First international Alkema composition competition

The first international Alkema composition contest calls for scores for piano and saxophone, deadline April 2012, in honor of the late Dutch composer Henk Alkema.

While researching for my forthcoming paper on “call for scores” I came across an announcement in English and in Dutch, calling for scores for saxophone and piano, deadline April 2012.

I recognize Alkema, the last name of my late composition teacher Henk Alkema. I see the announcement is made by Matching Arts and Utrecht Conservatory. I recognize the name of one of the jurors, Jeroen D’Hoe who had also taught me composition at Utrecht Conservatory.

Once upon a time, a Chinese classical saxophonist from Szechuan (Sichuan) had shown me different effects of the alto saxophone to interest me in composing a modern piece for him. I did not write a solo work for saxophone. Instead I included the four kinds of saxophones in an ensemble piece as part of a composer-in-residence project. That’s when I learned of the saxophone’s range and versatility. Saxophones could sound like flute, clarinet, or French horn.

In my last conversations with Henk Alkema, he had urged me to start composing again. I see he has not given up.

The contest is open to composers of all ages and nationalities. I am glad to see that. During my four years at conservatory, I found that most competitions posted on our bulletin board had imposed age restrictions. I did not know then to look online. This contest has been announced in many composition forums and newsletters. I will for sure follow the results of this competition in 2012.

Piano duets from Hawaii to Holland

Summary of the “Call for Scores: multi-hand piano duets” project from January to September 2011 with links to reviews of selected individual works by living composers.

Call for Scores of Multi-hand Piano Duets

This was an experimental project to get living composers to submit interesting duets for pianists to play and to get feedback from the pianists on readability, playability, and more.

The first round of sightreading took place in Maui: over 3 separate sessions, Karyn Sarring and Anne Ku sightread the 42 duets accepted. This set was short-listed and some sent to Chong Kee Tan, organiser of the mid-May event in San Francisco to get interest. As a result of feedback, it was decided not to have a sightreading competition but a sightreading workshop with piano soiree instead. The event was not publicised to composers because some pianists expressed reservation in sightreading new works in front of them. In spite of this, two Bay Area composers attended.

To get more pianists to play, Anne Ku took the printed PDF sheet music to the Netherlands to interest pianists to try the music with her. The following pianists (by first name only) in chronological order attempted the duets: Tom, Thera, Brendan, Ahti, Huub, Liesbeth, Carol, and Bart. Anne Ku recorded several extracts of sightreading with Texas-based Brendan Kinsella in early July and 3 studied pieces with Utrecht-based Carol Ruiz Gandia in early August 2011.

Chronology from 31st January 2011 onwards:

REVIEWS OF SELECTED DUETS ## = sample score ** = mp3 or video recording

Steinway Grand used in recordings of multi-hand piano duets
Steinway Grand Model A 188 (1909 New York) at the Monument House, Utrecht, Netherlands used in recording of multi-hand piano duets

Capriccio for piano, 4 hands by Blessinger

Piano duets often have origins elsewhere. Martin Blessinger’s Capriccio for piano, 4 hands came from the 3rd movement of a violin and viola piece. Listen to an extract recorded by Anne Ku (primo) and Carol Ruiz Gandia (secundo).

It has been nearly five months since the deadline of my Call for Scores has passed and 3.5 months since the Piano Soiree in San Francisco where several of the piano duets were played. And it has taken THAT long to find another pianist to study, play, and record a duet.

During my 2.5 months in Utrecht, Netherlands (end May – mid August 2011), I actively sought pianists to sightread the 42 duets from 30 composers. Aside from those too boring or too difficult, there were many candidates for a replay. After gauging the sightreading experience with different pianists, I decided which ones deserved another re-evaluation.

Martin Blessinger‘s Capriccio is a fun piece that challenged me enough to recruit someone else with whom to prepare and play together. Below is an extract of the recording on my Steinway Grand in Utrecht, Netherlands with me as primo and Carol Ruiz Gandia as secundo.

Capriccio for piano duet by Martin Blessinger (mp3)

The Texas-based composer wrote:

This piece is a transcription of a movement from Tapas, a suite of short pieces I wrote a few years ago for violin and viola duo.  It struck me that one of the middle movements of the work, Capriccio Pizzicato, would work particularly well for four-hand piano.  This is an ensemble that has always appealed to me for personal reasons.  I was a piano major as an undergraduate, and some of my fondest memories are of reading through four-hand piano works with other members of the piano studio at SUNY Stony Brook.    

Capriccio for piano, 4 hands by Martin Blessinger
Capriccio for piano, 4 hands by Martin Blessinger

In studying for this piece, I focussed only on getting the notes correct, labeling ledger lined notes and polite accidentals whenever possible and necessary for clarity. When we got together to play, we decided to make a small comma after the third quarter note in bar 6 because it felt like a breath was needed. These are decisions that can only be made after studying a piece (not sightreading).

I thought I had the difficult part until I saw what the secundo had to do in bar 33 and 34 while I played nothing. Spanish pianist Carol Ruiz Gandia decided to memorise those octaval 16-th notes while I stayed put. Moving the page distracted her. So I waited until bar 36 before I moved the page.

Bars 34 and 35 in the secundo part of Capriccio by Martin Blessinger
Bars 34 and 35 in the secundo part of Capriccio by Martin Blessinger

We decided to add some dynamics in bar 58 where it was already forte. We went back down to a mezzo forte and made another crescendo to a forte in bar 60. These dynamics added to the piece. In bar 61, we went back down to a piano and steadily climbed until a big fortissimo in bar 64. The secundo immediately dropped back to a mezzo piano (subito) and I joined her to crescendo to another fortissimo in bar 65. And again. These dynamics are essential to make this piece exciting to play and listen to.

On top of page 7, we retracted to piano and then pianissimo as we descended.

Capriccio by Martin Blessinger
Capriccio by Martin Blessinger: bars 78 to 81

Listen to the 3rd movement Capriccio Pizzicato of Tapas from which this duet came. I rather think the entire 4 movement piece for violin and viola could be arranged for piano duet. I particularly enjoy playing fugues in duets.

In the meantime, having discovered its origins, I will share it with my violin and viola friends in Bristol, where just a year ago I was sightreading piano trios and quartets in their newly renovated Georgian home.

Waltz for 4-hands, 1 piano by Schroeter

Schroeter’s Waltz for 4-hand, 1 piano is reminiscent of the romantic era, a piece that is easily sightreadable and playable after some cosmetic changes. Listen to an extract played and recorded by Anne Ku and Carol Ruiz Gandia in Utrecht, Netherlands. Note: This blog post has been taken down due to protests by the composer.

Among the 42 piano duets by 30 composers submitted to my Call for Scores project is a delightful, easily accessible (readable, playable, and appreciable) quatre mains duet by Brazilian composer. This Los Angeles-based composer’s style is reminiscent of the romantic era familiar to many members of the piano club in San Francisco.

I noticed how easy it was to play this piece in Maui, San Francisco, Utrecht, and the Hague where I introduced this new work. There are many repeated and modulated sections. The secundo sets a firm pace.

Note @ 21 December 2011:

It is with great reluctance that I have decided to erase the rest of this blog post, remove the sample score and recording. I had spent quite some effort getting the music read, interpreted, and reviewed by enthusiastic pianists in Maui, San Francisco, Utrecht, and the Hague, culminating in a recording made with Carol Ruiz Gandia on my Steinway in Utrecht. However, the overwhelming number of protests, to the tune of 50 unpleasant spam e-mails from the composer, tells me that sometimes feedback and publicity is not appreciated.

Conversations in the Garden: how good music travels

Conversations in the Garden is a new recording of a new 4 hands on 1 piano duet of John Bilotta, played and recorded by Anne Ku (primo) and Carol Ruiz Gandia (secundo) on a Steinway Grand model A in Utrecht, Netherlands. Listen.

Good music travels. In January 2011, I announced a “Call for Scores” from Maui. John Bilotta composed his new piano duet in San Francisco where I met him for the first time in May 2011. Carol Ruiz Gandia and I recorded it in Utrecht, Netherlands in August 2011.

Today, having just returned to Maui, I found that the recording Carol and I did of John Bilotta’s piano duet “Conversations in the Garden” has appeared on his youtube channel below. Forget trying to get a small mp3 version loaded on my website. This is much better. [Note: if you can’t see the video below, click on this link.]

This summer I asked Spanish pianist Carol Ruiz Gandia, who has performed many times in our Monument House Concert Series, to study a few piano duets from my Call for Scores of Multi-hand Duets, specifically to record them on my Steinway Grand (1909 New York Model A).

On a sunny Thursday morning (4th August 2011), Carol played the secundo (bass) and I the primo (treble) part of San Francisco-based composer John Bilotta’s “Conversations in the Garden.” We had chosen the parts a few days earlier and practised them for the purposes of recording. We recorded it on a ZOOM hand-held recorder in my home in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Carol is starting a new house concert series from her home in Tuinwijk part of Utrecht. Tuinwijk translates to “garden village.” We were at Utrecht Conservatory together, and it’s nice to continue our collaboration even after graduation. I will be writing more about her new concert series soon.

Piano duets of Loren Jones

The three piano duets of San Francisco-based composer Loren Jones are a delight to play although not immediately sight-readable. Nevertheless they are worth studying for a performance.

For my Call for Scores of Multi-hand piano duets, I received three piano duets from Loren Jones, a composer based in San Francisco. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try them at the Piano Soiree cum Sightreading Workshop in San Francisco in May 2011.

“The Man with Four Hands” (2005) was his first piano 4 hands piece, written for his CD “Woodward’s Gardens.”

“The Secret Door” (2007) originally written for someone else but not performed until 2010 by the piano duet ZOFO.

“The Mt Eyhan Gabriel Caves” is Loren Jones’ newest duet, recently premiered by two teenage brothers in The San Francisco Composers Orchestra in June 2011.

When Karyn Sarring and I sightread “The Mt Eyhan Gabriel Caves” in April 2011 on electric pianos at the University of Hawaii Maui College, we thought it would fit well as a good first piece in the second half of a concert to welcome the audience back. We loved the nice colours, kind of jazzy.

We found “Man with 4 Hands” satisfying, steady, and well-written. The small 32nd notes in upwards arpeggiated motion seemed hard at first, kind of like being the first to swim on a cloudy day. Once you dive into the cold water, it acclimatises to your body temperature and you realise it’s not that bad. Perhaps a larger font would make it easier to read. Readability helps playability. In bar 23, we assumed that the sixteenth notes in 6/8 time equaled the sixteenth notes in the previous bars in 4/4 time.

Initially we were intimidated by the 358 bars of “The Secret Door” which spanned 25 pages and lasted over 7 minutes. Nevertheless I was so curious that I had to try it with Brendan Kinsella in my home in Utrecht, Netherlands. It was not exactly sightreading for we had to figure out the pattern of the 16th notes beforehand.

The Secret Door piano duet by Loren Jones
The Secret Door piano duet by Loren Jones

We managed to record the first 50 measures. The rest, we concluded, we had to study to give it the sound it deserved.

Extract from The Secret Door piano duet by Loren Jones, sightread by Brendan Kinsella & Anne Ku

It’s exhilarating to play passages that are pianistically fun. Look at the way the left and right hands follow each other, and the way the primo and secundo dance around each other, as if the sequences are nested within each other. The right hand (RH) follows the left (LH). The primo follows the secundo. This is “Ocean” tempo marked fast with quarter note = 152.

The next section is a waltz “Flying with the birds” — very programmatic — as our curiosity begs the question, “when will we get to the secret door?”

Indeed these three duets lead me to look for an opportunity to study and record them in Maui (where I’m destined next) and meet the composer in San Francisco (before I land in Maui).

Piano duet by Robert Pollock

Maui-based composer Robert Pollock’s “A Little Transition Music, Please” is exciting and engaging to play. Listen to the recording and judge for yourself.

One of the reasons for calling composers to submit sheet music for multi-hand piano duets (i.e. my Call for Scores) was that I got tired of the predominance of the existing repertoire for 4-hand one piano music that’s easily available in libraries and in music stores. I was sure there was more music than the quartre mains of the bygone 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, composers readily arranged piano versions of chamber music and even orchestral works. Some began with duets and then orchestrated them.

When I told Maui-based composer and pianist Robert Pollock about my Call for Scores, he immediately gave me his “A Little Transition Music, Please” — quatre mains written for the occasion of 21st November 2010 – MACC presents E&FA. Robert Pollock founded Ebb & Flow Arts after he moved to Maui from New Jersey. Most recently the foundation organised a “Battle of the Pianists” on 16th July 2011 in which my multi-hand duet “Three on One” (6 hands on one piano) was performed.

As I could not participate in the “Battle of the Pianists” because I would be physically on the other side of the world, namely in the Netherlands not Hawaii, I carried his piano duet across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco to sightread it with Chong Kee Tan and across the Atlantic Ocean to Utrecht, Netherlands where I finally recorded it with Brendan Kinsella on my Steinway on 4th July 2011.

What emerged was a duet we all found to be exciting, engaging, and fun. Click to listen to the recording below.

A Little Transition Music by Robert Pollock, performed by Anne Ku and Brendan Kinsella

The secundo starts with what seems like an ostinato on the left hand, setting the scene, or rather the pace and the anticipation. The primo joins in the second beat of the third bar, like a conversation. In fact, the entire piece is a conversation that gets more and more charged and exciting. The secundo never stays still but keeps the momentum going.

A Little Transition Music, Please - duet for 4 hands, one piano by Robert Pollock
A Little Transition Music, Please - duet for 4 hands, one piano by Robert Pollock

Music that has been performed is obviously more ready to be sightread and played than untested sheet music. Let’s hope works like these find their way into mainstream quatre-mains repertoire.

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.

Sightreading new multi-hand duets for one piano

First attempt at getting pianists in Utrecht, Netherlands to sightread new multi-hand piano duets has ended in showing off solo works of dead composers. Why?

I am blogging the experience of trying to get pianists to sightread, choose, and commit to studying the new piano duets I collected from the 30 living composers who answered my CALL FOR SCORES. In Maui, I had gone through all 42 new works with Karyn Sarring, an excellent sightreader at University of Hawaii Maui College. On electronic keyboards however, the duets didn’t sound quite the same as on real pianos as I later experienced with Chong Kee Tan in San Francisco.

This afternoon in Utrecht, Netherlands, the first in a series of small get-togethers in my CALL FOR PIANISTS, we three pianists gather in the home of Tom who had just bought a new Yamaha grand piano.

After coffee and a green bean coconut soup dessert, we approached the black piano with a few pieces I shortlisted to try. I showed them pieces that worked in San Francisco — they were easy to read. I showed the pieces that no one dared to try — the notes were too small. But there were other reasons why some pieces were not attempted.

“What happened to tonality?” cried Thera after trying to figure out the beats and pitches of a few duets that required rigorous counting.

“There’s so much wonderful literature of romantic piano music that I have yet to play! Why would I spend time trying to read new music?” exclaimed Tom.

After several attempts to read and decide who was better at the secondo or primo parts, we gravitated to showing off solo works we had studied individually and memorised. Thera played a moving work by Mendelssohn.

“I like to close my eyes and play — much easier than reading,” said Thera.

As soon as it was over, Tom gently pushed her aside and said, “It’s my turn now.” He played a virtuosic work of Haydn followed by Scarlatti Opus 11 no. 11.

How many hours of music have these two pianists got memorised in their heads? How long have they spent studying these pieces?

How can living composers compete with the dead ones who have a head start? Whose music are heard and published and readily available?

On 15th May 2011 in San Francisco, when I tried to get pianists to sightread these duets, one pianist reasoned as follows:

“Composers have to try much harder to get us to play their music. There is so much beautiful music we want to play — music we have heard of. To play music we haven’t heard of, it better be good and worthwhile.”

Perhaps such pianists prefer to play music they have committed themselves to. People, in general, for that matter, prefer the known, certain, and familiar. It’s far more comfortable to play something you’re competent at than try something that shows your incompetence (which can simply be due to lack of acquaintance or familiarity).

My attempt at getting these two pianists to try the remaining 40 duets has failed. They are now (as I write) churning out grandiose sounds of Katchaturian (Toccata), Rachmaninoff (Prelude op. 32 no. 5 in G), and Franck (Prelude, Fugue & Variations).

“It’s not that they are familiar,” protested Tom. “These old works go straight to the heart. Modern music appeals to the intellect.”

Thera added, “Yes, music IS emotional. I see in many modern compositions, the brain comes first.”

Surely there is modern music that appeals to the soul and the heart! But where is it?

“I like Martinu,” suggested Tom as he overlooked my typing. “His is mid-20th century. But he is dead now.”

Would my CALL FOR SCORES be more successful (in the sense of getting works to be played) if I had specified the music to appeal to the emotions?

We end with Liszt’s Consolation number 3. I have not given up trying the remaining multi-hand duets in the few hours left of the afternoon.

I am sure there are pianists who are eager to discover new sounds, new music that has yet to circulate or become familiar. These pianists like to sightread, try new things, work with other musicians, get to know the composers who write the music, and eventually get the composers to write music they want to play. How can I find other pianists like me?

Call for pianists: new multi-hand duets on one piano

A second attempt at getting pianists to sightread and study and perform new piano duets by living composers: 3rd July 2011 in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Several months ago, I posted a “Call for Scores” to composers to submit multi-hand duets that could be sightread on one piano. My blog was picked up by several composition newsletters and websites. Even Google was keen to let the world know about this quest. [Just google “multi-hand duets” and you’ll get the drift.]

Unfortunately, several things happened that prevented a full-scale sightreading competition.

  1. Most of the scores I accepted because they looked interesting to play turned out to be not easily sightreadable.
  2. The pianists that liked to play in a soiree preferred to play pieces they have studied for performance. Few such pianists would like to attend a sightreading event, much less be judged in a sightreading competition.
  3. Listening to work that is being sightread is not as enjoyable as listening to work that has been studied, rehearsed, and perfected for performance.

The sightreading competition of Sunday 15th May 2011 in San Francisco was rebranded as a sightreading workshop and piano soiree. Still, the rumour that some composers may come deterred some pianists to participate. As much as I wanted to broadcast to invite the 30 composers (and they in turn to extend the invitation to their friends, family, and fans), I had to refrain from doing so. In the end, just two composers who lived near the venue came to the event. [Visit the webpage for details about the 15th May piano soiree and feedback.]

Most of the duets did not get played. I still intend to write about those that did.

I carried the heavy binder from Hawaii to Holland, and along with it, the responsibility of getting pianists to look at the new works by living composers and try them.

At the end of June, two American pianists, Nathanael May and Brendan Kinsella, will come to the Netherlands to give concerts from our Monument House in Utrecht. Besides organising the house concerts of 1st July and 2nd July, I am calling pianists to look through my collection and choose pieces to study and perform for 3rd of July.

Details of the Sunday 3rd July 2011 concert is given on High Note Live, a new concert and audience management web application.

Gardens of the famous Dome Church in Utrecht, The Netherlands
Gardens of the famous Dome Church in Utrecht, The Netherlands