Review of reviews

The best quotes from student reviews of concerts on Maui from October to December 2013: Anderson & Roe, Dan Tepfer, Maui Holiday Pops. Ukelele Festival, and Harps and Horns.

Students and guests at the Piano Class Recital, Dec 18, 2013 Maui College
Students and guests at the Piano Class Recital, Dec 18, 2013 Maui College

One important assignment I require of my students is to attend an approved concert and write a review during the 16-week semester. It’s always refreshing to read their impressions afterwards. Below are some of the highlights from their reviews.

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TEDxMaui 2013

I was introduced to a few years ago by a fellow Rotarian in the Netherlands. I’m convinced that it really is an idea worth spreading, and one that needs such a viral introduction at first. I probably would not have stumbled upon it had he not told me about it.

The value of videos on grows over time because it becomes a database of useful and inspiring presentations & performances all over the world, largely through TEDx. The way the presenters engage and empower the audience on topics that are timeless and yet timely is one reason why it will live on.

We performers have much to learn from its success.

TEDx are produced in different locations around the world. Maui started its own in 2012 with presenters somehow related to Maui or Hawaii.

On Sunday 13th January 2013, I attended the last 3 segments of the TEDxMaui 2013 production at the Castle Theatre of the Maui Arts and Cultural Center (MACC).

I was most impressed by the ability of certain speakers to convey a knowledge or skill that I had originally considered complicated in a way that made me learn and see the beauty of its simplicity. The elder explorer who taught the audience how to navigate the Pacific Ocean by the stars gave us a taste of that extraordinary craft of ancient Polynesians. The Hawaiian musician Mahala made us chuckle and laugh while he showed us the secrets of the slack key guitar, in particular, his view that each of the 6 strings represented a different instrument.

The lights were not off as typical of most performances. They were ON — because the audience was just as important as the performer(s).

Audience engagement is more important now than ever before.

My burning question was this: why was TEDxMaui able to attract a full-house at the 1,200 seat Castle Theater but not Dame Kiri Te Kanawa?

Kiri Te Kanawa in Hawaii

Reflecting on the concert of Dame Kiri on 1st October 2011 in Maui, Anne Ku reminisces the pure unamplified sound of classical music she misses. The population of Maui is simply too small to attract the big stars on a regular basis. What else is there?

For those of you that are curious what Dame Kiri sang in her one-off concert in Maui on 1st October 2011, read this review of the same programme in Honolulu two nights earlier. I didn’t recognise any of the pieces listed except the English songs and the encore of Puccini’s O Mio Babino Caro.

The first thing she did when she got on stage was to address us and praise the hall. Clad in her full and long purple dress, Dame Kiri charmed the audience first by saying  “How lucky you are to have Castle Theatre.” We were indeed privileged to have such a world-class concert hall, fully air-conditioned with a 1,200 seating capacity. She mentioned the professionalism. Indeed the Steinway concert grand was professionally moved and tuned.

But how sad for Maui that stars like Dame Kiri are few and very far between.

In the run up to her concert at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, I learned that the population of Maui was around 150,000. Despite millions of visitors, Maui permanent residents number half of Utrecht, Netherlands — where I had been living since 2006. It’s also half of the London Borough of Ealing. One question lurks: “can such a small population attract international stars to perform here?”

Elton John did. His two concerts were also sold out in advance. I sat across the road on the Maui College campus to hear him last February.

Can we tap the millions of tourists to support a unique genre like classical music or even operatic music?

There are too many other activities that tourists would do — for free. The weather. The beach. The surf. The ocean. The mountains. Tourists have already paid dearly in $$ and time to get here. At $75, Dame Kiri was more expensive than hanging out on the beach.

Conclusion: there are too many competing activities to attract visitors while the permanent population of Maui is too small to attract the big stars.

What about classical musicians that are not famous? Can they draw an audience?

This past April, I turned pages for the opening concert of the annual Maui Classical Music Festival. It was well-attended by ticket holders. In its 30th year, the festival continues to draw a full house in various locations. But it’s just one week per year!

What does it take to have high quality classical music on this island? It is so rare that one attendee of the Dame Kiri concert in Maui asked me, “Does she have a microphone?”

I am aching to write about the pure sound of classical music, unfiltered and unamplified. Or I should say the RARE sound of such pure music. I would have to fly to Honolulu to get it live.

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

Pure acoustics unamplified

We get so used to amplified background music that we forget what pure, unamplified foreground music sounds like.

One of the reasons why I so enjoyed the choral concert I attended two days ago was that it was not amplified. Even the conductors abandoned the microphones to speak directly to the audience. Now you might exclaim, what’s the big deal? Of course it should not be amplified.

Neither were the Hawaiian Youth Symphony (HYS) concert and the Maui Pops Orchestra & San Francisco Pocket Opera production of “The Elixir of Love” amplified at the Castle Theatre in Maui. Except for the soloists in the HYS (which I did not think needed it), nothing was amplified. But the sound engineer could not wait to flip on background (amplified) music before and between the performances. I preferred to hear the sound of the audience rather than recorded music to fill the void.

The unamplified sound of a rehearsal of Handel’s Water Music in the big concert hall of the Utrecht Conservatory in the Netherlands was infinitely better than the live performance outdoors on the canal the next day. Why? Because the latter was amplified. [For more, visit the 10th paragraph in this blog post.]

Something I notice in Maui and elsewhere in the USA, there is constant background music filling the air space in hotel lobbies, shopping malls, department stores, restaurants and other places. Even when there is no music, an eternal fountain of noise is stifling the silence.

I daresay from years of working with classical musicians that they prefer to have pure silence when they are not making music. The ears need a rest. The ears need recharging.

I get annoyed when told by the guitarist to close the lid on the piano because it’s too loud. Equally, he gets annoyed when he has to use amplification to bring out the sound of the guitar. We as a piano guitar duo prefer not to use any amplification. We adapt to the acoustics, just as any classical music performer would, not with amplification or filter.

No, I don’t have a portable electric keyboard. No, Robert Bekkers does not have an amplifier for his acoustic guitar. We produce music the way we hear it for you to hear it —- pure and unamplified. Of course, it won’t sound the same outdoors. The instruments have to be amplified outdoors as we experienced it in Cape Town and Provence.

Below, amplified background music of slide guitar as audiences leave the Castle Theatre for the Yokouchi Pavillion in the Maui Arts and Cultural Centre.

A one-off opera production in Maui: Elixir of Love

Producing an opera is one of the most expensive projects in the classical music world. One-off productions do not benefit from economy of scale. Concert performance, doubling up, and piggy-backing a gala dinner after an opera are ways to reduce cost and increase attendance. Maui Pops Orchestra and Olinda Chorale collaborated with San Francisco Pocket Opera to produce Donizetti’s Elixir of Love on Maui on 13 March 2011.

Producing an opera is one of the most expensive feats in classical music, for it requires soloists, choir (often), orchestra, costume, choreography, stage prop, and more. The singers don’t just sing, they must also act or overact. Without economy of scale, one-off productions are even more expensive. These are only a few of the reasons why opera is so expensive. Some opera companies, particularly the touring kind, reduce their essentials to a minimum. In the extreme, an opera can be performed with just the singers and an accompanying instrument such as a piano or guitar.

When I first heard about the opera “The Elixir of Love” coming to Maui, I could scarcely believe it. What an ambitious endeavor to fly the singers from San Francisco to Maui, never mind paying members of the chorus and the orchestra in Maui! And to do all this just for one performance? There must be serious opera lovers in Maui besides myself, I concluded. Opera on Maui is extremely rare. In fact, I daresay, classical music performances are already rare on this island. Will opera lovers be flying from other islands to see this show?

Gaetano Donizetti’s (1797 – 1848) famous comedy opera “L’elisir d’amour” also known as “The Elixir of Love” opened on Sunday 13th March 2011 afternoon at the Castle Theater of the Maui Arts and Cultural Centre.

Cleverly translated into English by Donald Pippin, the founder and librettist of the San Francisco Pocket Opera, “The Elixir of Love” is a funny story about a magic love potion and a love triangle.

Sunday’s concert production of “The Elixir of Love” was a collaboration of the seven members of the San Francisco Pocket Opera (the narrator Donald Pippin, 5 soloists, and the executive director Dianna Shuster), the expanded 22-member opera ensemble of Olinda Chorale and Friends, and the Maui Pops Orchestra conducted by James Durham. All the soloists and most members of the chorus were dressed in period costume, acting with stage props but no stage set. The rest of the chorus sat on the main stage with the orchestra behind the actors.

Whereas Elton John’s concert sold out within 2 days to warrant a second concert in February 2011, the 1,200-seat Castle Theatre was far from full for the opera. Earlier in the week of Elton John’s concert, Hawaiian Youth Symphony’s concert with local talent Uncle Willie K was nearly full, with free entry. Tickets for Elton John ranged from $25 to nearly $300. In contrast, the opera was far more affordable, tickets from $15 to $55 each.

Why a one-off production? It was difficult to fill 1,200 seats.

Not that L’elisir d’Amour is not a famous opera. The aria “Una Furtiva Lagrima” (a furtive tear) is perhaps one of the most famous bel canto arias of all time. Every world-famous tenor has sung it: Domingo, Pavarotti, Carreras, Bocelli, Caruso. Even sopranos like Izzy and violinists like Joshua Bell have taken the heart-wrenching melody as their own. I heard it before I knew it came from Donizetti’s opera. After attending the opera, I listened to every single version of “Una Furtiva Lagrima” on youtube. It is THAT addictive.

Lee Strawn’s performance as Doctor Dulcamara was excellent. He was the perfect quick-get-away con artist. But it was the peasant Nemorino played by Charles Michael Belle that we were most sympathetic for, particularly when he sang “Una furtiva lagrima.” Was it deliberate that Belle shaved his head for this role? He could tear his hair out, he cries. Baritone Jason Sarten as Sergeant Belcore immediately pries of his bald despair. View the clip below for another performance of soprano Heidi Moss as Adina singing in original Italian.

I recognised fellow Rotarian and tenor Paul Janes Brown initially as one of the peasants and later as the notary summoned to marry Adina and Belcore. Doubling up is another way to manage the economics of an opera production.

Unlike in London and Amsterdam, where I hardly ever meet anyone I know at the opera, I was pleasantly surprised to count around 5 people I’ve met before. Although I did not stay for the gala dinner that followed, I thought it was a most enjoyable afternoon, definitely something I’d offer discounts to the 4,000 students of Maui College across the street.

[UPDATE 23 March 2011, official review published in Le Bon Journal:]