The nuts and bolts of a duo concert

The last concert we gave in November 2008 took place in a monastic church in a village north of Leiden (home of the oldest Dutch university). We drove there in the snow. We received a standing ovation and did an encore out of courtesy.

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Revised from “Starting a blog of my concerts” from Facebook Notes, Wednesday 3 December 2008

My life these days revolves around concerts. That is, performing on the piano, with my duo partner — the classical guitarist. Hence our rather generic name of “piano guitar duo.”

It begins with fixing a date, time, venue, and programme — blocking off a chunk of time on the calendar. Then practising (by myself), rehearsing with my duo partner, and preparing for the concert. When the day arrives, it’s the usual ritual to put on my make-up, fill a thermos flask with hot rooibos or other herbal tea & sometimes make sandwiches or other light snack to eat in the car, drive there, warm up and check the accoustics, change into concert clothes, and play.

My duo partner meanwhile has the arduous task of finding the route on Google Earth and jotting down the necessary phone number and address. [After he received the surprise free gift from his mobile phone provider for New Year’s Eve, he started using the iphone’s GSM facilities instead of the old paper ritual.]

I never don’t know what to expect in terms of the quality of the piano and the acoustics, unless we get to rehearse before the day of the concert. Because the piano and the guitar are “attack” instruments (rather than the “sustain” kind of string and wind instruments), it’s necessary to get the balance right. The quality of the sound we produce is highly dependent on the acoustics of the room and the piano.

We have to get there at least half-an-hour before the concert, preferably one hour before, to permit enough time to warm up and adjust to the acoustics and instruments. If the acoustics are too dry, I have to use more pedal. If too resonating (like in a big church), I sometimes avoid the right pedal altogether. If the piano is too loud, I may have to close the lid completely and reluctantly.

I usually never get to see the piano or the venue beforehand, unless it’s a place my duo has performed before. So far, of the concerts we’ve given in the past 7 years, it’s always been for the first time at that particular venue. The surprises make interesting stories, enough to fill a book or a television series.

The last concert we gave in November 2008 took place in a monastic church in Warmond, a village north of Leiden (home of the oldest Dutch university). We drove there in the snow. We received a standing ovation and did an encore out of courtesy. We had arranged for a recording engineer to record the 1 hour concert and a photographer to take professional photos of us afterwards. There was a lot of equipment and setting-up. The concert was also video recorded by a student of the guitarist, see below.

Summer (second movement) from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, arranged by R.A. Bekkers

Trio for violin, guitar, and piano by Jacob ter Veldhuis

I found a score by the Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis in the public library. The score for “Trio” looked simple. The title specified a great deal of flexibility: for flute, alto recorder or oboe; zither or harpischord or piano; and guitar. There was no mention of violin. But why not?

Adding a third instrument to piano and guitar changes the entire dynamics. At our first trio rehearsal, I was amazed at the sound of the violin.

It was loud and flamboyant, which meant I could be equally loud and flamboyant. I could finally bring out the grandness of the mighty piano, no longer straitjacketed by the obligation to kowtow to the soft sounding guitar.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. The guitar could be loud, too. But most of the time, it sounds best plucked gently, producing the sort of intimate music you want to fall in love with or fall asleep to.

The guitarist has always pronounced that the guitar possessed far more potential than the piano. It is capable of producing more colour, texture, and differentiating qualities of sound than the piano which consists basically of hammers that produce 88 pitches, unless you dare venture inside the piano to pluck its strings. The guitarist needs two hands to make a tone while I need only one finger to make a sound on the piano.

The difficulty of making a sound (according to this guitarist and his friends) makes the guitar more superior, in other words. Perhaps that explains why there are many more virtuosic pianists than virtuosic guitarists….. but performance virtuosity does not necessarily mean that it’s easier to master the piano.

The violin also requires two hands to make a sound. In fact, it requires a bow most of the time. I had tried teaching myself the violin so that I could compose for it. I gave up after 5 minutes because my body ached from the awkward positions of holding the bow in one hand and the violin on the other, not to mention the contortion of holding it in place between my chin and shoulder.

Early in my conservatory education, I asked a fellow classmate to give me violin lessons. At the first lesson, she spent over an hour showing me how to hold the bow with my right hand. Two weeks later, she spent another hour showing me how to hold the violin. I complained that I just wanted to make a sound so that I could read the notes and produce some music. To my disappointment, she said that I was lucky to already learn how to hold the violin and bow in just two lessons. She spent the first year learning just that!

Thus it was most magical to hear the violin being played less than a meter from where I sat at the piano. For such a small instrument, it was capable of producing all kinds of sounds and effects: the familiar bowed sound, the plucked sound of pizzicato, the staccato sound of the bow bouncing on the strings like tiny stones skipping on a lake, bowing on the neck, bowing near the bridge, muted sound, and far more effects in virtuosic contemporary pieces.

Paul Richard’s “Falling on Lobsters in the Dark” gave me the opportunity to hear such effects, especially the different ways that the combination of violin, guitar, and piano could portray different types of fear. We played this piece in two violin recitals, the open day for prospective new students, and the first Chamber Music Marathon concert at Utrecht Conservatory.

For our second Chamber Music Marathon concert, I found a score by the Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis in the public library. “Trio (opus 48a)” was a 1990 commission, first premiered in 1992 by flute, zither, and guitar in Deventer, a city which became popular for the film industry for locations in Arnhem whose centre was destroyed during the Second World War. As Jacob ter Veldhuis as the composer-in-residence for my final year at conservatory had supervised my “Elegy for Ensemble” piece, I decided that it was worth trying this piece.

The score for “Trio” looked simple enough to sightread. The title specified a great deal of flexibility: for flute, alto recorder or oboe; zither or harpischord or piano; and guitar. There was no mention of violin. But why not? By now, I had become accustomed to substituting single-voiced treble instruments for each other. It was easy to do on the music notation computer programme I used to compose my ensemble pieces. As the range of the violin is larger than the flute, it shouldn’t be a problem to manage a reduced subset of the pitch range.

Below are video recordings of our interpretation of Jacob ter Veldhuis’ Trio (opus 48a), performed after our premiere of “Rendering 7.”

Trio I. Allegro

Trio II. Andante

Trio III. Allegro

Rendering 7 for violin, guitar, piano by Gijs van Dijk

I urged the guitarist to extract the video of our premiere of “Rendering 7” from the 8 hour video of the Chamber Music Marathon concert of 5 June 2008 in Utrecht. It was a piece the Amsterdam-based composer Gijs van Dijk wrote for our trio with the young Korean violinist Naeon Kim.

In preparation for Gijs van Dijk’s visit this past Wednesday, I urged the guitarist to extract the video of our premiere of “Rendering 7” from the 8 hour video of the Chamber Music Marathon concert of 5 June 2008 in Utrecht. It was a piece Gijs wrote for our trio with the young Korean violinist Naeon Kim.

Rendering 7 by Gijs van Dijk
Rendering 7 by Gijs van Dijk

That we chose to study and perform the “Rendering 7” as a trio before attempting “Abstract and Dance” for our duo was largely due to our readiness and eagerness as a trio to tackle new music. The Strung Out Trio of duo46 and pianist Nathanael May had commissioned, performed, and recorded bespoke works for their violin, guitar, piano trio years before our piano guitar duo thought of getting together with another instrument.

Our trio was formed rather serendipitously. At the beginning of my fourth and final year at conservatory, I suddenly developed a kia soo tendency to grab the most of what was left of my four-year full-time music education. [For a definition of kia soo, scroll down to the middle of the page on Clutter.] I signed up for the Chamber Music Marathon, which entitled an ensemble to coaching sessions with some of the top performers and teachers at the conservatory as well as two recorded concerts in the big concert hall (the oldest in the country).

“Piano and guitar?” questioned Joyce Tan, the violin teacher who was head of the chamber music project. “That doesn’t make an ensemble. You need at least three performers.”

Do we have music for piano, guitar, and another instrument? Yes! A not very well-known piece by the not so well-known 19th century composer Nicholas Stossel (1793-1844). Divertissement op. 33 was written for keyboard, guitar, and either flute or piano. As performers, we preferred to play either well-known works or not so well-known but exciting and challenging compositions to break from the tradition.

The works of Florida-based composer Paul Richards fall in the latter category. Commissioned by the Strung Out Trio Richards’ “Falling on Lobsters in the Dark” ignited our interest, not only because of obscure title but also the history behind it. His three-movement “Cypriot Structures” was the third piece we knew of.

I went back to the conservatory, on a man hunt. Could I find a violinist or a flute player who was good and not taken? On the final day of the chamber ensemble registration, I asked Joyce if she knew of a violinist who fitted the bill. She pointed to a young man who had just whisked into the reception area.

“Are you a violinist?” I asked naively, seeing that he carried what-looked-like a violin case.

“Yes, errr…. sorry?” the tall, slender violinist replied. “I just got back from Korea.”

“You mean, you just arrived?” It was rather late. He must have missed the first two weeks of school. “Are you already in an ensemble? It’s the last day to register for Chamber Music Marathon.”

He scratched his head. “Well, some people have asked me. But I’m not sure if they have signed up.”

Dazzling with hope, I asked, “Would you like to be in a trio with me and a classical guitarist? I have some great music for us.”

“Guitar? That sounds interesting.” I got his attention finally. “Sure, why not?” he looked confident and relieved.

“Wait! What year are you in? Are you any good?” He looked familiar. I vaguely recalled that I had been introduced to him the year before, by my classmate the Indonesian pianist Elwin Hendrijanto. But I had not yet had a conversation with him. And I certainly had no clue if he was a good musician to work with.

“I don’t know. I guess you can ask around if I’m any good,” he smiled as though he had never encountered such an accusation.

Well, I’ll just take my chance then, I thought. There are plenty of violinists at this conservatory….

That was how our trio got formed — on the last day of the chamber ensemble registration by sheer coincidence.

Later I learned that Naeon Kim was one of the best violinists around and very much sought after. He started taking lessons from his violinist father at the age of three in Pusan where he was born. By the time he became a teenager, he had already performed in Japan. To assist the sparsely populated viola department at our conservatory, he even learned to play the viola.

We premiered Gijs van Dijk’s “Rendering 7″ in early June 2008 after undergoing a masterclass with pianist and musicologist Ralph van Raat and separate coaching sessions with violinists Chris Duinham and Kees Hülsmann. Below is the recording of our premiere at the Utrecht Conservatory.

Concert in Bennebroek

Bennebroek was the smallest municipality in the Netherlands before it merged with Bloemendaal, an extremely affluent area known for its hockey club. Probably formed in the 13th century, Bennebroek now serves as a commuter town for nearby cities of Haarlem and Bloemendaal.

Today was another fine spring day to make me forget that there ever was a long winter and all the indoor existence from October to March was worth the wait for today’s flawless weather.

What to wear? Good question. I still insisted on tights, a long sleeved dress, and a silk scarf to cover my entire body, including my neck and four limbs. The usual routine seemed risk averse in this spring weather. It did feel warm enough though to put away my Barbour jacket in favour of my Laura Ashley cotton coat hibernating in the loft.

I woke up too late to practise piano but didn’t mind too much because it was to be a short concert at a psychiatric clinic in a village I had never heard of before. Only 45 minutes instead of the usual 2 x 30 minutes or 1 hour concert of our most popular programme (reduced by two or three movements) —- it should be easy. I didn’t bother to read our Maandrooster (month schedule) what sort of piano and concert hall awaited us. After recent disappointments, I expected very little, if anything at all.

On the drive north towards Amsterdam and west towards Haarlem, I shared a pre-packed brunch of sandwiches and carrot cake with the guitarist. It was well past rush hour (10:45 am), and the journey to Bennebroek should be without interruption.

Bennebroek was the smallest municipality in the Netherlands before it merged with Bloemendaal, an extremely affluent area known for its hockey club. Probably formed in the 13th century, Bennebroek now serves as a commuter town for nearby cities of Haarlem and Bloemendaal.

To my surprise, we arrived at a big church (pictured below). I did not expect a church nor one in such picturesque surroundings. As the previous time we played in a psychiatric centre was unpleasant, I had mentally tried to block out the low ceilings and temporary location. A beautiful church was the last thing I expected today.

Church in Bennebroek, Netherlands
Church in Bennebroek, Netherlands

Halfway from the car to the church, we met a man smoking a cigarette. He introduced himself and shook our hands. It was 11:40 am. He had been expecting us.

Close-up of church in Bennebroek, Netherlands
Close-up of church in Bennebroek, Netherlands

Inside the big church hid even more surprises: a beautiful Bechstein grand piano on a stage. The 6 to 7 ft piano looked extremely familiar, like the 1920’s 5’6″ German piano I owned in London. It must be around 100 years old, I thought. Indeed I later read that it was built in 1910. Something about old German grand pianos makes me feel instantly at ease.

Organ and piano in Bennebroek church, Netherlands
Organ and piano in Bennebroek church, Netherlands

The man then led us to a big meeting room behind the stage which would serve as our changing room. He pointed to a big covered box containing sandwiches for lunch. This was most unusual as we never get more than refreshments and a tiny snack.

Before changing and donning make-up, we wanted to test the acoustics — as usual and as always. Unlike the previous two venues with dry acoustics, the hall had ample reverberation, typical of large churches. This meant that the guitar would sound very powerful and beautiful on its own. And equally so, the grand piano, but it would be not as easy to hear each other when we played together.

Indeed once we started playing, we found it impossible to stop. The sound was too beautiful. The combination of great acoustics and great instruments made us feel very free to play. [And I would say, if you want to lure musicians to play for you — give them these two things.]

At the end of our 45 minute concert, those that were not in wheelchairs stood up and applauded. The man who took care of us earlier then walked on stage with two fat bouquets and a beaming smile.

The day was too perfect to waste. We took our lunch in the gardens of this church. It was a rare occasion to have time to enjoy the good weather without rushing to our next appointments. And now was the time to test my mobile phone for good photos to remember by.

As we left the premises, we waved goodbye to the daffodils that adorned this village.

Daffodils outside the church in Bennebroek, Netherlands
Daffodils outside the church in Bennebroek, Netherlands

Larger photos of Bennebroek can be viewed here.

Rehearsing new piece with composer

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!

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!

Donemus, publishers of Dutch music

For a new comer to the Dutch music scene, it was not uncommon to see handwritten notation of the composer between the covers. Prior to coming to the Netherlands, I knew not a single Dutch composer. I had wondered why Dutch painters were world famous, and yet I could not name a single Dutch composer.

Tuesday 24th March 2009 promised a two-hour opening lecture by the British composer Brian Ferneyhough in the new building of the Conservatory of Amsterdam, near the central train station. If I could manage my time efficiently, I’d be able to visit Donemus, in what-is-now Muziek Centrum Nederland (MCN) beforehand.

Although Amsterdam takes less than 30 minutes by train, I still prefer to hit two birds with one stone, i.e. batch my errands or appointments in one day. There is so much to see and do in this cultural capital that I’d have to plan ahead to avoid temptation and distraction. Any number of museums and lunch time concerts would lead me astray.

I cycled on my folding bike to Utrecht Centraal station, missed the direct train to central Amsterdam, but caught the fast train to Schiphol Airport two minutes later. The conductor advised that I change at the next station, Amsterdam Bijlmer Arena, for a “stoptrein” to Amsterdam Centraal. From there, I cycled to Rokin 111 where I had spent the afternoon the day before.

What is it about sheet music that lures me to spend all the time I have available? I would happily live in a music library or a sheet music store and gobble away all the notes I find. Such is the temptation that I dare not visit such places except on gift-giving occasions such as my birthday or Christmas.

The famous blue covers of Donemus publications represented music that was avant-garde and intellectual. Handwritten notation was not uncommon. Prior to coming to the Netherlands, I often wondered why Dutch painters were world famous, and yet I could not name a single Dutch composer.

I took out Chiel Meijering’s ‘n Dame scheert haar benen (Lady Shaves Her Legs) and explained to Ger, the librarian I met the day before, that the harpsichord score was difficult to read. He agreed and took me to Donemus, whereupon a lady quickly pulled up the electronic file on screen. She enlarged the PDF of the handwritten manuscript and printed it.

Is this better?

Yes, may I have it?

Sure, I’ll even bind it for you.

The philosophy of “print on demand” was new to me. The technology of Apple computers, high resolution printers, and spiral-binding machines served that philosophy. No more excuses for not trying to play that 1981 piece for guitar and harpsichord, I sighed.

I looked around the bookcases of sheet music. Have I discovered a gold mine? Just search the catalogue of sheet music online or in the printed binder, locate it in the library, sightread and play it mentally in my head, and then walk next door to Donemus to request for a copy to take home.

Among the pile of music for guitar plus other instruments, I found a three movement piece for piano and guitar by a Dutch composer I had never heard of.

Who is he?

Wolfgang Wijdeveld died in 1985.

And thus began my journey of discovering Dutch composers and their music.

First visit to Muziek Centrum Nederland

Until a year ago, Gaudeamus, Donemus, and the Dutch Pop Institute were three separate entities. Now they are merged as one and housed in an unmarked building in central Amsterdam.

After our duo concert Monday afternoon, my American friend guided me on two different trams to get to a meeting at Rokin 111, Amsterdam. It was the address of the new “Music Centre the Netherlands” Muziek Centrum Nederland, or MCN for short. Until a year ago, Gaudeamus, Donemus, and the Dutch Pop Institute were three separate entities. Now they are merged as one and housed in an unmarked building in central Amsterdam.

I was curious why my 209-page bachelor thesis on sight-reading (piano) did not get nominated. Was my thesis too long (certainly the longest submitted) or that the topic was not as timely as that of gaming? Surely, I did not lose to guitar hero! The MCN Music Thesis prize was a 500 euro cheque and probably a lot of publicity. While I was compiling the PDF version for submission, someone in Madrid had offered to buy my thesis. I didn’t know what it was worth. But I hoped to find out here.

Before the award ceremony began, I introduced myself to two men sitting near the window. Ger and Gerard were librarians at MCN. It was my first visit to MCN, and I did not know what exactly MCN represented.

The librarians were impressed that I managed to conduct a conversation entirely in Dutch.

Are you American?

No, I’m not. Why? Do I have an American accent?

Well, you have a similar accent to Vanessa Lann, the American composer.

Yes, I have heard of her. I’ve never met her though.

Or David Dramm, another American composer based in Amsterdam.

He was one of the composers-in-residence who taught me at Utrecht Conservatory. There’s another American composer. He was a guest lecturer, Ron….?

Ron Ford.

That’s it! He was just leaving Duke University when I was there. In fact, it was my piano teacher, Randall Love, who suggested that he go to Amsterdam to compose new music. Holland was a place where new music got performed, he had said to Ron Ford.

Are you American?

No, I’m not. Definitely not. But I’m amazed how many American composers have settled in this country.

I mentioned another composer-in-residence, Chiel Meijering. I had ordered a piece he wrote for guitar and harpsichord. While the guitar part was clearly written, the keyboard part was not. I complained that the handwritten manuscript of 1981 was difficult to read, and as a result, my duo would not study it for performance.

Bring it back. Let’s see what we can do about it.

What do you mean? I had already emailed Chiel, the Dutch composer famous for cranking out music at high speeds, that I preferred to read computer notation. He had replied that his piece was written before that era. ‘n Dame scheert haar benen (Lady Shaves Her Legs) thus laid in my pile of promising sheet music for our duo, nearly forgotten until this conversation.

The next day, Tuesday 24th March, I brought the Meijering sheet music to the library. And from there, I was led to Donemus, the famous publishers of new music in the Netherlands.