Tag Archives: opera

Transferrable skills: from music to ?

This time four years ago, in the historic city of Utrecht, Netherlands, I was contemplating “how am I to do it.”

The task of recruiting musicians to study my music and perform (or rather, premiere) it for the first time and only once — without compensation — was a daunting one.

It would have been easiest to have just one performer play my music. And that performer could be me. After all, I know my own music. I wouldn’t need to find other musicians, convince them to rehearse, and take the risk of playing music that’s never been performed or heard before. And to play it just once?  After all that studying?

Next easiest would be to write music for a duo or a limited number of players. Why did I challenge myself with producing a half-hour-long opera with a sizable ensemble, choir, and soloists? There had to be separate rehearsals with the choir. This was not the path of least resistance.

Where could I find these musicians? Ask their teachers? Approach them one at a time?

How would I get musicians to do it? I asked other composition students. How did they do it? Nobody had written a chamber opera with so many performers before. Orchestra yes. But not opera.

Conductor Henk Alkema greets first violinist and soloists, June 2008. Photo: Some 40 musicians performed in my final exam in composition on 2 June 2008 at Utrecht Conservatory. These photos were taken by Fokke van der Meer

Conductor Henk Alkema greets first violinist and soloists, June 2008. Photo: Fokke van der Meer

What I learned from those months from February to June 2008 was how to produce a concert with no budget. What was involved? It was a collaborative effort.

  • recruiting musicians
  • scheduling rehearsals
  • getting the musicians to arrive on time
  • getting the musicians to show up
  • getting the musicians to commit
  • organizing the music (making the part scores)
  • changing and editing the music
  • preparing the programming notes
  • preparing the slides for the overhead projector
  • setting put the stage
  • getting the event photographed and recorded
  • doing the publicity
  • getting help (stage manager, stagehands, usher)
  • ordering flowers to thank the musicians and selecting wine to thank the conductors
  • arranging post-concert refreshments for the audience
  • arranging dinner for the musicians
  • getting sponsors to pay for printing programs (PDF) and posters and the rest
  • getting the posters and programs printed

Thinking back, these skills are transferrable, for now I am managing an expanding team of volunteers. I am not paying them. They are not paying me. But we all work to the same goal.

The audience at the final exam concert of 2 June 2008. Photo: Fokke v.d. Meer

The audience at the final exam concert of 2 June 2008. Photo: Fokke v.d. Meer

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What will Dame Kiri sing on Maui?

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

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Dame Kiri to sing in Maui on 1st October 2011

Shortly after I returned to Maui in mid-August 2011, I checked out the classical music scene here. It was bare — or I should say “nil” compared to what I have been accustomed to in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and London. However, one name stood out.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

I had to take a second look. The legendary soprano from New Zealand? Dame Kiri who sang at Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding? The most beloved soprano in Britain?

Having lived in London for most of my adult life, I had heard of Dame Kiri long before I started going to operas and definitely long before I began writing concert reviews. I loved that I knew how to pronounce her name from years of listening to Classic FM Radio. She was one of those beautiful megastars that I never imagined my luck being in the same room with, let alone the same island.

In Maui, where classical music concerts are few and far between, everyone who loves classical music flock to the only show in town. And Dame Kiri’s is, literally, one night only.

Last weekend, I mentioned to a 30-year Maui resident, “I’m going to miss Dame Kiri’s concert.” To my surprise, he responded with “Who is she?”

I had to count to five before answering. While she may be a household name in London, she’s virtually unknown to surfers and those outside of the classical music scene.

“If you have never been to opera or an art song recital or a classical concert of any sort, and you don’t know anything about opera, art song, or classical music, you would seriously regret not going to see Dame Kiri in concert if you had the chance. She’s coming to Maui to give a concert — that’s just incredible. Amazing!”

As last weekend passed, I mentally registered that I had missed the chance to see her. Today, I learned that I had gotten my dates wrong. She will give a concert in Oahu on 29th September and then fly to Maui to perform at the Maui Arts and Culture Centre (MACC) on Saturday 1st October 2011. The MACC on Maui is equivalent to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the South Bank Centre in London with its suite of three concert halls. The announcement on Hawaii Public Radio mentioned that these will be her first performances in Hawaii.

For those who have not heard of Dame Kiri — just google her. Watch youtube videos of her performances of her opera roles as the Countess in the Marriage of Figaro, Pamina in the Magic Flute, and as Tosca, to name a few. She has turned full circle from her teenage years in pop music in New Zealand to opera roles in London to art songs, expanding to broadway and beyond. Here’s a nice video of a rehearsal of Kiri with Andre Previn and others. Watch her TV interview in London and another on the challenges of being an opera singer. Watch Dame Kiri’s moving performance of “Ach Ich Fuhl” when she received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement in Music awarded at the Classic BRIT Awards 2010.

On Saturday 1st October 2011 at 7:30 pm at the Castle Theatre of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Dame Kiri and accompanist Terence Dennis will perform selections from composers Mozart, Vivaldi, Handel and Puccini opera as well as art songs from France and Germany, and folk songs from England and South America. I am very curious what those selections will be. In my next blog post, I shall postulate.

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Music of Henk Alkema

Henk Alkema was working on his last opera “Job” when I visited him last.

On Friday 22nd July 2011, I told him that I had gotten to know the music scene in Maui where I would return in mid-August. He showed me the flute concerto that had not been premiered. He showed me a waltz that he was sure Americans would love. He showed me an unpublished piano duet that he orchestrated for ensemble. I asked him for piano solo works so I could introduce unfamiliar works among more familiar titles to new audiences. He had plenty.

Henk was prolific.

One summer he was busy arranging music for the Metropole Orchestra. He was also giving private composition lessons. The last time he played at the Monument House Concert Series was the last set “Dichter op Muziek” at the Glass Vase Concert with Anna Schweitzer (cello) and Marianne Verbrugge (vocals). He had accompanied Harm Vuijk on the piano for his new euphonium concerto “All in Good Time” at the Piano as Orchestra concert in 2006.

As I write this blog, I am listening to the beautiful voice of his daughter Femke Alkema singing some of the songs he told me about. Henk’s website has full mp3 clips of his works. The muziekfragmenten page contains the vocal pieces with piano. They move me to tears.

Henk had not catalogued all his works on his website.

When he showed me the piano version of “Black Heat” I recognised it. He had given me a copy in 2008 but I had never tried it. I found the recording on his “Nog meer muziek” webpage. He wrote “Black Heat” for concert band. Sample scores are available here.

Black Heat for solo piano by Henk Alkema

Black Heat for solo piano by Henk Alkema

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Outdoor opera for guitar and soprano

On Friday 5th August 2011, I spotted two musicians cycling to work. Traffic was hectic on the cobbled stone streets of Utrecht, Netherlands.

“Where will you play next?” I asked the guitarist eagerly.

“I think we’re done for the day,” he turned to the singer.

“Oh! But I’ve been looking for you all afternoon. Can’t you do one more set for me?” I begged.

It’s unusual to hear opera arias outside of a concert hall or an opera production. It’s even more unusual to hear a soprano with a classical guitarist, amid the accordeonists that dominate the streets of this ancient Roman city.

“We’ve already done three sets,” said the singer. “We’re going for a beer now.”

“Look. I’ll buy you a beer. Please let me see you perform. I know a nice spot.”

I led them to a secret garden on the right side of the dome. I had visited there once during a walking tour.

Secret garden in Utrecht (near the Dome)

Secret garden in Utrecht (near the Dome)

Guitarist Robert Bekkers and soprano Mirella Reiche had obviously not seen this garden. They decided to try it. Soon the music drew people into the garden.

They were busking on this warm, sunny afternoon in Utrecht. The setting of the secret garden made it into an outdoor concert. The people who were already sitting on the benches refused to leave. Meanwhile, newcomers strolled into the garden to listen.

Robert Bekkers arranged the guitar part for this “Ach, Ich fuhl’s” aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The duo introduced this new programme this week.

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Henk Alkema, composer, conductor, pianist, teacher

Henk Alkema (20 November 1944 – 4 August 2011)

On a sunny Thursday morning, I cycled by the home of my composition classmate Mari-anne Hof to post a letter and see if she was around. I had not seen her for a year. I felt the need to tell her that I had gone to see our teacher Henk Alkema recently and that he was not well. In fact, he was dying. But he didn’t want to tell the world about it because he had only a few productive hours a day and he wanted to finish his last opera.

It’s like that with composers. You feel the urge to compose. You don’t want to be interrupted. You want to write before it disappears.

We live less than 1 km apart — a mere 12 minute walk from my house to Henk’s houseboat — which translates to a 2 minute cycle ride. Mari-anne’s house is even closer. In this radius, there are other musicians. There’s no excuse not to get together. But we work for ourselves, and time to create music is precious.

What do you do, if you know someone is dying? I struggled with this. Knowing he didn’t want to be disturbed and that I was leaving shortly, I wanted to tell others before it was too late. But even if I told others, like Mari-anne, what were they to do?

The answer came too early.

This morning I received several e-mails that Henk Alkema had passed away on the same Thursday 4th August 2011.

Henk Alkema conducted "Culture Shock!" at Utrecht Conservatory, 2 June 2008

Henk Alkema conducted "Culture Shock!" at Utrecht Conservatory, 2 June 2008 Photo: F. vd Meer

Gistermiddag is Henk Alkema tot ons groot verdriet overleden. Ik stuur je hierbij een pdf van de rouwkaart en een persbericht. Ik vraag je namens Anna Schweizer of je zo lief wilt zijn dit bericht op grote schaal te verspreiden. Het is vakantietijd dus veel mensen – studenten en docenten – zullen dit bericht missen. Misschien heb je zelfs in je oude emails een groepsmail van of voor leerlingen, die we kunnen gebruiken. En misschien wil je ook iets zeggen bij de herdenking. Dat zouden wij allemaal heel fijn vinden.

Edwin Rutten en ik zijn goede vrienden en regelen de begrafenis met Anne. vandaar dat ik je dit bericht stuur.

hartelijke groet
Annett Andriesen-Rutten

Thursday, 4th of August, our great friend and teacher Henk Alkema passed away. He has been ill for some time, but no one was prepared for him to leave us this soon. This Tuesday his funeral will be held. He’ll be buried on Soestbergen, in Utrecht.

Sunday 7th August 2011 from 13:00 to 14:00
a small gathering to pay condolences to the family at the rouwcentrum in Yarden at Floridadreef 9, Utrecht.

Tuesday 9th August 2011 from 12 noon
Memorial service: (a larger gathering than the previous) at the Koetshuis van Boerderij Mereveld at Mereveldseweg 9, Utrecht. From there (around 13:30), we will proceed to his final resting place at the Soestbergen, Gansstraat 152, Utrecht. Parking is limited thus preferrable to park at Kovelswade, Koningsweg 49 where a gathering with the family will take place after the funeral.

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Buskin’ Bekkers with opera singer Reiche

“I am going to play on the streets of Utrecht,” Bekkers the Busker declared.

It’s not about how many coins he will collect in his guitar case.

It’s not what people think.

deh, Vieni, Non Tardar by Mozart, arranged by Robert Bekkers for guitar and voice

deh, Vieni, Non Tardar by Mozart, arranged by Robert Bekkers for guitar and voice

I recall reading articles on the economics of busking in an academic journal. After all the transaction costs of concertising in established concert venues, busking works out just as well.  An economist worked out the economics of busking in London. Here’s another one about busking in New York City. I remain skeptical how much money you can make from busking. But then, you don’t need to book a venue, do publicity, etc.

“I’m going to accompany Mirella Reiche. She has a license,” he added. Apparently you need a license to play in the streets of Utrecht, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands. “She will sing highlights from opera.”

Bekkers discovered that it was easier to arrange the guitar parts than to look for sheet music. “Most guitar arrangements,” he explained, “are written for guitar solo. I don’t have time to visit book stores or order online, if there are any at all. It’s faster for me to look at a piano accompaniment and arrange it for guitar.”

Ach, Ich Fuhl's by Mozart arranged for guitar and voice by Robert Bekkers

Ach, Ich Fuhl's by Mozart arranged for guitar and voice by Robert Bekkers

I have seen Mirella Reiche perform live on several occasions. She is very expressive when she sings. I can imagine her leading the crowd from joy to sorrow, from love to rage — all the emotions the great divas have expressed through the timeless arias of famous operas of Mozart, Puccini, and others.

Each day Robert Bekkers puts on his crisp white shirt and dark trousers and announces,”I’m going to town. I’ll be back in a few hours.” When he returns, he brings back coins which he throws into a big pickle jar. “By the end of the month,” he declares, “this jar will be full.”

Over coffee today I told a friend about Bekkers’ busking activities. “I think I heard someone sing yesterday. I was at the central library.” That’s where they were.

Bekkers (guitar) and Reiche (soprano) in central Utrecht, Netherlands 2 Aug 2011 photo: Iztok Klančar

Bekkers (guitar) and Reiche (soprano) in central Utrecht, Netherlands 2 Aug 2011 photo: Iztok Klančar

Tomorrow 3rd August 2011 at 2 pm Stadhuisbrug Utrecht (opposite the central public library) Robert Bekkers and soprano Mirella Reiche will perform the following opera arias:

Ach, Ich fühl’s
Meine lippen sie kussen so heiss
Mein Herr Marquis
Quando me vo
Mio Babbino Caro
Habanera
Dolente Imagine di fille mia (Bellini)
Tuute le Feste
Voi, Che Sapete
Deh, Vieni, Non Tardar
In Uomini, in Soldati
Je Veux Vivre

It’s the best training for a live performance, because it is a live performance in front of listeners who are free to come and go as they please and donate as they wish. In other words, a live performance is the best preparation for the next performance.

Robert Bekkers will give a solo guitar concert in the Grotekerk in the Hague (Den Haag) this Sunday 7th August 2011 at 2 pm. Free entry. Donations accepted. CDs for sale.

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