Producing an event without being there: classical guitar concert on Maui

Anne Ku reflects on the decisions and steps required to produce a concert, specifically, the first and second classical guitar concerts at Maui College.


It is entirely possible to make an event happen without being there. If we’re to deconstruct the steps to produce an event such as a classical guitar concert, we can see what it takes in the following phases. Continue reading “Producing an event without being there: classical guitar concert on Maui”

Barefoot guitarists in Makena

Every summer Ben Verdery comes to Maui to give his classical guitar masterclass. You have to audition to get in. The final concert is free to the public.

“Are you going to the concert tonight?” asked my colleague who lives in South Maui.

“What concert?” It was a Wednesday, too early for the Saturday 10 August concert upcountry. Usually I’m the first to hear about a classical music concert on Maui.

Ben Verdery. His students are playing in my church tonight at 7.”

The name needs no further explanation. When I first searched for “classical guitar” on Maui, as early as 2007, when I visited with Robert Bekkers to give our piano guitar duo concert at Makawao Union Church, I found the classical guitarist from Yale University who had been visiting Maui every single summer.

Summer is when I leave Maui for the rest of the world — all except last summer and this. I had completely forgotten about my quest for Mr Verdery.

I walked quickly to my office, worried that I might have missed the opportunity to finally meet the maestro. I searched online and only managed to find out about the 23rd July 2013 concert of Ben Verdery and his teacher, the composer and guitarist Frederic Hand at the Makawao Union Church. I wrote to John Olson to find details of Wednesday 31st July concert and immediately compiled a short invitation to send to 602 of my colleagues and students, everyone who had subscribed to an internal mailing list.

This concert was not advertised. It was a public performance of all 19 students who had auditioned and gotten accepted to the week-long program taught by Mr Verdery and associates, the 14th year since it began as an annual event — a well-kept secret, I concluded.

The famous church next to the Pacific Ocean, at the southern most tip of Maui’s beaches — Makena, as the area is called, has excellent acoustics. I had attended two concerts previously and firmly believe that it should be a permanent place for live classical music.

That evening, I saw the guitarists warming up outdoors, on the church grounds around sunset. Various sized shoes were lined up outside the entrance, an invitation for me to take off mine. The polished wooden floors looked and felt clean and shiny — “let’s keep it that way,” I whispered to myself. There was an atmosphere of familiarity and comfort, as though the parents, friends, and families of the guitar students had sat and watched the “guitar summer school” take place all week. It was not difficult to spot Mr Verdery, for he seemed the most relaxed of all.

The audience were not the only ones that decided to go barefoot. Every guitarist on stage, the composer / conductors, and Mr Verdery himself had bared their feet.  [Note: I had tried to get everyone who performed and came to our house concerts in Utrecht, Netherlands to take off their shoes — but some people simply refused to!]  There was a kind of nakedness and intimacy as well as respect for the owners and property when we sat without our shoes. Later I realized that barefoot was necessary to prevent unnecessary noise. The guitar is a soft instrument after all.

The entire masterclass, who called themselves the Maui Honu Guitar Orchestra, opened the evening with a piece composed and conducted by Oahu-based Ian O’Sullivan. Now teaching at UH Manoa, Ian O’Sullivan  had studied with Mr Verdery as a summer student on Maui before winning a full scholarship to Yale for his Master’s Degree. The title of this guitar ensemble work, Waialua,  is the name of an area in the famous north shore of Oahu. The piece is classical music with a Hawaiian feel. I would love to hear it again!

Thereafter, guitarists appeared on stage two or three at a time, taking their turn performing solo guitar pieces of Piazzolla, Dowland, Pujol, Koshkin, Powell, Domeniconi, Villa-Lobos, Hand, and others. Everyone, except the Pacific Ocean through the open doors and windows, quieted down for this guitar concert. This togetherness in silent attention reminded me of another occasion, the Katona Twins in Warmond, Netherlands. You really have to know guitar to know your manners — no rustling of the programme notes, whispering, or other movements that create unnecessary noise. You could literally feel everyone’s concentration at hearing every single note.

I write this as a pianist who has participated in a summer guitar course and who subsequently married a classical guitarist. The guitar, for me, is matrix algebra while the piano, like the harp, is a one-to-one correspondence. The guitar has always held a mystery for me. I will never forget that summer course at West Dean College in England, where students of all levels could participate. It was a week of daily technique exercises, ensemble class, individual tuition, and evening concerts in the country side of West Sussex. Both amateur and professional guitarists convened for gourmet cuisines and a fairytale-like existence. It was also the place where I asked myself, “if it’s musicians you’re looking for, why work with energy traders?”

Once upon a time, I heard guitar music every single day. Nowadays, I hear it via Facetime, telephone, CD, or radio. Thus it was a very special evening to hear 13 solo guitar pieces, 3 guitar duets, and 3 guitar ensemble works. It brought back memories of just how intimate guitar music is.

The last piece deserved an encore. Mr Verdery introduced “Start Now” as a piece originally for duo and then trio and then quartet. Towards the end, out of the blue, Mr Verdery whipped out a harmonica and joined the ensemble. It’s a piece you could tap to, dance to, and feel one with the music. Encore!

Improvisation workshop

Miss Lee Pui Ming is an exceptional improvisation pianist who began her classical music training from the age of 3. Her approach to improvisation is very unique. After giving an improvisation workshop in Kahului, she will give a solo concert in Makena the next evening.

The workshop was in full swing when I arrived — 5 minutes late. The pianist, Lee Pui Ming, looked up and acknowledged me. She said that they were just going around introducing each other. She’d let me catch my breath and get to me last. I didn’t have to feel guilty. I already felt like I was part of the workshop.

Only glass doors and an entire glass wall separated the inside of the Maui Music Conservatory from the rest of the mall. It was a Friday night. Teenagers were out and about. Where else do you hang out on Maui, as a pre-drinking aged teenager? At night?

Yet inside the spacious reception of the conservatory where 4 grand pianos stood in a fan shape, lids wide open, ivories fully exposed, waiting to be consumed, was a different kind of space. No teenagers sat here — only individuals my age and older. The Friday night here was filled with purpose.

Every person there was interested in improvisation.

“Can you practice improvisation?”

“Do you know what you will play before you play it?”

“Can you repeat yourself if you like it?”

“Is there any structure to it? Where does your inspiration come from?”

At some point, I wished the questions would stop. I wanted badly to hear the pianist play.

Nearly 45 minutes into the workshop, after several hints, someone finally asked her to play. She stood up and said, “I feel like a teenager again.” She gestured, “My mother is telling me: go, go play for these people.” In other words, she was not ready to perform for us.

Instead, she asked three volunteers to sit at the pianos. She asked one to start, and the second to join in whenever he felt like it. When the first one takes a break, the third pianist should then enter. It was like a relay duo.

Robert Pollock, the founder of Ebb & Flow Arts, the nonprofit organization which introduces such variety of interesting contemporary and avant garde music to Hawaii, began his improv on the black grand piano. Although the trio had never played together before, they sounded like they knew just what to do. The transitions to different genres were organic and unpretentious. They listened to each other. Each got to lead with their forte. I could almost sense what they were feeling and thinking as they improvised. I felt no anticipation or worry about how long they would play or get out of sync. Amazingly they ended their performance at the same time.

We discussed the improvisation performance. I had forgotten that it was possible to enjoy watching others improvise together.

Years ago, I was invited to an improvisation concert in River Oaks in Houston. I had brought half-the audience. When it was my turn to improvise, I played just the white keys on the Steinway Grand. I didn’t know what to think or say about improvisation then. But tonight, there was much observation and articulation.

It was nearly 9 pm. Lee Pui Ming wanted to stop, but we didn’t. Upon urging of the conservatory’s owner, Ruth Murata, I went to a piano. Lee Pui Ming started tapping an ostinato on the wood of the piano. I barely sat down before I copied her on the piano bench. Then I moved to the keys. She was behind me, so I could only hear her. Another person joined me on the other piano. I crescendo’d and added more fingers, then the palms of my hands, my fists, my elbows. I did clusters all over the keys to a fortissimo. I could sense the audience’s reaction behind me. I was pounding on the piano, like the young boy whom I taught in Utrecht. He had pounded on my piano to vent his frustrations. So did I. The piano suffered. The pianist next to me changed his tune. He wanted to move into a soft, melodic soundscape. I resisted joining him until another pianist went to the 4th piano. I was overpowered. And the world ended in a whisper.

Tomorrow evening, Lee Pui Ming gives a solo performance in a stone church at the very southern beach of Maui. It’s a church I’ve seen from the waters. She wanted to hear the ocean as she plays, so she said.

I want to walk the beach, watch the Summer Solstice sunset, and listen to her improvisations.