Readability for playability: piano duets by Mark Francis

Readability of the score is necessary for playability. Mark Francis’ “Lights from Across the Lake” is a colourful piece used to demonstrate the two kinds of layouts for piano duets.

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There are two ways to lay out staves for a multi-hand piano duet.

Parallel staves where the primo is on top of the secundo works well if one player has to see and keep track of the other player. If the systems are not spaced out far enough, it can be confusing. In the following passage from Mark Francis‘ “Lights from Across the Lake” a wider space between the secundo bars 29 to 31 and primo bars 32 onwards is all it takes to make it more readable. I’m guessing that the octava extends from bar 31 until it reads loco in bar 38 and the high C in the left hand in bar 31 is not sharped as written. A courtesy natural sign would help those sightreading this piece.

Lights from Across the Lake piano duet by Mark Francis
Lights from Across the Lake piano duet by Mark Francis

The second way to lay out the notes is to put the primo on one page and the secundo on the other. In the case of 3 players, each one has his/her own page. Page turns could be come a problem.

In “Lights from Across the Lake,” which is marked at quarter note = 60, we see that each player has 3 pages if the music is laid out in this way. Below are the last measures for the primo.

Lights from Across the Lake - primo part - piano duet by Mark Francis
Lights from Across the Lake - primo part - piano duet by Mark Francis

Because the music is straightforward, i.e. no irregular meter or rapid changes of time signature or the need to wait and count empty bars, it’s not necessary that one player sees or anticipates what the other is doing. The secundo part is below.

Lights from Across the Lake - secundo part - piano duet by Mark Francis
Lights from Across the Lake - secundo part - piano duet by Mark Francis

On Monday 4th July 2011 at the Monument House in Utrecht, Brendan Kinsella and I sight read and recorded this piece. Brendan thought it was colourful and preferred it to the other duet that the composer had submitted to my Call for Scores. Click below to listen to our recording on my 1909 New York Steinway.

Lights from Across the Lake piano duet by Mark Francis

The other piece “A Winter Rhapsody” was sightread at the Piano Soiree in San Francisco in mid-May 2011. We decided against recording this second piece because of the tricky alignment of the triplets in bars 28 to 31 (below).

A Winter Rhapsody - piano due by Mark Francis
A Winter Rhapsody - piano duet by Mark Francis

From the composer’s programme notes, Mark Francis writes

The Two Pieces for piano, 4 hands were written in 1985 and revised in 2008.  They were written at the request of pianist Robert Jordan for his students.  Each piece is a musical description of things I would see around the area where I grew up near Buffalo, NY.  Lights From Across the Lake describes seeing the lights that mark the entrance of the Welland Canal, just above the horizon at night, from the American shore on Lake Erie.  A Winter Rhapsody is a description of the wind and snow of a winter in Western New York.  There is something beautiful, powerful and forbidding about it. 

Piano duets on five Greek tunes by Harizanos

The most interest piano duet from the set of 5 Greek tunes by Nickos Harizanos is Here Comes the Swallow played and recorded by Anne Ku and Brendan Kinsella.

Something about 5/4 time breaks us out of our expected symmetry of being two-legged individuals.

Like Henk Alkema’s 2nd piano duet, the fourth piece in a set of 5 duets by Athens-based composer Nickos Harizanos also uses 5/4 time. I can’t say Brendan Kinsella and I did it justice in this recording below, but it gives you an idea of the unusual meter.

IV Here Comes the Swallow piano duet by Nickos Harizanos

Here Comes the Swallow piano duet by Nickos Harizanos
excerpt from Here Comes the Swallow piano duet by Nickos Harizanos

Harizanos’s 5-piece set definitely met my criteria in my Call for Scores for Multi-hands Piano Duets for Sightreading: readable, playable, and sightreadable. Short but fun. They are characteristically Greek and interesting to play and listen to.

What a difference it was to play and listen and judge on electric pianos vs acoustic grand pianos. When Karyn Sarring and I tried these on electric pianos in Maui, we thought they had potential. When I tried them with other pianists in San Francisco and Utrecht, we thought they were interesting and fun.

Hopefully I will get a chance to record all five duets. But recording these is not the ultimate objective. I simply want to share good and fun music in my travels.

More importantly, communicating and interacting with another musician through duet-playing is like the way children play with each other. There’s no need for extended conversation. We just play.

Five Piano Duets by Nickos Harizanos:

  1. Out there in the valleys
  2. Down there at the seaside
  3. We have a wedding day
  4. Here comes the swallow
  5. Corfu Dance

 

Piano duets by Henk Alkema

Good piano duets are meant to be played and shared. A good piece of music travels like a virus. Henk Alkema’s piano duets are a delight to play.

Last autumn I asked Dutch composer Henk Alkema if he had any piano duets I could use for a sightreading master class before our duo concert in San Francisco in November 2010. He e-mailed me 7 duets, which he had written for his students in conducting class.

[I had taken his arrangement and conducting classes at Utrecht Conservatory several years back. We’d start with a duet and then split or allocate the lines to different instruments for conducting.]

My first impression was that the duets looked too easy. Most, save one, were written for 2 pianos. There was just one Steinway Grand at the loft apartment in San Francisco. But we never got around to trying his duet for 4-hands one piano.

Piano Duet 2 by Henk Alkema - 4 hands 1 piano
Piano Duet 2 by Henk Alkema - 4 hands 1 piano

During the 6 months I lived in Maui, I sightread some 42 new duets from my Call for Scores with Chicago-born Maui-based Karyn Sarring on electric keyboards at Maui College. To my surprise, Henk’s Piano Duet number 2 was a gem of a piece. While it looked too easy to attempt, the music in 5/4 time seemed to echo a familiarity that was refreshing. Sad yet soothing. Addictive.

On my return trip to the Netherlands, I introduced this duet to Chong Kee Tan, the founder and developer of the concert reservation and management system High Note Live. Once was not enough. We decided to practise it a few times to play at the Piano Soiree & Sightreading Workshop which Chong Kee had organised to lure me back to San Francisco.

With proper recording facilities here at the Monument House, I sightread the duet with Brendan Kinsella who had given a spectacular concert to standing ovations only days before — on the same Steinway Grand. Click below to hear the audio recording (mp3).

Piano Duet 2 by Henk Alkema performed by Anne Ku and Brendan Kinsella in Utrecht, Netherlands

That same Friday 8th July, I introduced this duet to pianist Huub de Leeuw, who reacted in the same manner as others. “Let’s play it again.”

A few days ago, I finally tried the remaining 6 piano duets of Henk Alkema with pianist Liesbeth Spits on two pianos. They are all lovely. Some are playful and quirky like Poulenc. We agreed that we had to play them again. This Sunday we will sightread these duets together with others in my Call for Scores multi-hand duet collection with Huub and my friend Ahti from Helsinki.

Good duets are meant to be played and shared. A good piece of music travels like a virus.