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

Girl with the Hat Box for 3 hands, 1 piano by Freihofner

San Francisco-based composer Phil Freihofner’s arrangement of his wind quartet into a 3-hand piano work is delightful and fun. Anne Ku introduces this programmatic piece that has been tried by pianists in Maui, San Francisco, and Utrecht, Netherlands.

Subtitle: From quartet to trio to duet

This blog post concludes my review of all shortlisted works from the 42 multi-hand piano duets received from 30 composers in my Call for Scores project. After this, I will write and speak about the insights garnered from trying these duets with pianists from Maui to the Netherlands. “Trying” included first-level sightreading and making a decision about the difficulty, playability, readability, and potential for further study, performance, and recording. Some pieces received a proper performance-level debut. Others were attempted and discarded.

San Francisco-based composer and oboist Phil Freihofner brought his new “Girl with the Hat Box” score to the sightreading workshop and piano soiree in San Francisco in mid-May 2011. It was sightread twice, first by me and 2 others and second by 2 late comers who chose this piece over others in the binder.

In the preface of this 5-movement piece sprawled over 30 pages, he described the work as a “three hands” arrangement of his “Quartet #1 for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon.” I can already think of friends in the Netherlands who would readily request to play the original quartet. It’s a programmatic piece inspired by a Russian silent film Devushka s Korobkol which translates to “The Girl with the Hat Box.” The one page preface tells the story as plotted over the five movements.

Now, three-hand, one piano pieces are not the norm in piano duet music. The most prevalent form is quatre-mains, i.e. 4-hands on one piano. Three hands? The International Petrucci Library lists just a few on its 1 piano, 3-hand page. I think this scarcity of repertoire stems from a desire for pianists to play with both hands. Furthermore, pianists want to play constantly. Pianists are not like orchestral players who are used to counting empty bars.

Freihofner specifies that the work is intended for 3 pianists, each using one hand, at the same piano. It’s also possible to play on more than one piano. But he did not state that 2 pianists could play. I decided to try it with 2 other pianists in San Francisco and later just one pianist in the Netherlands. The effect was very different. I agree with the composer: it should be played by 3 pianists and not 2. Thus this multi-hand duet could be categorized as a trio.

Sadly I did not find an opportunity to record this while in the Netherlands. Hopefully this blog will inspire my peers in Hawaii to make it happen. It can easily be a nice multi-media project to accompany the first 14 minutes of that film from 1926, directed by Boris Barnet or part of some Russian festival. I know of a house concert producer in Virginia who has a captive audience in the Russian community. Having grown up next to Russian neighbours in Okinawa, I can see how this piece would work well in such a thematic event.

I extract a system from each of the five movements in an attempt to give my readers a feel for the piece.

Girl with the Hat Box: 1. Galop by Philip Freihofner
Girl with the Hat Box: 1. Galop by Philip Freihofner

The second movement is a pleasant waltz with quarter note = 108. If only 2 pianists were to play, the second one should do the middle and bottom parts which form most of the accompaniment.

Girl with the Hat Box: 2. Waltz by Philip Freihofner
Girl with the Hat Box: 2. Waltz by Philip Freihofner

Like the Galop which starts slowly (in a very short intro), the third movement quickens in the main part of the March.

Girl with the Hat Box: 3. March by Philip Freihofner
Girl with the Hat Box: 3. March by Philip Freihofner

The fourth movement is a fugue, one of my favourites in piano duet playing. A fugue translates to a chase. Here the main character Natasha (the girl with the hat box) takes the train to Moscow where she meets a poor but handsome student.

Girl with the Hat Box: 4. Fugue by Philip Freihofner
Girl with the Hat Box: 4. Fugue by Philip Freihofner

This five movement trio ends slightly more upbeat (quarter note = 126).

Girl with the Hat Box: 5. Coda by Philip Freihofner
Girl with the Hat Box: 5. Coda by Philip Freihofner

When I tried this piece for the last time on this 3 month journey from Maui to the Netherlands, one pianist exclaimed, “May I please have this piece?” At first I was reluctant because the well-prepared, printed score was my only hardcopy, and one with my penciled markings. Then I remembered that this Dutch pianist had an established piano teaching practice for some 30 years and she usually never asked for music unless she liked it. This meant she would be enthusiastic in playing it and sharing with her students and other pianists. My reply?  “Here, take it. This would give me an excuse to meet the composer again, on my way back through San Francisco to Hawaii.”

On my return journey, I met with Phil Freihofner for breakfast on my layover in San Francisco Airport. He gave me a new version of the score, this time “dedicated to Anne Ku.” What an honor! I have five copies now. Who will I meet in this part of the world wanting to try this work with me?

For more information about the composer and his various arrangements and compositions, visit Phil Freihofner’s website at http://www.adonax.com.

In Maui, what next?

A week after Anne Ku arrived in Maui, for the fourth time in her life, she is taking stock and taking it easy. There is much to do.

My fellow blogger Susan introduced the idea of placeholder blog posts to manage her readers’ expectations. Here’s a to-do list for myself and a preview of what is to come.

The last 2.5 months in Holland have been spent on house concerts, duo performances, video and audio recordings, piano sightreading sessions in Utrecht and Den Haag, yoga, hosting & entertaining visitors, dinner invitations, and getting the Monument House rented out so that I can be free of worry in Maui while Robert pursues his graduate diploma with full force and focus in Boston. There is still some outstanding to follow up, such as uploading pianist Nathanael May‘s programme to the Monument House Concert Series website and blogging / uploading of the home recordings of piano duets and piano solos.

On Saturday 13th August 2011, I left the Netherlands by way of a 5-hour layover in Chicago where I met the conductor and composer Kim Diehnelt. We had corresponded briefly via Facebook. I performed her Impromptu for solo piano and liked it. I will write something about my recording of it in an upcoming blog.

Next stop was overnight in San Francisco Airport where I met two composers who had submitted duets to my Call for Scores. I had earlier blogged about Loren Jones’ The Secret Door but had not yet met him in person. I will also write about Phil Freihofner and two other composers whose duets I’ve recorded with Utrecht-based Spanish pianist Carol Ruiz Gandia.

It has been a week since I arrived on Maui. The tropical climate agrees with me: no hayfever, no long sleeves, no jackets or gloves or socks. This Pacific island reminds me of my childhood in Asia. Without the need to prepare and anticipate for uncertain weather, I have more time at my disposal. I am free to go indoors and out without having to consider what to wear. And definitely I prefer papaya, pineapple, mango, and guava to apples and bananas.

I have much to write (blogs, abstracts for upcoming conferences, courses, etc) and read (Julia Cameron’s “The Vein of Gold” and Angela Beeching’s “Beyond Talent,” to name a few). Most importantly, I want to quickly get settled and equipped so that my life can continue as smoothly as before.

I am literally on the other side of the world from where I was a week ago. Whether I turn east or west, Holland is on the other side. So are my friends.

Ladies Night in Utrecht: seafood dinner with rose wine. Photo: Susan Raddatz
Ladies Night in Utrecht, 4 August 2011: seafood dinner with rose wine. Photo: Susan Raddatz