Guitar music in Ermelo, Netherlands

…we drove eastward to Ermelo, a place that holds magic for those not acquainted with nature and its secrets. It was an intimate occasion, with local audience. Besides the sounds of nature, they can enjoy the fruit of their labour, such as new guitars made by the Amsterdam-based guitar builder Jeroen Hilhorst.

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After our concert in Bussum (this time, a lovely Yamaha grand piano in a dry space with low system ceilings — can one ever get 100% perfect surroundings for a live concert?) we drove eastward to Ermelo, a place that holds magic for those not acquainted with nature and its secrets.

The previous (and second) time we came here, Robert Bekkers and his guitar duo gave a concert, followed by a tasty, home-cooked dinner. I was a mere spectator then. Earlier, on our first visit, we gave a small concert on guitar and keyboards. [Or was it just guitar solo? My memory escapes me – hence the reason for this blog!]

Both were intimate occasions, with a local audience comprising of neighbours in this forested community. Those lucky city dwellers, who retreat to their country houses on weekends and holidays, have an appreciation for the finer things in life. Besides the sounds of nature, they can enjoy (in a relaxed environment) the fruits of their labour, such as new guitars made by the Amsterdam-based luthier Jeroen Hilhorst.

Robert considers it a privilege to be the one to try out Jeroen’s new guitars, hot off the press. Secretly, however, he wants to make sure his own isn’t inferior to the new ones. Jeroen makes only 6 concert guitars per year, 2 at a time, on order for his international clients. On our third visit, Jeroen surprised us with three (not two) new guitars.

First Robert warmed up his fingers on his own guitar, which Jeroen had custom-built for him in November 2005. The concert guitar has served our piano guitar duo well, for it’s much louder than the normal guitar, allowing me to be free on the grand piano.

But it’s not the volume that makes such concert guitars so special. I can only compare it to quality mature red wine, the kind that causes an eruption of “aaaaah!” and makes you want to drink more of it after each sip. The sound surrounds you, like the way the “reserve” red wine fills your body with warmth. The more you listen to it, the more you want to drown in it and forget the world.

I suppose you only wake up to how special Jeroen’s guitars are when you listen to a “normal” classical guitar. Indeed, Robert doesn’t even allow me to touch his concert guitar.

Rewind to unwind in Galicia

It was an achingly beautiful day. The sun warmed our skins, and the Atlantic Ocean roared loud and clear. Robert watched the distant surfers with envy and declared that he would hunt for a wet suit to join them. I was content just being outside and near the water.

I shall now rewind my recollections of Spain by going backwards. At this time of night, I’m also trying to unwind from the long day of planning ahead and juggling a portfolio career in Utrecht.

Any day now we will be receiving the CD recording of our first concert in that beautiful villa in Madrid. When Robert returns from Maastricht, where he is finishing the transcriptions of live flamenco music taken in Seville, he will continue viewing and clipping the video of our concert of 21st century music at the MACUF (Museum of Contemporary Arts in Coruña) — our raison d’etre for going to Spain in the first place. Had it not been for the invitation to take part in this didactic concert series of music of 20th and 21st centuries, we wouldn’t have gone to Madrid, La Coruña, Santiago de Compostela, and Ferrol.

Until the Madrid CD and the MACUF video, I will go through my photo and video albums, select the ones worth sharing and remembering on this blog, and walk down memory lane for as long as I can.

After the MACUF concert, which ended around 14:00 on Sunday 3 May, we explored the Galician coast. The rest of this blog is all about that day in La Coruña.

Anne Ku at the coast of La Coruna
Anne Ku at the coast of La Coruna

It was an achingly beautiful day. The sun warmed our skins, and the Atlantic Ocean roared loud and clear. Robert watched the distant surfers with envy and declared that he would hunt for a wet suit to join them. I was content just being outside and near the water.

Robert Bekkers posing on an outdoor sculpture in La Coruna
Robert Bekkers posing on an outdoor sculpture in La Coruna

The wind blew us in one direction. As we walked and talked, I noticed the figure in front of us.

“I know this person.”

“Who? Him?” Robert pointed to the young man ahead of us.

“Yes! He looks very familiar. Where have I seen him before?”

I quickened my steps to catch up with him. I walked in front of him and turned my head.

“You! Didn’t I meet you in Utrecht? What are you doing here?” I stopped him dead in his tracks. “Sorry, I forgot your name!”

He looked at me quizzically.

“Miguel,” he said. “Anne Ku, what are YOU doing here?”

“You remembered my name!” I laughed and pointed to Robert. “Have you met? This is Robert Bekkers.”

“Yes, we’ve met. I saw your photo in the newspaper this morning.” Miguel scratched his head. “Contemporary music? You gave a concert today?”

I met Miguel in Utrecht in 2007 or so. He was a very enthusiastic Spaniard who asked what I composed. I replied that there were still two piano solo pieces that have not yet been premiered. Would he like a copy?

“I’m going to accompany singers tonight,” Miguel said. “I have to hurry. Where are you staying? What’s your number? Let’s get together later.”

We spent the rest of the day walking along the coast, visiting the aquarium, and climbing to the cliff that offered a panoramic view of the ocean.

By the time we meandered into town, we were hungry and tired. At 9 pm, my mobile phone rang.

“Where are you?” asked Miguel, the pianist.

“At Maria Pita Square,” I said. “Or is it Pita Maria Square?”

“Okay! I will be there in 10 minutes.”

Maria Pita Square in La Coruna, Spain
Maria Pita Square in La Coruna, Spain

Seconds later, my phone rang again. It was Ruben, the composer. He arrived with Paula. After introductions, we walked to a nonsmoking bar to have drinks and tapas.

Musicians in La Coruna, Spain
Musicians in La Coruna, Spain

The phone rang again. It was David, the pianist.

“I hear you have made a lot of friends. I won’t join you tonight. Have fun!”

Beach, concert, dinner in Ferrol and La Coruña, Spain

I’ve been mulling over what an eye-opener this trip has been. Did having no or near-negative expectations make everything a welcoming surprise? After the concert in Ferrol, we drove back to La Coruña to join the others for dinner in the crowded but popular pulpeira at Pita Maria Square.

It seems only yesterday that we were madly packing our bags to leave Utrecht for Schiphol airport, to fly to Madrid….. for our first concert, the experience of which still begs a blog or two. And before we knew it, we’re saying good-bye to 8 nights and 4 concerts in Spain.

    Silhouette on Ferrol beach in Spain
Silhouette on Ferrol beach in Spain

While editing and uploading photos from Robert’s iphone and (videos from) my mobile phone, I’ve been mulling over what an eye-opener this trip has been. Did having no or near-negative expectations make everything a welcoming surprise? What a contrast it was from the expedition to Seville two weeks earlier in which we had expected to venture into the gypsy flamenco world only to fall headfirst into a smoker’s paradise.

Thankfully our time in Madrid and La Coruña have been smoke-free, with nonsmoking classical musicians who understood our need to breathe fresh air. The lack of smoke and smokers made all the difference. [I suppose I really should write about my escape from the smoking villa of chain smokers to beautiful Sevilla, in particular, the conservatory superiore. And to complete the picture, I should write about our concert in Madrid, our trip to Santiago de Compostela, and more.]

Let me follow from the previous blog which detailed our decision to go to the beach BEFORE our last concert in Spain. The drive to the gorgeous beach (with good-looking surfers in wet suits) took 45 minutes, leaving barely enough time for a snooze. I fell asleep on the sand for 20 minutes. And then we had to quickly drive back to give our final concert in Spain.

After the one-hour concert at the conservatory in Ferrol, we drove back to La Coruña to join the others for dinner in the crowded but popular pulpeira at Pita Maria Square. All the restaurants adjacent and across the octopus restaurant were empty. Yet people would patiently stand and queue for the pulpeira. Once we sat down, we learned why.

How reluctant we were to say goodbye! First goodbye was to Ernesto, the violinist. I promised to send him my music. The rest of the gang took us back to our hotel. Until the next time!

Group photo on the last night in La Coruna
Group photo on the last night in La Coruna

A stage with a view — in Ferrol, Spain

The drive to Ferrol in Christina’s orange and grey car crossed over rolling hills, plush valleys, and panoramic ocean views. Ferrol is a coastal city east of La Coruña, where we had been staying the past few days. She asked if we wanted to see the conservatory before the beach. I had heard Miguel say that it was a special concert hall with a beautiful view.

After a hearty lunch of Galician octopus tentacles drowned in a sea of olive oil with pressed garlic and chillies, we were ready for the fourth and final concert on our first trip to Spain. The drive to Ferrol in Christina’s orange and grey car crossed over rolling hills, plush valleys, and panoramic ocean views. She asked if we wanted to see the conservatory before heading for the beach.

“Yes!” we answered simultaneously. After yesterday morning’s focussed rehearsal in the “professional” conservatory in La Coruña, we looked forward to something similar before the evening concert.

Ferrol is a coastal city east of La Coruña, where we had been staying since 2nd May 2009. Our host David, who teaches there, organised this concert for us. He greeted us at the busy reception area and led us to an air-conditioned room with a new upright piano. “Sorry, it’s not a grand,” he apologised. “You can practise here for an hour. I will be next door.”

In the Netherlands, this “professional conservatory” would be the equivalent of a music school. The kinds of conservatories I’m familiar with are called “conservatorio superiore.”

Exactly an hour later, a dark-haired lady opened the door and came in. I recognised her immediately.

“Alexandria! I didn’t know you’re here!” I exclaimed to the pianist who had played in the first composer-in-residence ensemble project at Utrecht Conservatory in 2006. She was shy then, even during the rehearsal of my “Fantasia on Vibrating G Strings” which I wrote for that project led by Chiel Meijering and conducted by Henk Alkema in the Vredenburg.

“This is my room. I teach here,” Alexandria replied self-assuredly.

“We’re playing tonight,” I announced.

“I know,” she responded. “I will be there.”

Alexandria was not the first familiar musician I ran into. Only yesterday I had spotted another dark-haired Galician pianist. Hector, who was in my arranging class in Utrecht, was chatting outside the conservatory in La Coruña where we had spent the morning practising. Earlier I had discovered the pianist Miguel walking just ahead of us on the boardwalk after our concert on 3rd May. He was equally surprised to see our photo in the newspaper that morning. “Contemporary music?” he had shaken his sleepy head at breakfast. “What are Anne and Robert doing here in La Coruña?”

David appeared at this point. “You can go to the hall now, and try the piano before the concert before yours begins.” Our concert was scheduled just after another concert. We were lucky to have any time at all in the hall.

I had heard Miguel, at our “Break a Leg” concert, say that it was a special hall with a beautiful view.

View behind the stage in the Concert Hall in Ferrol, Spain
View behind the stage in the Concert Hall in Ferrol, Spain

The acoustics were not bad either. “Christina!” I asked. “Would you take a video of us?”

Robert prefers to end our popular three-centuries programme with the last movement of Mauro Giuliani’s Variations Op 113 (65) because it is very demanding. It’s printed as “Polonoise” but we think it should be “Polonaise” though it doesn’t sound like one.

Time to go to the beach! But why do we need to go to Christina’s car? Isn’t the beach just outside? Behind the stage?

Sunset in La Coruña, Spain

I am writing these stories in Utrecht, nearly a week after our Spanish concert tour. First, the sunset — as recorded and narrated by Robert Bekkers, below. While he was making this video, I chatted with Christina and Miguel.

I am writing these stories in Utrecht, nearly a week after our first concert tour of Spain.

It’s hard to forget the warmth and friendliness of the musicians who showed us around and shared the drinks and shellfish tapas with us. We ate “pulpo” at least once every day and yet still craved for more. Only on the last evening did we discover the succulent mouth-watering razor clams.

Food, music, and love definitely all go together — especially in Spain.

There is too much to engrave in the depths of my memory and savour until our next trip. Where would it be next? Barcelona? San Sebastian? Toledo? Before I went to Spain, I knew only Paella and Sangria. Now I can’t wait to discover the different regional specialties.

After our “Break a Leg” concert, we hurried Miguel and Christina to join us in viewing the sunset a few streets away, on the coast. It was our last chance to see this amazing phenomenon, for our next concert was in nearby Ferrol the next and final evening.

Below — the sunset as recorded and narrated by Robert Bekkers. While he was making this video, I chatted with Christina and Miguel on the boardwalk.

“Break a leg!”

It’s customary to wish a successful performance by saying “break a leg!”

This does not literally mean that you wish the performers to break their legs but that you wish them to perform so well that it wouldn’t be surprising if they actually broke their legs. One hour before the “cinco de mayo” concert in central La Coruña, our second concert in this coastal city and our third in Spain, I witnessed a most dramatic event.

It’s customary to wish a successful performance by saying “break a leg!”

This does not literally mean that you wish the performers to break their legs but that you wish them to perform so well that it wouldn’t be surprising if they actually broke their legs.

One hour before the “cinco de mayo” concert in central La Coruña, our second concert in this coastal city and our third in Spain, I witnessed a most dramatic event.

Concert at El Circulo Artesano in La Coruña, Spain
Concert at El Circulo Artesano in La Coruña, Spain

The concierge led us to the grand piano behind the curtains. He pulled while the guitarist pushed at the piano. In one “swoosh!” they rolled the piano on its three feet to centre stage but not without some commotion. As a bystander, I saw the covered wooden stage dip under the weight of the 6 ft grand piano.

One more pull and push — the leg towards the treble end of the piano folded under, like the way a person trips on his own foot.

I gasped.

People stopped talking.

A vision flashed before me: that the other two legs would bend and break, causing the piano to crash land on my lap as I play it. I quickly dismissed the thought and scurried to get a chair.

The grand piano at El Círculo de Artesanos in La Coruña, Spain
The grand piano at El Círculo de Artesanos in La Coruña, Spain

Nothing fitted between the chair and the piano except for empty space. Psychologically the piano looked better with the chair than without anything underneath as its broken leg was now lying on the floor, a useless piece of wood. The concierge went to call for help.

I retreated to the dressing room trying to recover from shock. There was a electric keyboard — maybe that’s the back-up.

Meanwhile, the guitarist sat alone on stage practising his runs. Later on, he confessed that he was practising solo pieces in case he’d have to play alone.

Ten minutes before the concert was to begin at 20:00, I heard the tinkling of the ivories. Opening the doors of the dressing room to the main hall, I looked towards the stage and saw a makeshift assembly.

Temporarily resurrected grand piano
Temporarily resurrected grand piano

Was the piano tuner not available? Or did he come without proper tools? Would it be strong enough to withstand my fortes? My fortessimos? My mind was filled with questions.

In other words, would I be safe?

A man came towards me and shook my hands. Introducing himself as the director of the centre, he said that it was a new piano, only 2 years old. This shouldn’t have happened.

Meanwhile, we were eager to warm up before the people started streaming in. Already I saw a familiar face in the audience. It was Miguel, an enthusiastic pianist I met in Utrecht and by coincidence ran into the other day at the beach. [another story]

“Christina asked me to translate for you,” he greeted me. “She was bitten by a fish.”

“Would you take a video of us while we rehearse the encore?” I asked. “It’s just a mobile telephone.”

Afterwards, Miguel offered to take photos for us.

Piano guitar duo in concert on 5 May 2009
Piano guitar duo in concert on 5 May 2009

Since then, the concert is no longer the “cinco de mayo” but the “break the piano leg” or “break a leg” concert!

Risk management in concert productions

Producing a concert involves managing the uncertainties and risks associated with the unexpected. The implicit contract to participate and deliver a performance rested on their integrity as fellow musicians.

The kinds of uncertainties and risks I regularly encounter in producing (and giving) concerts are not like what I wrote about when I was swimming in such jargon of energy trading and risk management. It’s no longer theoretical or mathematical. And I don’t suppose there are fancy models to hedge such risks or reduce associated uncertainties, other than the ideas of redundancy from my engineering textbooks. By redundancy, I mean having a back-up, a duplicate, something on stand-by, a readily available replacement or substitute course of action.

Producing a concert involves managing the uncertainties and risks associated with the unexpected. When I was preparing for my final exam composition concert last year, I considered every single one of the 40 musicians a potential source of risk. A musician may not show up for rehearsal or be late or leave early. No one was getting paid, and as such no one had an obligation to deliver. What assured me that they would actually show up on the day of the concert?

The implicit contract to participate and deliver a performance rested on their integrity as fellow musicians. I could have done away with this delivery and performance risk by binding them with legal contracts and financial compensation. But I was a fellow student on a shoestring budget, and the status quo was to help each other. I did actually face the above risks, and the stories deserve another blog or two.

What prompted me to write this blog entry is the dramatic beginning of tonight’s concert.

The concert of 5th of May 2009 was planned months in advance and noted on our website concert agenda. Yet for one reason or another, it could not be confirmed until the day before. This meant that it was nearly impossible to schedule other activities. The uncertainty turned into optionality when, on the day before the concert, we were given the option of having an additional concert on 6th May. Our host asked if we wanted to give one concert (and if so which) or both.

Given that these were free and unpaid concerts, we had no obligation to give them at all. In other words, we could choose (at this late stage) to 1) not give any more concerts than the two already given on this tour in Spain and spend the remaining few days under the sun; 2) give one more concert — on Tuesday 5th May or Wednesday 6th May evening; or 3) give both concerts. There was no penalty associated with these choices.

In risk management, optionality is not usually free. An option is defined in financial textbooks as the right but not the obligation. Optionality, in my language, translates to a kind of flexibility. A wide network of contacts gives you more access to knowledge and connections than a limited one. House keys are a kind of physical optionality for they unlock and open doors but you don’t have to use them. A multi-lingual person has more optionality than a mono-lingual one. A ticket to the theatre gives you the right to attend the show, but you can always choose to sell or give it away or forfeit the use and do something else.

As musicians eager to play and maximise performance opportunities, we decided to take the third option — to give both concerts . This left us with very little slack and only a few hours for a day trip to Santiago de Compostela. Whatever free time would be spent on rehearsing for these concerts.

One hour before the “cinco de mayo” concert in central La Coruña …”break a leg.”