Star Spangled Banner for not so easy piano

Anne Ku’s arrangement of Star Spangled Banner for not so easy piano was inspired by the book “No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love” and subsequent visit to the USS York Town in Charleston, South Carolina and a meeting with the author.

The National Anthem of the United States is neither easy to sing nor play. It’s not easy to sing because of the wide octave range. It’s not easy to play because the melody and bass move all over the place. What motivated me to arrange the American anthem for piano? Fourth of July?

Continue reading “Star Spangled Banner for not so easy piano”

Paris by Darius Milhaud

Paris by Darius Milhaud with text by Joe Goldiamond — a piano work to be performed on 4 pianos in Maui on 14th July 2012.

The Paris of French composer Darius Milhaud in 1948 is captured in his 4 piano music for 4 pianists. I asked my friend Joe Goldiamond, who has lived in Paris, to write about each of the areas which title the movements of this work. He has always spoken fondly of Paris, a romantic city I was fortunate enough to visit as a 21-year-old backpacker through Europe, on holiday as a graduate student, day trip for a job interview, blind date, conferences & meetings, winter rendezvous with friend from Houston, and the last occasion in Summer 2009. I can’t wait to share his descriptions with the audience on Maui on Saturday 14th July 2012. [The bracketed comments are mine, after our 8th July rehearsal.]


Montmartre sits on a hillside in the northernmost part of the city and has a 2,000 year-old history as an independent village known for its windmills and vineyards.  Annexed by Paris in the late 19th century, it quickly became home for artists, poets and revolutionaries who were attracted by its tolerant atmosphere, its buoyant nightlife, and by the beauty of its winding, narrow cobblestone streets, often with steep inclines, that may lead suddenly to small squares and fountains and gardens. [You can hear the scales, which I think depict the steps and paths.]

L’ Isle St. Louis      

The Isle St. Louis is a natural island in the River Seine right in the heart of Paris.  Yet, it feels far away and on Sunday mornings, when the island is shrouded in mist that rolls in from the river and the only sound you hear is that of a church bell, you might easily imagine yourself in rural France, 400 years ago.  It was the home of the Polish composer and pianist, Frederic Chopin.  The quays, which embrace the entire island, are legendary as lovers’ promenades. [You can hear the tenuto notes representing the bells of the Notre Dame.]


Montparnasse became the heart of Paris’s artistic and intellectual life after the first decade of the 20th century.  Located deep on the Left Bank, the area is a broad plain gathered around the boulevard Montparnasse, which today, as much as yesterday, blends bookstores and nightlife, cafés and crepe restaurants.  The stroller will still find legendary cafés, such as Le Dome and La Rotonde, where painters, sculptors, writers and philosophers from across the globe gathered to mold thoughts and debate ideas. [This piece is full of conversations, ideas, and thoughts criss-crossing each other. The biggest movement by far.]

Les Bateaux-Mouches

The Bateaux-Mouches are long, slender boats that have carried visitors on tours through the heart of Paris since the end of the 19th century.  The visitor experiences a leisurely adventure and gentle breeze as his boat glides past Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre Museum and the Tuileries Gardens and under historic bridges.  He may also sense what the waters of the Seine have always meant to Paris, as its main artery, and some would say, its soul. [In 12/8 time, you feel the sway of the boat on the water, nice and relaxed!]


The Longchamp Racecourse is located along the banks of the Seine in a wooded area in western Paris.  From the time of Napoleon III and across La Belle Epoque into the early 20th century, it was the kind of place that you went to in a top hat, if you were a man, and carrying a parasol, if you were not.  Even the thoroughbred horses had an understated elegance, along with power, in the masterly paintings of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. [This is a fugue, which means chase. You can literally hear the parts can’t wait to imitate each other, more like chasing each other!]

La Tour Eiffel

The Eiffel Tower is the tallest structure in France, the most visited monument in the world, and the universal symbol of Paris.  If the islands in the River Seine are the city’s heart, and the river its soul, then the Eiffel Tower is the city’s intelligence.  Constructed of iron lattice, like Parisian balconies, it was considered an impossible feat until it was done.  It was completed in 1889, in time for the World’s Fair, which was held to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution, an event we commemorate this evening. [As the last movement, this is grand and triumphant, rising high like the tower itself! Lots of octaves!]

Paris in one day

Returning to Paris brought back many memories of previous visits. I was not the insatiable culture vulture I am now. With aching feet and suntanned backs, we made our way back to the Marais district.

My Finnish friend, who has sightread piano music with me in London, Mannheim, and Bussum since 1993 when we first met, showed me the clavinova he’s renting during his six month sabbatical in Paris.

“Had I known you’ve got a piano here, I would have brought some 4-hand duet music!” I exclaimed with regret. How could I not have guessed that he could not do without his piano?

His one bedroom, 48 square metre apartment sits on the 5th floor in the Marais (4th arrondissement). There is no lift but rather a painful 94 nontrivial steps to climb to what-is-equivalent of the 6th floor in the USA.

The 94 non-trivial steps to the 5th floor flat in Paris
The 94 non-trivial steps to the 5th floor flat in Paris

“That’s why Parisian women look so good,” mused Robert the Dutch guitarist. “They have to climb a lot of stairs.”

Right this moment (Sunday 16 August 2009) I am struggling to capture the incredible action-packed day since our arrival on Friday night into Gare du Nord. While Robert and my friend are running 12 km on this Sunday morning, I am sitting on a small wooden stool facing the balcony. The distant bells of the Notre Dame chime of noon. My stomach cries for sushi.

Returning to Paris brought back many memories of previous visits.

“I came here for a job interview on a sizzling hot day in 1995,” I reflected yesterday. “I’m pretty sure it was in August. The company was located in that part of Paris famous for Japanese restaurants. Maybe it was here. There are so many sushi places in the Marais.”

“Why didn’t you take the job?” Robert had asked.

“I would have been an energy economist if I had. I didn’t like the high taxes I’d have to pay as a single woman.” It seemed a lame excuse for rejecting Paris.

I had brought my father here in 1998. I was not the insatiable culture vulture I am now. Notre Dame. Fruit de la mer. The Louvre. China town. That was about it. He had injured his foot and couldn’t walk far. But I did visit my Korean/German friend, who has been living here since. I will see her Tuesday for lunch in the 8th arrondissement where she works.

The Notre Dame in Paris: cleaner and whiter than ever!
The Notre Dame in Paris: cleaner and whiter than ever!

Yesterday my Finnish friend led us on a walk to Place des Vosges, the oldest and most perfect square in Paris. According to my “Paris for free (or extremely cheap” guidebook, it set the model for urban construction throughout Europe. We walked diagonally across the park toward a jazz trio playing outside one of the art galleries.

There was simply too much to see, even after traversing the 20 rooms in the Picasso museum. We were overwhelmed by the enormous output of Pablo Picasso in his life time. A staff member told us that there was more in reserve, i.e. in storage, than on display. The museum was closing for two years at the end of the month for refurbishment, and the displays would go on tour, starting in Helsinki.

We were told that Pablo Picasso had five official wives and countless number of mistresses and affairs. You could say he was a chaud lapin— a hot rabbit — a womaniser. My guidebook mentioned that the museum contained that largest collection of Picasso’s art in one museum. Apparently his art was given to the French government in lieu of death duty payments, after a long court battle with his heirs.

After a light lunch on the pavement of one of many restaurants near his home, my Finnish friend suggested that we have a picnic in the evening on the banks of the Seine.

The spot where we would have our evening picnic later on Isle St Louis
The spot where we would have our evening picnic later on I'sle St Louis

The day grew hotter as we walked along the “strand” along the River Seine. This was a sandy area for pedestrians and cyclists only. Under each bridge staged a different act, from a clown making animal balloons for kids to an operatic high soprano drawing crowds for the “Queen of the Night.” It felt like carnival on the beach, except it was in the centre of Paris.

Beach in central Paris: the Strand on the Seine River
Beach in central Paris: the Strand on the Seine River

We made way to the Museum of Modern Art in the Pompidou Centre. Strange that I had never been inside, after numerous visits to Paris. The escalators offered a brilliant panoramic view of Paris as we ascended to rooftop level. What awaited us in the three remaining hours of the day inspired us beyond imagination. This was possibly the biggest collection of modern art we had ever seen. If only we could do this for modern music! People flock to see modern art but why not modern music?

The view from the George Pompidou Centre in Paris
The view from the George Pompidou Centre in Paris

With aching feet and sun soaked arms and legs, we crawled back to Le Marais district. The live band at Hotel de Ville was still pounding away, threatening to boycott our plans of having Robert play guitar under a bridge (without amplification).

Hotel de Ville in Paris
Hotel de Ville in Paris

Nonetheless we had the bottle of 2007 Shiraz from South Africa (that we got from our concert in Rotterdam the previous day) and some very very old Dutch farmer’s cheese waiting to be consumed. Just add some qualite superiore sausages and fresh salad from the local grocery store, and we’re off to join the rest of the young generation on the banks of the Seine.

The marathon to Paris

“Are you musicians?” he asked, pointing to Robert’s black guitar case.

“Yes! In fact we are on our way to Rotterdam to give a concert. And then we’ll go to Paris from there.”

After getting comfortable on the intercity train from Utrecht to Rotterdam, I noticed the T-shirt of the man sitting across from us. It said something like

Swiss marathon: 350 km from Geneva to Basel

I motioned to guitarist Robert Bekkers next to me. He was looking out the window when I got his attention.

A half-marathon is 21 km. A full one is 42 km. But 350 km? How many marathons is that?

“Did you actually run 350 km?” I blurted out.

“Excuse me?” the dark-haired man in his early 50’s awoke from a reverie. “Oh!” he pointed to his T-shirt. “You mean this? It was 7 days in the Swiss alps.”

“But that’s 50 km a day! Still more than a marathon!” I exclaimed.

Robert began talking to him in Dutch.

The man looked like a long distance runner, with a lean and subdued body of zero percent fat. He explained that it was a small marathon consisting of 50 runners who woke up at 7 am every day and ran until 3 pm with an average speed of 8 km per hour. It’s important to keep a steady tempo because of the long distance and the mountains.

I asked if he had run in the Bordeaux.

“Medoc!” He knew the marathon. “No, I don’t like wine,” he replied in English.

I continued in Dutch. “Our running club coach in Bussum told us it’s the most amazing and sought-after costumed marathon with the best wines, champagne and oyster. He said he could get us in. But we never made it past the half-marathon. I’ve done 5k and 10k only.”

“That’s pretty good,” he said in English.

I pointed to Robert. “He has run several half-marathons but his body is more like that of a sprinter.”

“Yours too,” he said in English.

“Are you not Dutch?” I asked after his insistence upon speaking English.

“No, I’m French.” A Frenchman who does not like wine? Now that’s a curiosity.

“Oh! We’re going to Paris today. My Finnish friend is taking his sabbatical there. He just started running a year ago and already he’s won a silver medal. Robert is going to run with him.”

The Frenchman revealed that he ran for the scenery and atmosphere, not for competition. He said that the hardest moment was the second day. We agreed that once you get over the hard part, it was plain sailing.

“It’s asymmetric,” I drew a graph in the air.

“Are you musicians?” he asked, pointing to Robert’s black guitar case.

“Yes! In fact we are on our way to Rotterdam to give a piano guitar duo concert. And then we’ll go to Paris from there.”

“I am also a musician,” he smiled and waved his right hand. “I’m a conductor and a singer. I conduct seven choirs.”

“Really? What a small world! I graduated from conservatory last year.” I began enthusiastically to tell him about the two choral pieces in my second chamber opera “Culture Shock!”

“I got my friend Nicky, the alto soloist playing the part of the foreigner, to write down what the Dutch train conductors said on the train. I then used those words in the libretto.”

“Dames en heren! U kunt hier overstappen….” I sang.

The French conductor chuckled.

“You wrote the libretto yourself?” He was impressed. “Have you ever thought about writing an opera about a marathon?”

“No, I haven’t,” I pondered. “I like to work with musicians and singers to develop a composition. But that’s an interesting idea.”

I could almost hear his brain switch into dream mode. “The choir will wear shorts and run and pant. Hoo, hoo, haa, haa!”

Robert laughed. I giggled at the thought of a choir doing a marathon on stage. We exchanged email addresses and promised we’d explore the possibilities.

The train was getting close to central Rotterdam station.

“What will you do in Paris?” he asked.

“I wish we could give a concert. We want to perform wherever we go,” I said.

“You can play under the bridge,” he pointed to Robert’s guitar.

“Which bridge?”

“Any bridge. It’s beautiful.” He meant that Robert could busk under any bridge and collect money for it.

“I should have brought something sexy to wear,” I mused, imagining my role in getting the onlookers to donate their coins.

“No need. Don’t wear anything.”

It took me a second before I understood what he meant.

He was French after all.