Inviting Rotarians to concert

I invited my fellow Rotarians to our next house concert of 17th April. Share this with others who may enjoy and benefit from such a gathering. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy live chamber music than in a house with the hostess. The 19th century salon concerts had that feel. It’s been lost to commercial concert halls too big for intimacy.

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Tonight at the fortnightly dinner meeting of Rotary Club Utrecht International, I invited my fellow Rotarians to our next house concert of 17th April. I said that my duo was showing others how to organise and produce concerts from their private homes to 1) create new performance opportunities for musicians and 2) reach new audiences. Such collaboration is part of a new effort to find and develop new concert venues.

Concert invitation at Rotary dinner in Vleuten, Netherlands 23 March 2010
Concert invitation at Rotary dinner in Vleuten, Netherlands 23 March 2010

Just under half of our members were there tonight, but everyone took time to look at the intricate design of the artist Elsbeth Carp, who will be hosting the concert in her home.

One member thought that the font type conveyed gothic or heavy metal music. Another thought the piano keys were a bar code. The bartender thought the picture showed a map to her house.

“People will notice it, if you put it up.” It was not a standard A4 size. It’s hand-drawn.

From a distance you could see the shape of a guitar. Up close, you’d have to be a guitar player to see the curves. I was surprised that the piano keys weren’t so obvious as they were to me.

One thing for sure: the invitation card became a topic of conversation. Zoom in on the text at the bottom of this blog entry.

Earlier this morning, Elsbeth had stopped by our home to deliver the invitations hot off the press. They were too nice to give away and yet,unless I pass them to our neighbours and nearby houseboats, no one would know about this concert.

I asked the same of my fellow Rotarians. Share this with others who may enjoy and benefit from such a gathering. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy live chamber music than in a house with the hostess. The 19th century salon concerts had that feel. It’s been lost to commercial concert halls too big for intimacy.

Rotary Club audience at Monument House in Utrecht, Dec 2010
Rotary Club audience at Monument House in Utrecht, Dec 2010. Photo: Mircea Campian

Last December we gave a taste of that house concert experience. We provided our home; they cooked and brought the dinner. The kitchen was filled with exotic, savoury dishes representing the different cuisines of our international Rotary Club.

Rotary Club Christmas dinner 2010 in Utrecht. Photo: Peter Lie
Rotary Club Christmas dinner 2010 in Utrecht. Photo: Peter Lie

After dinner and drinks, as is the usual custom, we settled down for a presentation or a show. Together with fellow Rotarian Elisabeth on the violin, we played a piece that I had arranged a few years ago. “Ding dong merrily on high” for violin, piano, and guitar. The score is freely downloadable. The second time we all joined in the singing (captured by Sonia on her hidden video camera below).

Normally we are musicians in search of an audience. On this occasion, the audience was in search of musicians. Unfortunately we hadn’t prepared to give a concert then as our new programme for 2010 was still being stewed. The new menu has to be tested, refined, and perfected just like a new recipe. Three months later , our programme is ready, and we’re searching for an audience.

After the Rotary Christmas dinner in Utrecht
After the Rotary Christmas dinner in Utrecht. Photo: Peter Lie

I learned at the previous meeting that there are 71 Rotary Clubs in our district. How many more Rotarians would enjoy such an intimate evening of live music? I will find out when I write to those clubs.

Concert invitation for 17 April 2010 Utrecht
Concert invitation for 17 April 2010 Utrecht

Recording our first CD (part 3: text)

The text on a CD package and booklet should include not just the programme notes, biographies of the performers and composers, recording location and details, but also something or some way to convey the voice of the performers. How does one achieve this?

One would think that producing a CD involves two parallel independent processes: the music and the CD packaging. The former includes the recording, editing, and mastering. The latter includes choosing the images, designing the layout, and writing the text.

I had the text ready months ago. It was simply a copy and paste of our programme notes from the Madrid concert in May. I submitted it for comment in my writing class last fall. The only remark from my teacher, a prize-winning author, was to consider the tone of voice.

What tone of voice? The text on the six CDs of the South African composer/guitarist Derek Gripper, who performed in our Monument House Concert Series, last October had his voice. When you read the CD booklets, you could almost hear him speak.

The text in the Madrid programme notes was informative but devoid of any personality. How could one weave oneself into the text of a CD?

I decided to add some quotes.

Anne Ku, pianist. Photo credit: Serge van Empelen, Amsterdam
Anne Ku, pianist. Photo: Serge van Empelen

When Robert and I first met in March 2001, we wanted to play music together. The only piece I had available for us was a transcription of Vivaldi’s Guitar Concerto in D major for guitar and keyboard. Since then we have collected not only original works written for piano and guitar that was so popular in the 19th century but also arrangements for the two instruments. In addition, we have actively arranged a number of pieces to add to this repertoire and invited composers to write for us. Recently we ventured into improvising on stage, an activity that had brought us together in the first place — nine years ago in Amsterdam.” — Anne Ku

I also wanted to mention the challenge of playing the piano with the guitar. It was a constant power struggle, sometimes more like a power game, to get the volume balance right. Initially I wouldn’t give in. Too bad the guitar was too soft…. it’s not my problem. Like all relationships, eventually I learned that it was about compromise, give and take, adjusting and finetuning.

Robert Bekkers, guitarist. Photo: Serge van Empelen, Amsterdam
Robert Bekkers, guitarist. Photo: Serge van Empelen

Playing with a pianist requires precision in timing and tone quality because the guitarist needs to play loudly most of the time. The real challenge is not to beat the piano but to be with the piano. You’re not trying to be another piano but to retain your authentic colour. The guitar has six nylon strings on a wooden construction compared to the piano, which has over 200 steel strings on an iron frame.. The turning point in our music making occurred with the arrival of a Jeroen Hilhorst concert guitar in November 2005. Custom-built for our duo, it has served me very well.” — Robert Bekkers

It has taken 9 years to get the balance right. In the process, I learned to play softly and more sensitively to the guitar. The other major challenge for piano and guitar is to play in sync. It’s too obvious when we don’t, thus timing is everything.

There is much more Robert and I can say about our polyphonic acoustic duo. We will have to save that for our next CD. We have already filled 8 pages with text and images. All this needs to be finalised and delivered this week, if we are to meet our self-imposed deadline.

Rzewski Reeds for Calefax reed quintet

Rzewski was in Amsterdam for the premiere of his work “REEDS” for the Calefax reed quintet. He was also enthusiastic to share his nanosonatas. I took a lot of notes and had a lot of interesting conversations with other fans of Rzewski afterwards. The pre-concert talk at the Muziekgebouw aan’t Ij gave more information about the world premiere that was commissioned by Calefax.

I wrote two blog entries on why musicians attend concerts to encourage musicians, particularly performers, to go to concerts. Finding the time to attend a concert is hard enough for performers who are time-challenged. Finding the time to blog, in order to share and remember the event, is harder still.

During the academic break in February 2010, I went to meet and hear the composer Frederic Rzewski at Amsterdam Conservatory.

I brought along a pianist friend who was grateful for the break from teaching. She said, “I should be going to more concerts like this — not just piano concerts. Thanks for inviting me.”

I first heard of Rzewski (pronounced jef-ski) in the summer of 2006 at a contemporary music festival in Italy. The American pianist Thomas Rosenkranz took us through an in-depth analysis of what is probably his most famous work,”The People United Won’t Be Defeated.” It was so fascinating that I carved it into my memory forever. When the opportunity came to hear him speak in person, I just had to make the time for it.

Rzewski was in Amsterdam for the premiere of his work “REEDS” for the Calefax reed quintet. He was also enthusiastic to share his nanosonatas. When asked about it, he told the story of his gift to the Okinawan scientist and amateur pianist Hideyuki Arata. As I spent 11 years of my childhood in Okinawa, I was naturally interested in anything remoted related to the island. This was just one of many stories and anecdotes he told — all very interesting and inspiring.

In the ensuing question & answer session, after his performance of the last set of nanosonatas, my pianist friend asked about subsidies for composers. His reply was thought provoking. “Does having a system of subsidy like you have in this country (Netherlands) improve the quality of the creative output?”

I took a lot of notes and had a lot of interesting conversations with other fans of Rzewski afterwards. The pre-concert talk at the Muziekgebouw aan’t Ij gave more information about the world premiere that was commissioned by Calefax. I seriously believe that new music needs to be introduced or explained beforehand. The context is important. Pre-concert talks are a blessing to have.

The all-male Calefax reed quintet is one of the leading Dutch ensembles with an international presence. I was amazed at the different kinds of sounds that could emerge from blowing on a reed mouthpiece. The reed instruments are oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone, but within these families are the additional bass clarinet, bass bassoon, and the entire range of saxophone (from bass to soprano). That evening’s concert also featured composer/percussionist Arnold Marinissen — hence rietslag — reed + percussion, one of Calefax’s many programmes.

Recording our first CD (part 2: track order)

How to choose the order of tracks on a CD recording? First decide on a title and then find a story to tell.

Tonight I sat in front of the two very large quad speakers and listened to the 74-minute CD.

Reception of the Monument House Utrecht with the quad speakers
Reception of the Monument House Utrecht with the quad speakers

Why did Robert choose to begin with Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Potpourri? I turned the volume down as it sounded too loud and aggressive for this time of the evening. What should be the first track on a CD? The best piece to discourage the listener from giving up too early?

Hummel’s Potpourri is a piece originally written for piano and guitar. It was written for performance in the Dukaten Concerts in Vienna. For some reason, we always feel the audience rising with us and eventually a loud applause from the exhaustion of the marathon of opera themes. Perhaps this piece should come later.

The second piece, the Polonoise (Polonaise) from Variations opus 113 (65) exists also for guitar and string quartet. Mauro Giuliani and Johann Nepomuk Hummel performed together and composed the Grand Potpourri National which we will perform in mid-April in the house of an artist. It would be an ideal occasion to release our first CD then.

We have traditionally ended our programs with Giuliani’s Polonoise because it’s so virtuosic and exciting. To hear it as a second piece on our CD seems a little strange.

The third track is the first movement of Torroba’s Sonatina. That’s very nice in the evening, after an aerobics workout, sauna, and light dinner. I began to wonder if we should begin our CD with Torroba.

Even Rodrigo’s Fantasia para Gentilhombre is nice to listen to — in the evening.

Our sound engineer, who recorded our concert in a monastic church in Warmond in late 2008, had said that the third track is usually the best piece, the one you want others to listen to. If that’s the case, then the third movement of Torroba’s Sonatina works well.

We don’t have a title for this CD. Somehow “Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo” is not enough for a title.

How about choosing a title and then the order of the tracks?

For example, “Mediterranean Summer Potpourri” would allow us to order the tracks like a story. Imagine a voyage on a yacht in the Mediterranean.

We started in Madrid last spring, our debut concert in Spain. It makes sense to introduce the CD with works of two Spanish composers: Torroba and Rodrigo. Then we sail east on the Mediterranean to Italy. It’s summer by now, and we play our own arrangement of Vivaldi’s Summer from the Four Seasons. Mauro Giuliani left Italy for Vienna where he met the great concert pianist Hummel. Writing and playing potpourris was a favourite pastime in the 19th century. Incidentally, in his lifetime Hummel was more famous than his teacher — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

I propose a new order for the CD as told by the story above. Robert will need to revisit with our sound engineer. This may delay the CD production. But at least we will have a title.

Mediterranean Summer Potpourri

14 tracks

Rodrigo Fantasia para Gentilhombre:

  1. Villano y Ricercare
  2. Españoleta y Fanfare de la Caballería de Nápoles
  3. Danza de las Hachas
  4. Canario

Torroba: Sonatina

  1. Allegretto
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro

Vivaldi: Summer from the Four Seasons

  1. Allegro non molto
  2. Adagio e piano – Presto e forte
  3. Presto

Giuliani: Polonoise from Variationen op. 113 (65)

Hummel: Potpourri on famous opera themes

Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (LIVE)

  1. Allegro
  2. Romanza

Recording our first CD (part 1: location)

It has taken 9 years to finally put together our first CD. Why has it taken so long, you ask. Last autumn, we decided to find a suitable location to record for our first CD.

We have arrived at the final stage of getting our first CD out of the Monument House to the CD printers. It has taken 9 years to put together our first CD.

Why has it taken so long, you ask. Read my blog “the long and winding road towards our first CD” to get an idea.

Last autumn, we decided to find a suitable location to record for our first CD. After a guitar duo concert in August 2009, we did a test recording at Leendert Meeshuis in Bilthoven. Surrounded by a forest, the building is named after a doctor who played piano to his patients. Hummel’s Potpourri was good enough to include on this CD but where?

We tried recording at the church in Bennebroek where we had given a concert in April 2009. I liked the Bechstein, and the proprietor remembered us. After getting it tuned, we discovered that the church had too much reverb. We needed human bodies to bring down the echo.

Next we tried both halls of the new building of the Pier K music school in Nieuw Vennep. The outdoor construction made it impossible to continue without long breaks. Still we managed to get the Polonoise (Polonaise) from the Variations op. 113 (65) of Giuliani recorded.

Concert hall in Pier K music school, Nieuw Vennep
Concert hall in Pier K music school, Nieuw Vennep

It was September 2009. We had house concerts to organise, a guest from South Africa to welcome, and our own concerts to prepare for. Unlike the previous years when we changed programmes for every concert, we had stuck to one programme in 2009. We wanted to move on. We had to get it recorded.

We decided to go for the sure thing. Hire a studio for recording.

Immediately after the house concerts, we went to the newly built Centrum XXI in Utrecht to record ourselves. We were surprised to find various percussion instruments cluttered around the Bechstein grand.

Big hall of Centrum XXI in Utrecht
Big hall of Centrum XXI in Utrecht

We had given a concert in this hall at the Utrecht Uitfeest in mid-September 2009. Our contemporary music programme “Pull, pluck, strum, bang!” worked well in such a new building. Actually the building was not even officially opened then. Ironically, the previous day we had played our traditional programme (what is on our first CD) in a 600-year old building in Utrecht as part of the Open Monument Day celebrations throughout the Netherlands.

For a week, we dedicated ourselves to recording, listening, and re-recording Vivaldi, Hummel, Giuliani, Torroba, and Rodrigo. We agreed that Robert would edit the recording and I would work on the text.

In mid-October, while I was in Italy, Robert listened to the recordings. Naively I had expected our CD to be ready by the time I returned in November. Even after I got back from Helsinki, it was still not ready. Surely it would be ready by Christmas. No, it wasn’t. Not New Years either.

By Chinese New Year in mid-February 2010, I was getting very impatient. I set a final deadline. It has to be ready by the time we leave for Taiwan where a big family reunion awaits in less than two weeks.

Below, Robert plays Asturias after a long recording day at Centrum XXI in Utrecht.

Best jobs in America: musicians?

I saw a link on facebook to “best jobs in America” and couldn’t resist blogging about the diagram. But musicians are not on the list. Could it be that musicians don’t have the best jobs because they don’t rank high in the criteria of future growth, job security, high income, low stress, and benefit to society?

I saw a link on facebook to “best jobs in America” and couldn’t resist blogging about the diagram. It’s a perfect exercise in statistics. I like the way the multi-dimensional information is displayed. The article also mentions the best companies in America to work for.

Best Jobs in America
Best Jobs in America

The best job, if I read it correctly, is systems engineer.

The third best is college professor.

The fifth best is IT project manager.

The 17th best is business analyst.

I mention the above because I have either worked in those fields or, at one time or another, trained to become one of the above.

Nowhere is musician or any derivative of it mentioned in this diagram. Could it be because musicians are self-employed and thus not included in the survey? Could it be that musicians don’t have the best jobs because they don’t rank high in the criteria of future growth, job security, high income, low stress, and benefit to society?

Am I in the wrong job as a full-time musician?

Robert tried to make me feel better. He pointed out that I am the sales director in our duo. It’s ranked 10th best and also the job with the most flexibility. I am also the product management director of our Monument House Concert Series. That position has the highest future growth.

Improvising piano guitar in Belgium

Unlike jazz improvisation where chord progressions do matter, contemporary “art music” improvisation is all about gestures. I don’t need perfect pitch to play the right notes. The notes don’t matter. Without the constraints of melody and harmony, we’re free to explore other territories of rhythm, dynamics, and self-expression.

Live music cannot be captured in a bottle or caged in a glass container for all to see.

Live music performance can get everyone’s attention and even unify a group. It can also give rise to meaningful conversation afterwards.

At the opening of the new exhibition at Artonivo Art Centre in Brugge, Belgium on 26th February 2010, I told the invited guests about the Creative Encounters in Crete experience.

Anne Ku introduces the experience of Creative Encounter in Crete
Anne Ku introduces the experience of Creative Encounter in Crete, photo: Liz Miller

Afterwards I played something I wrote a few years ago on the electric piano, explaining the kind of conversation that could take place between two strangers, hence the title “Encounter” or “Ontmoeting” in Dutch.

Where was the guitarist? I didn’t want to play another piano solo. I am too used to playing duo these days.

“Robert?”

“Yes?” I heard a voice from the back.

“Are you there? Are you ready?”

Robert Bekkers joins Anne Ku on stage in Belgium
Robert Bekkers joins Anne Ku on stage in Belgium, photo: Liz Miller

“Ah! You blew my cover,” he said as he walked on stage. He thought I was going to play another piece.

Now, I can’t remember if we played our arrangement of Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Or if we ended with an improvisation. Nothing was recorded. But I do remember the reaction of the audience.

We had talked about improvising many times. But it was the first time we improvised before an audience. The concept of improvisation is simple: you have a conversation through music. You don’t know a priori what to expect. You just have to go with the flow.

Unlike jazz improvisation where chord progressions do matter, contemporary “art music” improvisation is about gesture and communication. You don’t need perfect pitch to play the right notes. The notes don’t matter. Without the constraints of melody and harmony, we’re free to explore other territories of rhythm, dynamics, and self-expression.

The audience watching Robert Bekkers and Anne Ku at Artonivo
The audience watching Robert Bekkers and Anne Ku at Artonivo, photo: Liz Miller

The next day we met with Liz Miller, the photographer whose polaroid exhibition is currently on display in our monument house in Utrecht. “What did you think of our performance?” I asked.

“I love the improv!” She was sure everyone else loved it — more than my composition or the Vivaldi.

“But we didn’t even practise for it. And I’m not sure we will be able to repeat the same improvisation again,” I said.

“That’s precisely why it works well here,” she said. “We were the only ones to have seen that improv.”

Notice the word “seen” not “heard.” An improvisation has to be seen, for it’s about gestures and expression.

No live performance is ever the same. We can play the same piece over and over again. Each time it will be different. However, no improvisation can ever be repeated.

Live music cannot be captured in a bottle or caged in a glass container for all to see, like the items Liz collected from Crete (below).

Display by Liz Miller at Artonivo Art Centre, Brugges Belgium
Display by Liz Miller at Artonivo Art Centre, Brugges Belgium, photo: Liz Miller

It can be recorded. But it will never be live.