Tag Archives: pianist

Replaced by a string quartet

It’s 8 am in London. My next door neighbor starts practising promptly. I have only met his wife who explained yesterday that he had a concert that evening. They moved into this neighborhood, what, 4 ? 5 years ago. Yet I never bothered to get to know them because one of them smokes, perhaps even both, albeit outside. The cigarette smoke drifts into my garden. And for that, I did not bother to get to meet, much less, know this virtuoso Russian concert pianist.

As the “Flight of the Bumble Bee” wears on, I find myself as the beneficiary of live background music. Ten years ago, I housed a young pianist who practised this exact piece every day while I made my move to the Netherlands. I could only imagine what my neighbors experienced through the brick walls.

Just last week, I unpacked my suitcase to the live background music of the classical guitar — Robert practising for his 3 gigs.

The third guitar concert culminated in Mauro Giuliani’s Theme & Variations. It was a piece I knew like the back of my hand. We went through it many times, the guitar struggling to be heard, the piano unresponsive and unsympathetic. After many years of tug and war, I finally relented.

The guitar cannot sound well if the guitarist has to force it to sound louder than the grand piano. Although it is absolutely possible, as Amsterdam-based composer Allan Segall proved in his first piece for piano and guitar, in most other cases the guitar has to struggle and the piano has to give in. The traditional way in which the duo is written assumes the piano is a fortepiano or some other subservient predecessor of today’s modern piano.

So Robert upgraded to a “concert guitar” — built to match the concert grand piano.

But I still had work to do. I had to constantly adjust to the volume and quality of the guitar sound.

There in Williams Hall at the New England Conservatory, on Tuesday 8th May, at approximately 9 pm, Robert performed Giuliani’s work with a string quartet. The four string players, by sheer nature of their instruments, brought out infinitely more color and texture than I could produce with 88 keys. Each of their four strings was a different instrument. They had the bows to help produce sound at different parts of the strings. They could pull, pluck, strum, hit, and more.

I sat back, resigned to my fate.

I had been replaced by a string quartet.

In the simplest case, my right hand was replaced by two violins and the left hand by the viola and cello. Thinking like this, every piano guitar duo piece can result in guitar and a string quartet or wind quartet or other combinations.

My eyes moistened as I thought of the years of preparation that led to this day. The guitarist can go on — playing solo with other instruments.

The pianist?

I’ve sold my Gerhard Adam grand piano in this Victorian cottage where I experimented with chamber music, house concerts, and eventually decided to pursue a degree in music. My Steinway Grand is sitting in a piano shop in Zeist, the Netherlands, waiting to be noticed, tried, and bought.

And I?

I have returned to where it all began. No piano. No audience. No house concert, but neighbor to a concert pianist who practises all day long.

C’est la vie.

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How to overcome stage fright

Some of my confident piano students admitted to “nerves” or “stage fright.”

This is not uncommon for first time performers.

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Piano synergy: music for many hands on many pianos

In preparation for my next concert in mid-July on Maui, I decided to check out performances of the selected works on the Internet. The interpretations are much faster, crisper, and cleaner. It’s really hard to play fast, crisp, and clean —– that is, with many pianists on many different pianos.

Darius Milhaud’s Paris: Suite for 4 pianos spans different arrondissemont of Paris. I try to remember the Paris I know but I only remember Montmartre, L’ile Saint-Louis, and the Eiffel Tower from the 6 movements. I could not find a video clip of this fantastic work against the different scenes of Paris though the 2 on Youtube are sufficiently interesting. This piece is by far the most demanding of our entire 1.5 hour program.

Next, I looked for Gerald Busby’s Four! a statement for 4 pianos. Instead, I found Plucked — 15 hands on one piano. It’s a most remarkable and funny piece. If you have time to watch it, do enjoy the performance art.

Another 4 piano 8 hand piece is Wallace DePue’s 16 Pawns. It’s a short and fast one page work. No videos on the Internet. No background description. Perhaps we can get our own recording at the concert.

We will be playing two multi-hand pieces by Robert Pollock, founder and artistic director of Ebb & Flow Arts, the non-profit organization that is putting together this concert of Sunday 14th July 2012. The titles reveal just how many pianists and pianos. Five for Four. Three for Six. Answer: Five pianists on 4 pianos. Three pianos for Six hands.

I finally get to play a work of Morton Feldman, a composer I have heard much about but never studied. His “Piece for 4 Pianos” is interesting in that all pianists have the same score. It’s up to each pianist to decide when to play each note. Everything is soft. The result? a kind of rippling, echoey effect. Watch the meditative result below.

John Cage’s “Music for Piano” is another aleatory piece (one which the composer instructs the performer to decide on duration or other aspects of the composition). We each chose two consecutive pages from the album. It’s prepared piano at its best, though it would take about 30 minutes to prepare. We each have a bag of black rubber and white felt objects to insert between the strings of the piano for those notes we need to mute. The result? Texture that we’d otherwise not hear. Again, we decide when and how long to play each note. Last time we had agreed on the piece to last 7 minutes, but some of us were too fast and others too slow. It does take some practice to get 4 pianists to end at the same time.

Below is one interpretation of John Cage’s “Music for Piano”

Sadly there is not enough music for many pianos. Ebb & Flow Arts commissioned composer Thomas Osborne to write one for us. The mp3 version of his “Canyons” for four pianos is very powerful. I will try playing it today.

Luckily there is plenty of fun pieces for two pianos and even two pianists on one piano. As 14th July is Bastille Day, we decided to choose works of French composers. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite; Faure’s Dolly Suite; and Debussy’s Petite Suite.

I am so glad to be able to participate this time. Last year my multi-hands on one piano work “Three on One” was performed in the Battle of the Pianists concert in Maui while I was in Utrecht. Ironically, rehearsing these multi-hand, multi-piano works with other pianists just makes me miss sightreading chamber music with string and wind players even more!

Free concert – no reservation required. Get there early — last year was standing room only!

PIANO SYNERGY FREE CONCERT

Sunday 14 July 2012

7:30 pm

Maui Music Conservatory
Queen Ka’ahumanu Mall (upstairs) 
Kahului, Maui, Hawaii

Pianists (alphabetical order): Lotus Dancer, Anne Ku, Peiling Lin, Ruth Murata, Robert Pollock, Beatrice Scorby

Ebb and Flow Arts North South East West Festival of New Music

Ebb and Flow Arts North South East West Festival of New Music

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Virtuoso pianist in San Francisco loft concert

There is something special about sitting among strangers in someone else’s home. We weren’t here to attend a birthday party or other personal celebration. We all came for the specific goal of experiencing a live performance in a private space.

It reminded me of the last house concert I organized, in which my reward (for organizing the concert) was enjoying the occasion from the first row seat, or rather, just behind the pianist. What did the hosts of tonight consider their reward? In the first half, all the seats were taken. They sat on the last few steps of the staircase. In the second half, they walked downstairs to free up the staircase for two couples and then stood in the kitchen, barely able to see above the others who were standing or sitting.

After the concert, I asked the Austrian lady sitting next to me if she was going to buy the Bulgarian pianist’s CDs. She had not brought any cash other than the $20 suggested donation. I did the same. I only had a credit card left. I suggested that we band together and leave an IOU for the pianist who had 4 CDs for sale. The gentleman next to me bought two. That whetted my appetite and made me want to get a CD.

The Austrian lady shook her head. She said the concert was well worth the $20, but she didn’t think she could fathom an IOU. It was not the custom. Instead she joined the queue to thank her personally.

There was a long line of people wanting to buy her CDs and talk to her. I looked around and observed. I didn’t know anyone except the hosts. Anybody would think that the hosts opened their loft apartment in this part of San Francisco, South of Market, on a regular basis for intimate occasions like this. It was a concert hall in a home.

The owner conceded that he hadn’t organized a concert in 6 months. He even gave the classical music Meet-Up online group that he had started to someone else. Where once organizing house concerts took mainstream in his life, he was now preoccupied with something else, something quite different. It was still community building but it was something much bigger.

“Next time,” I said to the owner, “you will have to open up the balcony seats.” This was the biggest turnout they had ever had. “You have set a standard. People will expect this from now on.”

During the intermission, someone asked him. “How did you know Nadejda?” He looked around and pointed at me. Later someone asked me, “Where is she from?” I didn’t know. I hadn’t met her in person.

I had come to this concert because it was Chong Kee’s invitation and it was the pianist that I had introduced to him via e-mail. In fact, I arranged my travel so that I would return to Maui via San Francisco —- to see her give this concert.

I knew Nadejda Vlaeva would not disappoint from perusing her website and watching her videos. Her discography was impressive, her repertoire outstanding. All this research begged a final resolution — to see her live in concert.

She began the evening telling the story of how little known Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was during the romantic era. Camille Saint-Saens subscribed to his music and transcribed them for his piano students. These became known as Saint-Saens’ Bach transcriptions. In playing the selections, Nadejda made an orchestra out of the piano, ending the 6 piece set with the well-known Overture from Cantata No. 29.

Next she introduced another set of lesser known works. Hans von Bulow dedicated his Carnivale di Milano to a ballerina. The mark of a great pianist is one who makes a difficult piece sound simple, causing the audience relax and enjoy the music. Several people were nodding their heads and moving their bodies, dancing with the rhythmic pulse.

After the intermission, Nadejda shared the challenge of interpreting a piece that was written for her. “Most of the time, I have to choose something to play. But this time the piece chose me.” Lowell Liebermann’s Variations on a Theme by Schubert, Op. 100, began with that simple but melodious Rosaline. Each variation got a bit more adventurous. With that, she brought us to the 21st century.

But then she confessed. She still preferred the Romantic Era. The remaining 3 pieces and 2 encores took us back to that age of nostalgia.

I was probably the last person to get my CDs signed. “Chopin Works for Piano and Orchestra” will be a gift for my mother. “A Treasury of Russian Romantic Piano” contains her first encore — Rebikov’s Musical Snuff Box and her second encore, Liadov’s Prelude in B minor Op. 11 No. 1. I can’t wait to listen to them.

I once heard a fellow classical music connoisseur lament that winners of piano competitions didn’t do so well in intimate, private spaces like house concerts. They don’t train performers to tell stories or develop a rapport with their listeners. Audience engagement is a skill that takes practice. Today’s audience demands more.

Obviously Nadejda is a seasoned performer. She engaged the audience. She made us laugh. This explained the long queue after the concert.

I left at 11 pm, satisfied that the concert hosts were happy.

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Free concert for freeloaders

We arrived at the public library at exactly 2 pm, just when the concert was to begin. It was an old habit from my conservatory days —- never arrive too early to have to wait, but arrive just before it’s to begin. In this case, we had been cycling through colorful neighborhoods visiting open studios of artists. It was a beautiful sunny day, and giving up 1.5 hours (from our open studio journey) to a concert seemed almost a waste.

Except it was free. That made it worthwhile. The open studios were free. We even had a free lunch provided by one of the artists. Had it not been written in our plan, we would have skipped the piano concert and spent the rest of the afternoon on our bicycles.

There were many leaflets on the table in the concert hall. We grabbed the single A5 sheet program and the library newsletter.

A black grand piano stood on wheels on stage. From the sign “Please do not play the piano” it would appear that the piano lived there. It was not rented or brought into this space for the occasion. As a pianist, it’s my second nature to locate venues that have resident pianos, especially grand pianos.

A man welcomed us to the concert and announced the name of the pianist. We clapped and watched a young lady try to open a heavy door from the side. Out of courtesy and respect for the young pianist, we clapped until she arrived at the piano bench and bowed.

While she played, I started to hear other sounds.

The shuffling of paper.

The opening of candy wraps.

The sucking and popping of candies.

The movement of chairs.

When the music got louder, the ladies behind us started to talk. “Is this Chopin?”

I got so annoyed that I decided we should move our seats during the intermission. We waited. Just before the second half, we made a dash for the front row. We were no longer sitting in front of the candy-slurping ladies.

The second half was several decibels louder than the first half. Whereas the first half was lyrical, the second half was deliberately fast, furious, and intense. The audience sensed it. This gave some the license to talk, move, and annoy us even further. The lady behind us began to open, squeeze, and close her old plastic bag. I cringed.

The Korean pianist was excellent. She played selections from Albeniz, Grieg, Chopin, Tann, and Beethoven effortlessly. She even gave an encore of Chopin’s famous Scherzo. I couldn’t wait to talk to her after the concert.

The audience? I gave the audience an F. I couldn’t wait to get away.

But how could I possibly complain? It was a free concert after all. The audience could do as they please. I daresay this was probably the main reason I chose to organize concerts in my own home. Such audiences are not welcome. I set the rules.

No shoes.

No leaflets.

No candy wraps.

No plastic bags.

And you have to pay for the privilege of attending a house concert.

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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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Conversations in the Garden by John Bilotta

Few duets out of the 42 I accepted in the Call for Scores for Multi-hand duets received the full mileage from Maui to Utrecht.

John Bilotta’s piano duet “Conversations in the Garden” was sightread in Maui, studied and performed in San Francisco in his presence, and sightread again in 3 places in Utrecht Netherlands. On its return journey to Maui, the duet will be recorded.

The title “Conversations in the Garden” evokes images of spring and the flowers in my garden. I missed it this year in Maui where there’s an everlasting summer. Luckily I am on the special mailing list of my artist friend from high school, Robby Judkins. Now based in Columbus, Georgia, Judkins captured my imagination well below.

"Spring Collection" 12x16 acrylic on canvas by Rob Judkins

"Spring Collection" 12x16 acrylic on canvas by Rob Judkins

In his new quatre-mains work, John Bilotta painted a nice image of the colours of conversations and what we expect in a garden. The duet meanders from an initial 3/4 time to 2/4 to 4/4 to 3/4 just as easily as it moves through different tonalities. Conversations are like that. You start with one subject but easily go off in tangents, returning now and then, sometimes overlapping different strands or themes. You never really stay focussed on one topic but stray off to others.

Well-written and laid out in parts, the 2.5 minute duet sounded better each time we played it, for each time we understood it better. The dynamics and other notational marks are intentionally and clearly indicated. This kind of detail makes performers feel secure that the composer knows what he is doing. To some degree, a work that looks final (i.e. ready to be published or already published) validates itself.

Conversations in the Garden piano duet by John Bilotta - PRIMO

Conversations in the Garden piano duet by John Bilotta - PRIMO

The pedal markings are noted in the secundo part.

Conversations in the Garden piano duet by John Bilotta - secundo

Conversations in the Garden piano duet by John Bilotta - secundo

John Bilotta provided the following programme notes to this wonderful work:

I have been working with the material for Conversations in the Garden for some time trying to find just the right form in which to present its musical ideas. Ultimately, I found that this four-hand arrangement best captured the tone, mood, and play of voices—in particular, the opportunity to space the musical lines vertically allowing the inner voices to be heard. Conversations is built from a simple motif and its transformations in an chromatically rich harmonic structure. It should be played with a quiet and graceful elegance, without excessive show, larger phrases swelling and subsiding in breezes and waves.

Confident that Chong Kee Tan, the organiser of the Piano Soiree in San Francisco in May 2011, would sightread and play this piece with me, I invited John Bilotta to the event. It was a pleasure to perform the duet in front of the composer.

John Bilotta, composer, and Anne Ku in San Francisco, May 2011

John Bilotta, composer, and Anne Ku in San Francisco, May 2011

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