquy. He tries to empathise but is drowned out. When I pause to breathe, he gets his chance. He squeezes and wheezes a string of fast notes in ff desperate to be heard finally.
After a lot of exciting to and fro, the guitar bangs away on all 6-strings while the piano trills away on the lowest G#.
Here is where the melodic section begins, a gentle mp quint climb. But this melodic, legato section is short-lived. Ten measures later, both instruments pound away, 6-note chords on the guitar against 5-note clusters on both hands for the piano in ff. Either they are both mad or both wanting to get attention.
Six bars later, they’re back making melodic music again.
Connecting the “abstract” to the “dance” is an “adagio.” The composer wanted us to make it even slower than the indicated metronome tempo. “Make the half-note a 42,” he said.
We added poco rit to end small sections and crescendo’s where necessary. It was like adding extra colours to a finished work, with the creator’s consent, of course. We rounded the lines, smoothed out the shades, and made this section a true adagio, a relaxing contrast from the “abstract.”
I was eager to throw myself into the “dance” with a full blown allegro, quarter note = 120, as indicated. The guitarist complained that it was too fast for him. [Ha! I could do it and I was unstoppable.] To my disappointment, the composer asked that we slow it down to an easy quarter note = 112.
“That sounds better,” he said.
Perhaps the composer was sympathetic since he was a guitarist himself. I nearly sulked at the guitarist’s grin.
Much to my chagrin, I saw the benefits of taking it slightly more slowly. At this tempo we could express the accented notes which were not simultaneous for guitar and piano. Suddenly I heard something else. It was no longer a race to see how fast we could play it, but an intricate dance, like the kind of interlocking in minimalist music I played in gamelan ensembles.
Our rehearsal with the composer brought new insights to the performance of this piece. With fresh understanding, we now have to get into the piece for its premiere on 3rd May in Spain!
“Goedemiddag, dames en heren. Wij woonden in Bussum tot drie jaar geleden. Nu wonen wij in Utrecht.”
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We lived in Bussum until three years ago. Now we live in Utrecht.
I wanted very much to connect with the audience, all of them strangers except for one.
Bussum and its sister city Naarden lie in the famous Gooi (pronounced “hoy”) east of Amsterdam, an area generally known for its affluent residents in the big standalone houses of Het Spiegel next to the Naarden-Bussum train station.
The only person we knew in the audience was Esta, a lady from the foundation that booked and arranged our concert schedules. She appears now and then, always unannounced and always a welcome surprise. This time she spoke only Dutch to me.
I am very happy to see that you are speaking Dutch, Anne. Shall I announce you and what you will play? Or will you do the talking?
I told her that I had started taking private lessons in Dutch, once a week, two hours each lesson. I said that I had written down what I was going to say in Dutch.
Good. Finally I will hear you talk in Dutch.
The guitarist and I waited at the door while Esta went to the microphone to open the concert. The microphone did not work. The volunteer who had earlier greeted us stood up. She tried to look for the switch. Another lady got up to help. It took them a few minutes to figure out the problem. A ha! It worked.
By the time we walked on stage, we just wanted to play.
I have long wanted to write the story of our duo: how it began, what it’s like to rehearse together, why we do what we do, who we meet, and where we end up. As we begin another season of concertising, it’s become ever necessary to use a blog engine like this one.
Monday 23rd March 2009,
a typically grey, windy, and indecisive day in the Netherlands.
In the rush of preparing breakfast and getting dressed, I spotted an email from a friend who wrote that she had a gap in the afternoon and would like to come to our concert in Amsterdam. It’s always nicer to play to a familiar audience than an anonymous one, even if only one face was known among the strangers.
The drive from Utrecht to Amsterdam was uneventful until we arrived in the heart of the city where unexpected roadworks forced us to make a detour. [I should say that every concert experience is unique. There are always surprises. We're required by our concert organisers to arrive half an hour early. We always aim for a one hour slack because of traffic delays and our need to test the acoustics.] Luckily the detour was not extensive.
After parking in front of the building, we unloaded the car with our suit bag, guitar in case, microphone stand, and backpacks of our sheet music. We left the thermos flask of hot herbal tea and the box of Dutch cream puffs in the car for later.
The lady who greeted us appeared somewhat unsettled. None of the volunteers she had contacted to help out had arrived. It was 20 minutes before the concert was to begin. The programme notes had to be handed out, the audience welcomed and seated, and of course, someone had to take care of us — the performers.
As performers, we don’t require much — really. Just a good well-tuned piano. Piano stool and pedals that don’t squeak. For the guitarist, a chair without arms (a literal translation from Dutch). A dressing room. Warm drinks to prevent cold hands. And clean toilets. I should also add good acoustics and a respectful audience. Somehow we never get all of the above.
The dressing room was a storage room for the kitchen next door. It was too warm to get cold hands. I changed into a puffy white cotton designer blouse and a long blue Jaeger wool skirt. I couldn’t find my new eyeshadow set. The make-up only needed to last the hour, and yet I felt incomplete without a touch of colour on my eyelids.
“Welkom, dames en heren.” I had prepared to speak in Dutch, introducing ourselves, the composers and their works, and what juicy tidbits of information to make the music memorable. There were perhaps 20 at most in the audience, with my American friend in the front row.
The black Yamaha upright piano made the checklist. But the acoustics was dry. This meant that I had to compensate for the lack of sustain by controlling the damper pedal carefully. The microphone we brought to record our performance ran out of battery midway through the first half of the concert. Thankfully, everything else was under control.
During the intermission, my friend suggested that I speak directly into the microphone. After the concert, she came to the dressing room. “There’s an elderly gentleman who used to sing in the Concertgebouw,” she said excitedly. “I feel young here. The man next to me is 92 !”