Review of reviews

The best quotes from student reviews of concerts on Maui from October to December 2013: Anderson & Roe, Dan Tepfer, Maui Holiday Pops. Ukelele Festival, and Harps and Horns.

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Students and guests at the Piano Class Recital, Dec 18, 2013 Maui College
Students and guests at the Piano Class Recital, Dec 18, 2013 Maui College

One important assignment I require of my students is to attend an approved concert and write a review during the 16-week semester. It’s always refreshing to read their impressions afterwards. Below are some of the highlights from their reviews.

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Review: Anderson & Roe in Maui

The piano duo Anderson and Roe rocked Maui and swept its audience off its feet.

I require my students in piano class and introduction to music literature to attend an approved concert and write a review. At beginning of the Fall 2013 Semester, much to my surprise and consternation, I could only find one piano concert listed at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center (MACC) for the 17 weeks in between August and early December.

The date of Sunday 17th November 2013 became engraved on everyone’s calendars. The piano duo Anderson and Roe was scheduled to give one performance that afternoon in the MACC.

Continue reading “Review: Anderson & Roe in Maui”

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.

Capriccio for piano, 4 hands by Blessinger

Piano duets often have origins elsewhere. Martin Blessinger’s Capriccio for piano, 4 hands came from the 3rd movement of a violin and viola piece. Listen to an extract recorded by Anne Ku (primo) and Carol Ruiz Gandia (secundo).

It has been nearly five months since the deadline of my Call for Scores has passed and 3.5 months since the Piano Soiree in San Francisco where several of the piano duets were played. And it has taken THAT long to find another pianist to study, play, and record a duet.

During my 2.5 months in Utrecht, Netherlands (end May – mid August 2011), I actively sought pianists to sightread the 42 duets from 30 composers. Aside from those too boring or too difficult, there were many candidates for a replay. After gauging the sightreading experience with different pianists, I decided which ones deserved another re-evaluation.

Martin Blessinger‘s Capriccio is a fun piece that challenged me enough to recruit someone else with whom to prepare and play together. Below is an extract of the recording on my Steinway Grand in Utrecht, Netherlands with me as primo and Carol Ruiz Gandia as secundo.

Capriccio for piano duet by Martin Blessinger (mp3)

The Texas-based composer wrote:

This piece is a transcription of a movement from Tapas, a suite of short pieces I wrote a few years ago for violin and viola duo.  It struck me that one of the middle movements of the work, Capriccio Pizzicato, would work particularly well for four-hand piano.  This is an ensemble that has always appealed to me for personal reasons.  I was a piano major as an undergraduate, and some of my fondest memories are of reading through four-hand piano works with other members of the piano studio at SUNY Stony Brook.    

Capriccio for piano, 4 hands by Martin Blessinger
Capriccio for piano, 4 hands by Martin Blessinger

In studying for this piece, I focussed only on getting the notes correct, labeling ledger lined notes and polite accidentals whenever possible and necessary for clarity. When we got together to play, we decided to make a small comma after the third quarter note in bar 6 because it felt like a breath was needed. These are decisions that can only be made after studying a piece (not sightreading).

I thought I had the difficult part until I saw what the secundo had to do in bar 33 and 34 while I played nothing. Spanish pianist Carol Ruiz Gandia decided to memorise those octaval 16-th notes while I stayed put. Moving the page distracted her. So I waited until bar 36 before I moved the page.

Bars 34 and 35 in the secundo part of Capriccio by Martin Blessinger
Bars 34 and 35 in the secundo part of Capriccio by Martin Blessinger

We decided to add some dynamics in bar 58 where it was already forte. We went back down to a mezzo forte and made another crescendo to a forte in bar 60. These dynamics added to the piece. In bar 61, we went back down to a piano and steadily climbed until a big fortissimo in bar 64. The secundo immediately dropped back to a mezzo piano (subito) and I joined her to crescendo to another fortissimo in bar 65. And again. These dynamics are essential to make this piece exciting to play and listen to.

On top of page 7, we retracted to piano and then pianissimo as we descended.

Capriccio by Martin Blessinger
Capriccio by Martin Blessinger: bars 78 to 81

Listen to the 3rd movement Capriccio Pizzicato of Tapas from which this duet came. I rather think the entire 4 movement piece for violin and viola could be arranged for piano duet. I particularly enjoy playing fugues in duets.

In the meantime, having discovered its origins, I will share it with my violin and viola friends in Bristol, where just a year ago I was sightreading piano trios and quartets in their newly renovated Georgian home.

Waltz for 4-hands, 1 piano by Schroeter

Schroeter’s Waltz for 4-hand, 1 piano is reminiscent of the romantic era, a piece that is easily sightreadable and playable after some cosmetic changes. Listen to an extract played and recorded by Anne Ku and Carol Ruiz Gandia in Utrecht, Netherlands. Note: This blog post has been taken down due to protests by the composer.

Among the 42 piano duets by 30 composers submitted to my Call for Scores project is a delightful, easily accessible (readable, playable, and appreciable) quatre mains duet by Brazilian composer. This Los Angeles-based composer’s style is reminiscent of the romantic era familiar to many members of the piano club in San Francisco.

I noticed how easy it was to play this piece in Maui, San Francisco, Utrecht, and the Hague where I introduced this new work. There are many repeated and modulated sections. The secundo sets a firm pace.

Note @ 21 December 2011:

It is with great reluctance that I have decided to erase the rest of this blog post, remove the sample score and recording. I had spent quite some effort getting the music read, interpreted, and reviewed by enthusiastic pianists in Maui, San Francisco, Utrecht, and the Hague, culminating in a recording made with Carol Ruiz Gandia on my Steinway in Utrecht. However, the overwhelming number of protests, to the tune of 50 unpleasant spam e-mails from the composer, tells me that sometimes feedback and publicity is not appreciated.

Conversations in the Garden: how good music travels

Conversations in the Garden is a new recording of a new 4 hands on 1 piano duet of John Bilotta, played and recorded by Anne Ku (primo) and Carol Ruiz Gandia (secundo) on a Steinway Grand model A in Utrecht, Netherlands. Listen.

Good music travels. In January 2011, I announced a “Call for Scores” from Maui. John Bilotta composed his new piano duet in San Francisco where I met him for the first time in May 2011. Carol Ruiz Gandia and I recorded it in Utrecht, Netherlands in August 2011.

Today, having just returned to Maui, I found that the recording Carol and I did of John Bilotta’s piano duet “Conversations in the Garden” has appeared on his youtube channel below. Forget trying to get a small mp3 version loaded on my website. This is much better. [Note: if you can’t see the video below, click on this link.]

This summer I asked Spanish pianist Carol Ruiz Gandia, who has performed many times in our Monument House Concert Series, to study a few piano duets from my Call for Scores of Multi-hand Duets, specifically to record them on my Steinway Grand (1909 New York Model A).

On a sunny Thursday morning (4th August 2011), Carol played the secundo (bass) and I the primo (treble) part of San Francisco-based composer John Bilotta’s “Conversations in the Garden.” We had chosen the parts a few days earlier and practised them for the purposes of recording. We recorded it on a ZOOM hand-held recorder in my home in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Carol is starting a new house concert series from her home in Tuinwijk part of Utrecht. Tuinwijk translates to “garden village.” We were at Utrecht Conservatory together, and it’s nice to continue our collaboration even after graduation. I will be writing more about her new concert series soon.

Reverse engineering: piano duet to piano solo of Henk Alkema

Unpublished works of composers are precious to those who want them. Here is a story of how one pianist reverse engineered a piano duet piece to a solo work so she can play it.

Shortly after sightreading and recording Henk Alkema’s 2nd unpublished piano duet, I emailed Henk on 7th July 2011:

Here is a high quality recording mp3 of your duet by me and Brendan Kinsella. Before I load the reduced quality version and write about it for my blog, I’d like to ask

  1. an updated bio from you – what is the latest thing you’re working on
  2. would you consider transcribing it for piano solo? I like it so much that I’d like to play it as solo and record in my new CD and also perform in Maui when I return in mid-August.

He responded:

Well played! The original version of this piece was for one piano. I will look for it and send it you.

When I didn’t hear further from Henk, I decided to write a blog about his duets:  “Piano Duets by Henk Alkema.”  I wrote on Henk’s Facebook Wall:

Bedankt, Henk!!! Piano duets by Henk Alkema http://wp.me/ptKTf-Ft

July 20 at 6:44pm

A few hours later, he posted the following message on my Facebook Wall.

From saturday I am not in Utrecht for a week. I am ill. Lets call. Thank you for playing my pianoduets, cheers, henk

I had not seen him for a year. I had called him from Maui several months before. I had been too busy to call or visit since I returned to Utrecht in late May. I called him the next day. He told me to visit him the next afternoon and warned me not to be disappointed if he were to ask me to leave when he became tired.

Friday 22nd July 2011 3:30 pm. I wrote in my diary.

Henk Alkema after composition final exam concert at Utrecht Conservatory, 2nd June 2008. Photo: F. vd Meer
Henk Alkema after final exam concert at Utrecht Conservatory, 2nd June 2008. Photo: F. vd Meer

Much earlier, on 11 October 2010, Henk had responded to my quest for piano duets for a sightreading workshop, as follows:

I have 8 unpublished quatre mains. Keep me posted, henk

Henk then sent me 7 piano duets.

When I visited him on 22nd July 2011, he showed me an 8th duet. None of these duets had been performed or published.

“Why did you write them?” I asked.

“I got tired of looking for music to teach conducting. It was faster to write them myself.”

So he’d compose new piano duets and then orchestrate them for different instruments, depending on the students in his class. If there was a flute player, he would include a flute part.

He showed me the 8th unpublished piano duet on Sibelius 6.0 notational software. It was magnificent.

“I will give you the score,” he said.

Henk Alkema left this world on Thursday 4th August 2011. His piano duets remain unpublished.

I can still hear his 2nd piano duet which I’ve shared with so many people since I tried it in Maui. But now I want to play it as a solo piece.  It’s entirely possible read all four voices and play it as a solo piece from the piano duet score. But it’s easier to have it written down as a solo score (below).

Pencilled notes for piano solo from 2nd piano duet of Henk Alkema
Pencilled notes for piano solo from 2nd piano duet of Henk Alkema

I think the tempo marking of quarter note = 60 is too slow. I prefer quarter note = 88.  I would dearly like to play the rest of the 7 piano duets as piano solo pieces. But how shall I get the score to the 8th duet?

Click on the image below to get the one page PDF of the piano solo version entered into Sibelius software by Robert Bekkers.

Solo transcribed from 2nd piano duet of Henk Alkema
Solo transcribed from 2nd piano duet of Henk Alkema