Sunset in Ealing London with solo guitar

With my mobile phone, I recorded Robert Bekkers playing Tarrega’s famous Requerdos d’Alhambra. It was the last time I’d enjoy my garden with live music this year.

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Beyond my garden, a park and a school
Beyond my garden, a park and a school

I invited my neighbour Inge to see my garden before the adjoining fence got replaced. We sat down among the rubbish and debris to enjoy a glass of freshly squeezed orange and mango juice at sunset.

It had been more than six months since I last visited her. I wanted to tell her about our adventures in Spain, Belgium, and our forthcoming trips to Paris and Crete. As we recalled fondly the garden concert of June 2001, “Summer Solstice” and July 2002, “Spanish Summer Soiree,” Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers appeared.

Before the new fence was installed, my garden seemed boundless.
Before the new fence was installed, my garden seemed boundless.

“Bring your guitar down,” I begged.

“I’m still practising upstairs,” he protested.

“But it’s so nice out here,” I pleaded. “Give us a concert!”

He went indoors and brought out a bottle of beer instead of a guitar.

“Aren’t you going to play something?” I asked.

“First I’m going to take a break.”

Fence in progress in garden of Victorian Cottage London Ealing
Fence in progress in garden of Victorian Cottage London Ealing

He had boldly gone to the Great British Beer Festival the night before, which he regarded as the highlight of his working holiday week in London. I had brought him to London to inspect my Victorian cottage and fix anything that I couldn’t fix. [“Which,” exclaimed the guitarist, “is everything you can find.”]

Complaining that he did not have the proper tools, he asked me to hire a builder to repair the outside pipes, remove and replace the garden fences, and replace the kitchen drains. Between numerous minor chores, he tried to find time to practise while I fretted about the paperwork.

Inge interjected. “Let him have his beer, Anne. I should be going soon.”

“Don’t go yet,” I said. “I want to hear what his guitar sounds like out here. How often do you get to see across to my neighbour’s garden?”

Robert Bekkers in London Ealing
Robert Bekkers in London Ealing

With my mobile phone, I recorded Robert Bekkers playing Tarrega’s famous Requerdos d’Alhambra. It was the last time I’d enjoy my garden with live music this year.

Addendum:

The two builders returned the next morning to finish installing the adjoining hard-wood fence, a luxury beyond my imagination. These fences were unlike any other in this quaint neighbourhood of Victorian cottages.

With very little time left, Robert fixed the laundry lines in parallel while I cleaned the mahogany parquet floors. There was hardly enough time to pack and rush for the airport. The walk to the nearest Piccadilly tube station was compromised by having to pull an overweight suitcase containing two 4-packs of English West Country ciders, numerous second-hand sheet music and travel guides to Italy. And that was how we missed our flight back to Amsterdam.

The garden with new fence in London Ealing
The garden with new fences in London Ealing

Interpreting Daniel Abrams’ Chaconne on Dido’s Lament

When I listened to New York-based composer/pianist Daniel Abrams’ CD “Opera for Piano” earlier in the spring, I was immediately touched by his “Chaconne on Dido’s Lament.” I had to stop the CD and write to him for a copy of the score. Over the telephone Daniel Abrams asked, “Why does this lament have such an effect on you?”

One item on my backlog list is to introduce new music of living composers by recording them before our piano guitar duo concerts. These are also the pieces I am studying before actual performance.

When I listened to New York-based composer/pianist Daniel Abrams’ CD “Opera for Piano” earlier in the spring, I was immediately touched by his “Chaconne on Dido’s Lament.” I had to stop the CD and write to him for a copy of the score.

Dido’s Lament, from Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” had struck a chord in me when my analysis teacher played the descending bass line as a famous example. Since then, I had lived in awe of the story of Dido and Aeneas and the lament that preceded the end of Queen Dido. I had even “borrowed” or “quoted” the descending line in my own chamber opera “Culture Shock!” You could say I am besotted with Dido’s Lament.

Over the telephone Daniel Abrams asked, “Why does this lament have such an effect on you?”

Is it duty over love? Do what’s expected of you rather than what you want? After all, I had been brought up to learn what is expected of me and had even written a poem entitled “Want.” For that reason, I feel the tragedy of life.

Or could it be simply the beauty of such a descending bass line?

I met Daniel Abrams and his wife Sonia this past April in Utrecht, between the two week-long trips to Seville and Madrid. Lamenting that I had no time to attend his master classes at Utrecht Conservatory or attend his concert with his former student Alan Weiss, I invited them to dinner (cooked by our friends Emily and Paulus) after a day of rehearsals. At parting, Daniel gave me his “Opera for Piano” CD.

Below is a first take of the first few pages of his 11 variations in “Chaconne on Dido’s Lament.” I will have to visit that restored 1880 Bechstein grand piano in Warmond again, when I’ve figured out the page turns.

From Utrecht to Purmerend to Amsterdam with sunflowers

I daresay it’s more beautiful than the real thing, … an interpretation of our gift. I suppose it’s analogous to a musician’s interpretation of the work of a composer; or a composer’s interpretation of reality? The Dutch like to give flowers at the end of concerts.

Writing, like performing, requires momentum. I’ve been so out of practice lately, with an ever-growing backlog of topics to write about, that it’s easier to watch the list grow rather than sit down to type a new blog.

The backlog includes our recent concert of 21st century music for piano guitar in which three of the composers were present. The anticipation of performing two pieces for the first time in front of two of the composers made it an intense experience (for me). This truly deserves a blog or two with extracts from the live recording.

To get back into the swing of writing, I will write what is most pressing to share — the talent of an undiscovered artist.

About 20 minutes ago I received an email from our friend Rob van Veggel (pronounced Veh-hel), a blonde-haired blue-eyed Dutch anthropologist who loves to draw, paint, sculpt, garden, cook, and travel. He attached a photo of a new painting (below) and wrote only, “Hi Anne & Robert, thx again.” The sunflowers are none other than the bouquet of 10 we bought in Amsterdam for the sumptuous dinner he cooked on the evening of Friday 24th July. [Click to get the bigger view.]

Sunflowers in Amsterdam by Rob van Veggel, 25 July 2009
Sunflowers in Amsterdam by Rob van Veggel, 25 July 2009

The bright sunflowers stood out from orange roses and other contenders for my choice of a gift that Friday at sunset. At first I picked five and then got persuaded by the flower seller to double it, as had the previous customer. The bundle was long and heavy to carry, and I was not entirely sure if our friends had a vase big enough to fit.

Rob knew exactly what to do with them — cut the stems diagonally and put them in warm water (40 degrees Celsius) in a clay pot. The result was a scene out of Van Gogh’s palette, begging to be captured on canvas.

And what a surprise to see the painting —- so soon! I daresay it’s more beautiful than the real thing, … an interpretation of our gift. I suppose it’s analogous to a musician’s interpretation of the work of a composer; or a composer’s interpretation of reality?

The flower stand sat on a busy street near Muziekbeurs, a second-hand sheet music store that’s been around for 50 years. We went there after our afternoon concert in Purmerend (east of Alkmaar but north of Amsterdam) to treat ourselves to music for piano and guitar (Carulli’s concerto), piano and bassoon, piano and French horn, and other indulgences. When the grey-haired owner tallied up the bill 20 minutes after closing time, I was shocked to learn that it was nearly what we earned from our concert!

The Dutch typically give flowers at the end of concerts. That Friday, however, we received two bottles of red wine instead of the usual bouquets. We had driven 50 minutes from Utrecht to get to the village of Purmerend earlier that afternoon. On the way, we saw a road sign for Ilpendam, which brought back fond memories of getting introduced to Dutch pastimes.

Now I wonder if we should drop by Rob and Allan’s place each time we receive a bouquet? Then I won’t have to go through the ritual of putting them in water and watching them wilt by the end of the week. Hint: if Rob reads this, perhaps he would consider giving me the painting of those gorgeous sunflowers.

Warming up with new piano solos before a concert in Amsterdam

Here was a case of great instrument, great acoustics, but not the right circumstances to do a professional recording. While waiting for his chair, the guitarist recorded me playing some of my favourite “new” piano solos. I say “new” because I had only heard them two summers ago, in Italy, and became so smitten that I had to request for their sheet music from the young composers Chris Williams and Tom Peterson.

On a warm sunny afternoon, we arrived two hours early, hoping to do some serious recording on the beautiful Borsendorfer grand piano in the spacious, bright hall that we had performed once before. It was one of the first places the Amsterdam-based foundation “Stichting Muziek in Huis” had booked us concerts. I remember it well.

We were told that the hall would not be used before our concert. But that did not mean that it would be quiet enough for our duo to record, let alone rehearse without distraction. And all our plans had to be abandoned during those two hours.

Here was a case of great instrument, great acoustics, but not the right circumstances to do a professional recording. The kitchen staff were finishing their lunch, a few residents were wandering in and out, shuffling their feet and talking to one another, and the volunteers were busily getting the hall ready for our 14:30 hour-long concert.

Nevertheless, the grand piano and the acoustics were too good to miss out. While waiting for his chair, the guitarist recorded me playing some of my favourite “new” piano solos. I say “new” because I had only heard them two summers ago, in Italy, and became so smitten that I had to request for their sheet music from the young composers Chris Williams and Tom Peterson.

Arizona-based Tom Peterson’s Sonatina (2nd movement) begins like a fugue.

After receiving the scores in 2007, I got caught up in my final year of conservatory, too busy in 2008 to study the pieces. Finally now in 2009, as usual with the long time lags and back logs of requests and implementation, I get to appreciate them properly.

Sydney-based Chris Williams first wrote “Somewhere between Reason and Light” in Vienna and later adapted it for premiere in Cortona, Italy. I had recorded the first half of it on a Baldwin grand piano in Madrid only to notice that I needed more space and freedom in my interpretation. I then asked Chris to edit the score to allow easier page turns.

No sooner than I had uploaded the video onto youtube and alerted Chris, I received a reply.

Thanks so much for the recording and link. I am just so pleased that you enjoy playing the piece and do it so beautifully! It’s wonderful to hear something new with each recording of it, and I think you are really coming to terms with it nicely. It seemed to me to “breathe” even better in this recording than the last one.

I am about to head off to Tasmania for a week with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (who will be playing my first orchestral piece!) So I am very excited about that.

Gerhard Adam grand piano in London
Gerhard Adam grand piano in London

How ironic that I had once chosen an unknown German grand piano (Gerhard Adam) over the world-famous Borsendorfer when I decided to invest in my first grand in London. [I had regret it ever since.] This one in Amsterdam has such a warmth of sound but never brash or too loud for my liking.

Wanted: venues with grand piano and great acoustics in Leiden, Amsterdam, around Utrecht, Crete, and Taiwan

I am floating between the past and future (concerts) this June, a month for practising new repertoire, forever working on our first CD, getting coaching from great masters, and doing market research. That is, I’m waiting for video and audio clips of our concerts in Spain and simultaneously looking for venues with (grand) piano and (great) acoustics for future concerts.

alternative title: Planning for the future

I am floating between the past and future (concerts) this June, a month for practising new repertoire, forever working on our first CD, getting coaching from great masters, and doing market research. That is, I’m waiting for video and audio clips of our concerts in Spain (to load onto our website) and simultaneously looking for venues with (grand) piano and (great) acoustics for future concerts. Rather than waiting for someone to “discover” us, we are deciding where we want to go and actively looking for venues and sponsors.

Dutch composer Gijs van Dijk, Spanish biography May 2009
Dutch composer Gijs van Dijk, Spanish biography May 2009

We are giving our contemporary programme of music of (mainly) Dutch composers in Amsterdam on Sunday 12th July. I’m looking for other venues around that time, as the composers will be present — and only max 50 will be admitted in Funen Park 125, Amsterdam. How about Saturday 11th July in Utrecht and Monday 13th July in Leiden, for example? Where can I find concert producers and venues with piano?

Dutch composer Heleen Verleur, Spanish biography May 2009
Dutch composer Heleen Verleur, Spanish biography May 2009

We presented the same 21st century programme of piano guitar duo music on 3rd May 2009 in La Coruña, Spain, in the beautiful Museum of Contemporary Arts. Three of the Dutch composers were featured, with their biographies translated into Spanish, printed on nice glossy paper, inserted into the ongoing “El Oido Contemporaneo” hard-bound binder initiated and researched by Spanish composer Ruben Someso. This impressive collection of biographies of composers, 20th and 21st century composition techniques, musical instruments, and related musical vocabulary will surely become a book one day.

Dutch composer Henk Alkema, biography in Spanish, May 2009
Dutch composer Henk Alkema, biography in Spanish, May 2009

In the last week of July, the celebrated violin guitar duo of Matt and Beth Gould, also known as Duo46, will stopover in Amsterdam on their way back from the Contemporary Music Festival (founded by pianist Nathanael May in 2005 and continued annually in Cortona and Pavia, Italy). We’re actively looking for a suitable venue in Utrecht or Amsterdam, or surrounding cities/villages, for a double duo concert, tentatively called 2 + 2 = 6, on Monday afternoon 27th July 2009. How many combinations can we make out of 2 guitars, a violin, and a piano?

The million dollar view in Cortona, Italy July 2007
The million dollar view in Cortona, Italy July 2007

Ideally we’d like to give a concert everywhere we go. But I honestly think we will have no time the first week of August 2009 when we’re in London. That is, no time to organise a concert, I should say. We will never say NO to someone else organising the publicity, concert venue, ticket reservations, etc, especially if the concert is for Sunday 2nd August. Maybe I should just throw my wish to the wind? A concert in Ealing? Or a solo guitar concert or a guitar/flute concert as part of the analyticalQ home concert series?

Embracing uncertainty and opportunity, we’ve booked our flights to Chania, Crete for the 14th Levka Ori project in the ancient village of Paleohora. We’ve put a deposit on our accommodations for 21st to 28th August, and look forward to working with other artists with open minds. It’s our first trip to Crete, and Robert Bekkers’ first to Greece. So far, I have NOT found a piano in Paleohora (also spelled Paleochora). Between now and then, if we’re lucky and find a piano, then I’ll be able to schedule a live concert there. And whatever we plan or produce will get presented and exhibited in a museum in Belgium the following January.

In September/October 2009, we plan to give a concert in beautiful Leiden or its surroundings, so as to work with some 14 videographers, to communicate the real-time live performance to an audience who cannot be present physically. In other words, it will be podcasted — captured on video, for the rest of the world to see, whenever and wherever they want. It’s going to be a very interesting experience. But we still need to find a venue and set a date.

As the saying goes, “if Mohammed can’t come to the mountains, the mountains will come to Mohammed.” We took our music to Maui to share with my mother and sister, who had never seen us perform until then. Next winter, we’re looking for venues in Taiwan. Any ideas?

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.

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!”