Ukulele gig at Kew Village Market

It’s hard to focus when the smell of chicken and sausages grilling outdoors reminds you that you haven’t had lunch. We are playing two sets under a big yellow tent next to Kew Gardens Rail Station. It’s the second time I’m playing with the Hanwell Ukulele Group (HUG) at Kew Village Market. The famous Kew Gardens is nearby. I am wearing a blue Hawaiian dress over a white T-shirt, hiding behind a row of tall English guys.

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Guitar and mandolin duo and trio at Great Falls Coffeehouse, Massachusetts

The guitar duo of Mark and Beverly Davis gave a memorable performance at Great Falls Discovery Center in Western Massachusetts, featuring the beloved “Lass of Patey’s Mill”

Robert and I were thrilled to see the announcement of Mark and Beverly Davis’ Duo concert on Facebook: Friday August 14th, 2015 at Great Falls Coffeehouse, in Turners Falls in Western Massachusetts. We were in Boston, five years after we first made contact with Mark on Skype from London to book our concert in their home in Connecticut. In planning our road trip, we remembered fondly of their hospitality and their beautiful CD which accompanied us on our long drives in autumn in New England through our five week concert tour that ended in Maui on Thanksgiving Day in 2010.

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Review: classical guitar concert at UH Maui College

by Tyler Millard

The University of Hawaii Maui College hosted a classical guitar concert — as part of the 16th Annual Benjamin Verdery Maui Guitar Class. This event had three of the finest classical guitarists perform for our community: Ian O’Sullivan, Aaron Cardenas, and Christopher Mallett. The concert was held in the ‘Ike Le‘a Lecture Theatre in room 144 on UHMC campus, on Friday July 10, 2015 at 3:00 pm. Continue reading “Review: classical guitar concert at UH Maui College”

Art and music improvisation: an observation and reflection

Watching an art and music improvisation session reminded me of the various collaborations I’ve had with artists in London, Utrecht, Crete, and Brugges. It’s about the process.

As a finishing touch to my recent application for an innovation grant, I asked the Maui-based artist Mike Takemoto if he would consider having his students collaborate with mine. I was thinking along the lines of an exhibit of paintings of musicians, music instruments, or music notes. It would be an extension of the piano ensemble poster exhibit that I “curated” and organized with the photography teacher Harvey Reed and his photo and design students last spring. Such interdisciplinary collaboration raised awareness of the activities we wanted to promote.

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The Rose Concert

The Rose Concert is a one-hour performance of music, lyrics, poems, and movies to do with the flower — the rose, in celebration of the Rose Month at Roselani Place in Maui. The concert was free but not recorded on Friday 14th June 2013, given by Anne Ku.

If you read my earlier blog post about preparing for a concert of roses and flowers, you might be curious what happened on 14th June 2013, the day of the one-hour concert.

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Remembering Villa Maria

Anne Ku remembers performing in Villa Maria in Houston, now up for sale for $5.7 million.

During our tightly packed 5-week concert tour from Boston to Maui (18 Oct – 25 Nov 2010), we did not have the time to write about every concert. Needless to say, this does not mean that we do not remember them!

When my friend Grace e-mailed me that Villa Maria was up for sale, I discovered I hadn’t even mentioned this important concert that flew us into Houston, cutting short our stay in Phoenix!

Villa Maria concert in Houston, Texas, November 2010
Villa Maria concert in Houston, Texas, November 2010. Photo: Rodney Waters

My friend Linda had pushed for us to perform in that mansion. I had no idea it was so grand, the occasion so elegant and completely out of this world.

Houston was where house concerts started for me. In February 2001, I performed in a concert of improvised music. There were two Steinways, one from New York, the other from Hamburg, side by side. It was River Oaks. It was my first house concert.

Who would have thought that I’d be back in Houston nearly 10 years later, actually giving concerts?

I invited my friend Grace to the concert at Villa Maria. She probably thought every house concert was just like that — something out of a movie or ancient Rome.

It was a guitar extravaganza — a program already full. But the organizers managed to squeeze us in – just 20 minutes which became 15 minutes – 2 pieces: Vivaldi’s Winter from Four Seasons and Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve.

The owners sat directly in front of the stage like the patrons of days past. The concert hall was purposefully built and opened onto the balcony. Beneath was where we warmed up — a converted gym. Robert recalls: “it was my first time, being in a 5-star gym as a green room and the stage was like a Roman villa, complete with paintings: the perfect backdrop for a program with Vivaldi.”

The article neglected to mention the prized and decorated Doris Duke Steinway grand piano that I played on. I wonder if that is for sale, too? [Open the article in full view and scroll to the middle to read about this 1901 New York Steinway Model B.]

Virtuoso pianist in San Francisco loft concert

There is something special about sitting among strangers in someone else’s home. We weren’t here to attend a birthday party or other personal celebration. We all came for the specific goal of experiencing a live performance in a private space.

It reminded me of the last house concert I organized, in which my reward (for organizing the concert) was enjoying the occasion from the first row seat, or rather, just behind the pianist. What did the hosts of tonight consider their reward? In the first half, all the seats were taken. They sat on the last few steps of the staircase. In the second half, they walked downstairs to free up the staircase for two couples and then stood in the kitchen, barely able to see above the others who were standing or sitting.

After the concert, I asked the Austrian lady sitting next to me if she was going to buy the Bulgarian pianist’s CDs. She had not brought any cash other than the $20 suggested donation. I did the same. I only had a credit card left. I suggested that we band together and leave an IOU for the pianist who had 4 CDs for sale. The gentleman next to me bought two. That whetted my appetite and made me want to get a CD.

The Austrian lady shook her head. She said the concert was well worth the $20, but she didn’t think she could fathom an IOU. It was not the custom. Instead she joined the queue to thank her personally.

There was a long line of people wanting to buy her CDs and talk to her. I looked around and observed. I didn’t know anyone except the hosts. Anybody would think that the hosts opened their loft apartment in this part of San Francisco, South of Market, on a regular basis for intimate occasions like this. It was a concert hall in a home.

The owner conceded that he hadn’t organized a concert in 6 months. He even gave the classical music Meet-Up online group that he had started to someone else. Where once organizing house concerts took mainstream in his life, he was now preoccupied with something else, something quite different. It was still community building but it was something much bigger.

“Next time,” I said to the owner, “you will have to open up the balcony seats.” This was the biggest turnout they had ever had. “You have set a standard. People will expect this from now on.”

During the intermission, someone asked him. “How did you know Nadejda?” He looked around and pointed at me. Later someone asked me, “Where is she from?” I didn’t know. I hadn’t met her in person.

I had come to this concert because it was Chong Kee’s invitation and it was the pianist that I had introduced to him via e-mail. In fact, I arranged my travel so that I would return to Maui via San Francisco —- to see her give this concert.

I knew Nadejda Vlaeva would not disappoint from perusing her website and watching her videos. Her discography was impressive, her repertoire outstanding. All this research begged a final resolution — to see her live in concert.

She began the evening telling the story of how little known Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was during the romantic era. Camille Saint-Saens subscribed to his music and transcribed them for his piano students. These became known as Saint-Saens’ Bach transcriptions. In playing the selections, Nadejda made an orchestra out of the piano, ending the 6 piece set with the well-known Overture from Cantata No. 29.

Next she introduced another set of lesser known works. Hans von Bulow dedicated his Carnivale di Milano to a ballerina. The mark of a great pianist is one who makes a difficult piece sound simple, causing the audience relax and enjoy the music. Several people were nodding their heads and moving their bodies, dancing with the rhythmic pulse.

After the intermission, Nadejda shared the challenge of interpreting a piece that was written for her. “Most of the time, I have to choose something to play. But this time the piece chose me.” Lowell Liebermann’s Variations on a Theme by Schubert, Op. 100, began with that simple but melodious Rosaline. Each variation got a bit more adventurous. With that, she brought us to the 21st century.

But then she confessed. She still preferred the Romantic Era. The remaining 3 pieces and 2 encores took us back to that age of nostalgia.

I was probably the last person to get my CDs signed. “Chopin Works for Piano and Orchestra” will be a gift for my mother. “A Treasury of Russian Romantic Piano” contains her first encore — Rebikov’s Musical Snuff Box and her second encore, Liadov’s Prelude in B minor Op. 11 No. 1. I can’t wait to listen to them.

I once heard a fellow classical music connoisseur lament that winners of piano competitions didn’t do so well in intimate, private spaces like house concerts. They don’t train performers to tell stories or develop a rapport with their listeners. Audience engagement is a skill that takes practice. Today’s audience demands more.

Obviously Nadejda is a seasoned performer. She engaged the audience. She made us laugh. This explained the long queue after the concert.

I left at 11 pm, satisfied that the concert hosts were happy.

Programming music like planning a menu

It occurred to me, while choosing music for my forthcoming Valentine’s Day Concert, that the process of programming a concert is not dissimilar to planning a menu.

One is constantly thinking of the audience (guests). Will they like and appreciate what they hear (taste)? What is the theme? Should there be one? What should we begin with? Something to warm up, open up their hearing (taste buds), etc. What’s the right balance of the familiar (safe) and unfamiliar (new but risky)? What should be the order? Alternating fast – slow – fast – slow (cold vs hot; salty vs sweet; wet vs dry). What is the right number of pieces (courses)? How long should each piece be?

As I ponder over the choice of work, I remember a research study I had conducted with a Swedish violinist on programming music for elderly audiences. It’s not about tempo but everything about mood. What kind of mood do we want to convey to the audience?

Does the chef think of evoking feelings or memories in the guests who taste his menu?

Once upon a time I was told to programme music chronologically, for that’s how music has evolved. Begin with a piece from the Baroque Era, move through the Classical Period, Romantic Era, before braving the new world with a contemporary piece of a living composer. This is the not only formula.

I have examined the order of pieces in the concerts I’ve attended. Sometimes it’s good to start with an unfamiliar piece, even one from an unknown, living composer. Enough unfamiliar pieces call for a resolution of the unknown to a convergence in the familiar. Take the audience back to their comfort zone.

Probably one of the most powerful concerts is one in which the pieces are connected, via a common thread or storyline following a theme.

I should speak to a chef whether programming music really is like planning a menu.

A piano for Roselani

Playing music for senior citizens on an electric keyboard is not the same as on an acoustic piano. Live music has positive effects on alzheimer sufferers. What does it take to get a real piano into an elderly home like Roselani Place in Kahului, Maui?

For Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving Day, I brought my 70-something mom to Roselani Place to celebrate with the residents. I played the electric keyboard while the residents and their guests enjoyed their chef-cooked luncheons. Music has an amazing way of uniting people when they recognize tunes they know and start humming. Some came up and thanked me afterwards.

I love looking for music to play for an audience. For both luncheons, I had borrowed several volumes of sheet music from the local library: music from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. Because of the diverse ethnicities of the residents, I even included the popular “Sakura” and Hawaiian songs. I wanted to play them the way I prepared them on the grand piano I practised on.

Steinway concert grand in Maui
Steinway concert grand in Maui

Unfortunately an electric keyboard, despite its bells and whistles, is not an acoustic piano.

Once the restaurant was filled, the people in the back could not hear me. I had cranked up the volume to the max. I tried fiddling with the instrument selection. A harpsichord sound was surprisingly louder than the “grand piano” selection. I tried synchronising a drum beat to it. I could not increase the overall volume.

When I first visited Roselani earlier this year, I was eager to try the upright piano in the reception area. I quickly learned that the entire treble half was long gone. Unstoppable, I moved to the bass half and continued to play. Somebody switched off the piped recorded music. The residents started to listen as if finally awakened from their reveries. The piano was different from the constant music coming out of overhead speakers. There was a person at the piano. Knowing that they were listening changed the way I played. It was no longer practice but performance.

I know for a fact that live foreground music is much more effective than recorded background music. In my research into programming live music for the elderly, I learned that live music is therapeutic for alzheimer sufferers. Just google “alzheimer music” and see the evidence. I have seen a passive audience come alive when they see and hear a live concert. Even if they cannot speak or recognise me, I can see life in their eyes and feel the firmness of their hand grip. In years of playing in such homes throughout the Netherlands, my piano guitar duo has revised our repertoire to choose what works best. The staff and volunteers at such homes know that the choice of music directly affects how well the residents sleep at night.

What will it take to move a working piano to Roselani Place?

Fundraising to get a piano in there?

Roselani Place is a 501c organization. This is a form of savings for anyone who is leaving the island but is stranded by a piano they can’t sell should consider donating to Roselani. They can deduct the value of their piano against their income tax. It’s a last resort, unless they are prepared to pay for storage or leave it with a tuner or music store for sale on consignment.

I suppose one way to find out the attractiveness of my proposal is to monitor Craigslist. How long does it take before a piano gets sold? Or perhaps I should ask a piano tuner or technician.

What will Dame Kiri sing on Maui?

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa will sing a variety of arias, art songs, and folk songs to please a diversified audience in Maui in her first performance in the Hawaiian islands. Anne Ku compares music to food and guesses the programme selection.

My non-music friend expressed his reservations in going to see Dame Kiri this Saturday evening.

“I have never gone to opera or classical concert. I don’t have the appreciation you have for classical music. Will you be disappointed if I don’t understand or be able to enjoy it to the depth you do?  You’re an academic when it comes to music. Is there someone more worthy to go with you?”

Dame Kiri in Maui, 1st October 2011 at 7:30 pm Castle Theatre
Dame Kiri in Maui, 1st October 2011 at 7:30 pm Castle Theatre

Actually I can think of many people who can’t wait to be asked to go with me to see Dame Kiri. One soprano in Amsterdam already wrote an unsolicited “I’m so jealous! Dame Kiri and then daiquiri on the beach!” There are three sopranos on the island that I would dearly like to enjoy the evening with: one upcountry, one in Kihei, and one in Lahaina.

While it’s “safe” to go with someone who already sings and enjoys classical music, I occasionally like to make a social outing of it such as with a friend who may never attend such an evening without my invitation. I might then be taking a risk going with someone who knows nothing about music. But then, how did I begin? How will classical music appreciation expand beyond the incumbent? It’s up to the existing fan base to introduce it to others.

Classical music is an acquired taste. Opera even more so.

A German friend introduced me to opera in London when I was 30 years old. He took me to Holland Park to see one of the most popular and accessible operas, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. I was more affected by the audience and the outdoor venue than what was going on stage. He tried again with Janacek’s less accessible Kat’a Kabanova which sealed my lack of affinity for a decade. When I was assigned to write a short chamber opera by my composition teacher, I forced myself to go to opera. After reviewing seventeen operas, I daresay I love opera.

In my “Opera for First Timers,” I suggested to go to a concert of opera highlights. This is precisely what I expect of Dame Kiri’s Hawaii debut this weekend. Her concert is not an opera. The programme is a mixture of the best arias from famous operas and other kinds of works such as art songs and folk songs. There is enough variety to whet the appetite of anyone who is not an opera aficionado.

It’s the same with food. When you’re new to Chinese cuisine, go experience dim sum. When you’re new to Spanish food, go for tapas. There are equivalent Mediterranean mezes, Indonesian rice tables, Korean kim chi, and conveyor belt sushi and sashimi.

Korean food in Little Korea, Manhattan, May 2011
Korean food in Little Korea, Manhattan, May 2011

Dame Kiri’s concert this Saturday in Maui is not exclusively opera. I repeat. It’s not an opera. It’s a variety show, a taste of the best of everything, and those pieces that have stood the test of time and distance. It’s not just her voice but also how she expresses herself when she sings. That’s what I shall look forward to.

While I have no idea what exactly she will be singing, I’d like to postulate that she will sing the following — many of which are my favourites.

  • Mozart:“Ach, Ich Fuhl’s” from Magic Flute, “Ah! chi mi dice mai” from Don Giovanni, “E Susanna non vien! … Dove sono” from Marriage of Figaro
  • Handel: “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo
  • Puccini: “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi, “Vissi d’Arte” from Tosca, “Un belle de vedremo” from Madame Butterfly
  • Folk songs from England: “O Waly, Waly,” “Oliver Cromwell,”  “Scarborough Fair,”  poetry of Emily Dickinson: “Why did they shut Me out of Heaven? Did I sing – too loud?”
  • Folk songs from South America: of Granados and the Argentine composer Ginastera