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.

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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

Readability for playability: piano duets by Mark Francis

Readability of the score is necessary for playability. Mark Francis’ “Lights from Across the Lake” is a colourful piece used to demonstrate the two kinds of layouts for piano duets.

There are two ways to lay out staves for a multi-hand piano duet.

Parallel staves where the primo is on top of the secundo works well if one player has to see and keep track of the other player. If the systems are not spaced out far enough, it can be confusing. In the following passage from Mark Francis‘ “Lights from Across the Lake” a wider space between the secundo bars 29 to 31 and primo bars 32 onwards is all it takes to make it more readable. I’m guessing that the octava extends from bar 31 until it reads loco in bar 38 and the high C in the left hand in bar 31 is not sharped as written. A courtesy natural sign would help those sightreading this piece.

Lights from Across the Lake piano duet by Mark Francis
Lights from Across the Lake piano duet by Mark Francis

The second way to lay out the notes is to put the primo on one page and the secundo on the other. In the case of 3 players, each one has his/her own page. Page turns could be come a problem.

In “Lights from Across the Lake,” which is marked at quarter note = 60, we see that each player has 3 pages if the music is laid out in this way. Below are the last measures for the primo.

Lights from Across the Lake - primo part - piano duet by Mark Francis
Lights from Across the Lake - primo part - piano duet by Mark Francis

Because the music is straightforward, i.e. no irregular meter or rapid changes of time signature or the need to wait and count empty bars, it’s not necessary that one player sees or anticipates what the other is doing. The secundo part is below.

Lights from Across the Lake - secundo part - piano duet by Mark Francis
Lights from Across the Lake - secundo part - piano duet by Mark Francis

On Monday 4th July 2011 at the Monument House in Utrecht, Brendan Kinsella and I sight read and recorded this piece. Brendan thought it was colourful and preferred it to the other duet that the composer had submitted to my Call for Scores. Click below to listen to our recording on my 1909 New York Steinway.

Lights from Across the Lake piano duet by Mark Francis

The other piece “A Winter Rhapsody” was sightread at the Piano Soiree in San Francisco in mid-May 2011. We decided against recording this second piece because of the tricky alignment of the triplets in bars 28 to 31 (below).

A Winter Rhapsody - piano due by Mark Francis
A Winter Rhapsody - piano duet by Mark Francis

From the composer’s programme notes, Mark Francis writes

The Two Pieces for piano, 4 hands were written in 1985 and revised in 2008.  They were written at the request of pianist Robert Jordan for his students.  Each piece is a musical description of things I would see around the area where I grew up near Buffalo, NY.  Lights From Across the Lake describes seeing the lights that mark the entrance of the Welland Canal, just above the horizon at night, from the American shore on Lake Erie.  A Winter Rhapsody is a description of the wind and snow of a winter in Western New York.  There is something beautiful, powerful and forbidding about it. 

Mark Francis: Second Guitar Concerto, orchestral reduction for piano and guitar

Revisiting Mark Francis second guitar concerto, original version for guitar and orchestra vs orchestral reduction for piano and guitar premiered in Amsterdam on 17th July 2011 at a private birthday concert.

The positive reaction to our premiere of Mark Francis’ new work in Amsterdam led me to revisit the score.

Piano part from 1st movement of 2nd Guitar Concerto by Mark Francis
Piano part from 1st movement of 2nd Guitar Concerto by Mark Francis

Subtitled “In Somnis Verita” which means “in dreams there is truth,” the 2nd guitar concerto contains three movements albeit the composer had originally conceived of five. He wrote in the programme notes for the orchestral premiere in Jackson, Mississippi, “It is my belief that many people refuse to acknowledge what is true when they are conscious, but can’t escape from what they know to be true in their subconscious when sleeping. These things manifest themselves in dreams. Our subconscious will cobble things together in all kinds of strange scenarios. The music tries to depict these cobblings.”

A few days after the concert, I listened to the live recording of the orchestral premiere. I saw the piece come to life —- what the piano could not fully muster.

Guitar Concerto No. 2 by Mark Francis
Guitar Concerto No. 2 by Mark Francis

We had performed the first movement faster than the composer had intended (quarter note = 72). After the concert, we read Mark Francis’ programme notes, “The tempo of the first movement is slow, which sets the stage as our ‘dreamer’ drifts off to sleep and begins to dream. The opening triplet motif represents breathing. These are gentle dreams filled with longing and nostalgia. This movement is set in a kind of arch form.”

Guitar part to 1st movement of 2nd Guitar Concerto by Mark Francis
Guitar part to 1st movement of 2nd Guitar Concerto by Mark Francis

Who is the composer, Mark Francis?  He is a guitarist. He knows how to write music that guitarists like to play. That is very important. He wrote the second concerto specifically for guitarist Jimmy Turner, music director Wayne Linehan and the Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra in Jackson, Mississippi.

How did we discover Mark Francis? None other than my Call for Scores for multi-hand piano duets! He submitted two pieces which I will mention in a future blog post. Noticing that I had a piano guitar duo, he asked if we’d be interested to see his new concerto — reduced for piano and guitar. That’s how it started. Now I am even more curious about his first concerto and other works.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo, birthday concert in Amsterdam. Photo: FCAP
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo, birthday concert in Amsterdam. Photo: FCAP

Birthday concert in Amsterdam

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo recalls the birthday concert in Amsterdam, including the well-received piano-guitar premiere of Mark Francis’ Guitar Concerto.

Unlike the Chinese who consider a birthday worth celebrating only if the age ends in a zero after retirement, the Dutch happily celebrate every single birthday. It’s the one day in the year, your family and close friends can turn up at your door uninvited and unannounced. When you arrive, you’d congratulate everyone else — not just “happy birthday” to the one whose birthday it is.

Our first booking for a birthday concert was made by our next-door neighbour as a surprise 50-year birthday gift to his wife who loved classical music. He hired us to give a one hour concert in our own home. Afterwards we were invited to join them in their home for a chef-catered dinner and festivities.

Last month, we were asked by the producers of the Funen Concerts Art Productions in Amsterdam to provide a half-hour programme (1 page PDF) for a private concert for the birthday of an architect. We have given many one-hour performances at Funen Concerts or FCAP for short. Each time there was a different art exhibition, for the owners turned their home into an art gallery.

While it was easy to include the more popular pieces from our 2011 and 2010 concerts, we thought we’d add something entirely new: a movement of a new guitar concerto. Award-winning American composer Mark Francis had written his second guitar concerto for an orchestra in Jackson, Mississippi. Unbeknownst to us, our performance on Sunday 17th July 2011 was the world premiere of the piano and guitar version of the concerto.

Before the music, the birthday gentleman announces. Photo: FCAP
The birthday announcements. Photo: FCAP

There was a buzz not commonly found in our audiences. Because it was a birthday celebration and a gift of the birthday gentleman to his guests, the concert was received as a gift. These were not ticket-holders but recipients of a gift. We, as performers, felt the buzz.

When we announced that we were premiering a new piece, we felt that buzz again. We mentioned that new music was not as well received by general audiences in the USA as it was here in the Netherlands. In other words, we dared to include a new piece by a composer not known in this country at a privately commissioned concert.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo, birthday concert in Amsterdam. Photo: FCAP
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo, birthday concert in Amsterdam. Photo: FCAP

To our surprise, the audience smiled. They welcomed such a new work. They felt privileged that we’d select this occasion to premiere a new piece whose orchestral debut was less than two months before. After the 45-minute concert, one lady approached us as we were leaving to tell us that she specifically enjoyed the modern piece.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo, birthday concert in Amsterdam. Photo: FCAP
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo, birthday concert in Amsterdam. Photo: FCAP

We did not know enough about the work or the composer to share with the audience. As with good works of art, each time you visit, you enjoy it more than the previous. The first time we played it, we thought there was potential. But we had only rehearsed it three times together before we performed the first movement which we thought was the shortest and easiest of all three. What does the guitar concerto sound like with a real orchestra? We had no idea.

Robert Bekkers on Jeroen Hilhorst concert guitar in Amsterdam. Photo: FCAP
Robert Bekkers on Jeroen Hilhorst concert guitar in Amsterdam. Photo: FCAP