Viva Mozart!

Mozart sells itself just as Hawaii sells itself. The new all Mozart programme of the Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo includes Bekkers arrangement of the Overture to the Magic Flute and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Viva Mozart! Voila!

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During the two months Robert and I lived on opposite ends of the earth, he in the Netherlands and I in Hawaii, literally 12 time zones apart, I got involved in the local classical music scene in Maui. My blog “Maui Tips for Newcomers by a Newcomer” documents some of these activities but leaves out several important events that lead to where I am at today.

Barely a week after I returned to Holland at the end of May 2011, we had to prepare to give a concert in Warnsveld. We had not practised together for months. We had to come up with a new programme. What was possible and do-able in the short space of 5 days?

Mozart came to the rescue.

Just a month earlier I had turned pages for Katherine Collier, the pianist and developer of “Amadeus-The Magical Life and Music of Mozart” the opening concert of the 30th Anniversary of the Maui Classical Music Festival. The previous time I had visited the venue of the Makawao Union Church, I was the pianist. In fact, it was the very place where Robert and I gave our first public concert in the USA (not counting Houston Public Radio and the two house concerts in Houston that same month in 2007).

Collier’s Mozart was a brilliant programme, narrated by the Hawaii Public Radio announcer Howard Dicus. Ms Collier wore a white wig and dressed as Mozart. Each string instrument had a motif representing the main characters in Mozart’s life — his dad, his mom, his sister, his wife. The story of the child prodigy was told through music and narration. The audience got to sample a variety of his music: piano solo, string quartet, opera extracts, aria, etc.

Several weeks later while visiting friends in Colorado, I watched the director’s cut of the movie Amadeus. I was once more reminded of the ephemeral popularity of Mozart.

Mozart sells itself just as Hawaii sells itself. People will attend a concert of Mozart’s music, just as people will visit Hawaii (if they can afford the time and airfare). There is no need for embellishment or hard sell.

Our duo has more than enough Mozart for a full concert (45 minutes + intermission + 30 minutes). For the one hour programme without intermission, we have to choose what to leave out. We left out Carulli’s Variazione Sopra un Tema del Flauto magico di Mozart by Beethoven, op. 169 which we played extensively in 2007-2008. Hot off the press is Robert’s new arrangement of the Overture to the Magic Flute and the rest of the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

The audience at the 3rd June concert in Warnsveld loved our programme. It was not difficult to do. Why did it take us 10 years to figure it out? We had been varying our programme as often as once every month, including difficult pieces such as the 30-minute long Grand Potpourri National which took months to get ready.

The page programme (PDF) of Viva Mozart! is ready to rock and roll. Our next concerts in the Netherlands are Sunday 26 June 2011 in Zeist, Thursday 7th July in Utrecht, and Sunday 17th July in Amsterdam.

Bekkers arrangement of Mozart's Overture to the Magic Flute for piano and guitar
Bekkers arrangement of Mozart's Overture to the Magic Flute for piano and guitar

Hooked on music – extended play of John Carollo

To get performers to want your music before they even get together to play it — that is the true calling of a composer.

Since my last blog post of 24th April —  after a great day of giving the Easter Sunday lunch concert, I stopped writing. Why? I had a car accident that very evening.

I had wanted to write about the choral concert of 30th April and the silent auction, the 42 new multi-hand piano duets I had received from 30 composers, my visit to George Kahumoku’s farm in Maui, and more…. and my upcoming travels to meet musicians in San Francisco, Denver, New York, and beyond. I will have to catch up during my 2 weeks of traveling.

Meanwhile, something can’t wait.

Tonight I received an mp3 of part 2 of a new piano guitar duo piece by the Honolulu-based composer John Carollo, who has also submitted a multi-hand duet to the sightreading piano soiree in San Francisco 15th May 2011. It is absolutely addictive to listen to, and I’m sure, even more addictive to play it.

When I first received it a few weeks ago, I complained that it was too short. Carollo made it a bit longer. I complained again. Minimalist music deserves an extended play. I actually confessed, “I hate to say it —- but I dig this music.”

It will be another 2 weeks before I get together with Robert Bekkers to try the 5-movement piano guitar duo. I can only imagine how the guitar part sounds as I play the piano part.

Click here to listen to the mp3

To get performers hooked on your music before they even get together to play it — that is some accomplishment!

The long and winding road towards our first duo CD

Our first recording was attempted just before our debut in London in May 2003. There was a big problem with balance, not helped by a concert grand and the power trip I had over the guitarist.

Revised from Facebook Notes, Sunday 21 December 2008

“Do you have any CDs of your duo?”

This is a typical question we answer with “No. We are working on one.”

We have been saying this for years.

Our first recording was attempted just before our debut in London in May 2003. There was a big problem with balance, not helped by a concert grand and the power trip I had over the guitarist. If he complained that I was too loud, I’d shrug my shoulders and reply, “tough luck!” It took a lot of recording, listening, and re-recording before I learned to compromise.

Not all pieces from the London session were good enough for a CD, but we managed to extract a few audio clips for our website, such as Fantasia of Swiss composer Haug and the less serious extracts from Happy Hour Sandwich of Austrian composer Schwertberger.

After several more recording sessions, we concluded that it was very difficult to record the piano and the guitar. We needed time to experiment with positioning of the microphone and our instruments. We booked the main hall of the Utrecht Conservatory on many occasions for this very purpose.

We have not played the Sonata of Mexican composer Ponce in quite awhile. Amsterdam-based composer Allan Segall’s When Back, Stravinsky, and the Who Met is a favourite of those who grew up with The Who.

We even tried to record ourselves at home, using a Mac webcam and stereo microphones for youtube.  Bach’s Badinerie arranged by Robert Bekkers for piano and guitar:

Some live recordings yielded surprising results. Lan Chee Lam’s Drizzle (2007) would have been even more exciting to watch because I go into the piano and pluck the strings. The outdoor summer bugs (what do you call them?) in Cortona, Italy provided good percussive effects to Henk Alkema’s Sailor Talk (2007).

The entire Maui concert (December 2007) was audio and video recorded. Below is an extract from the first piece written for us, by the Haarlem -based composer Erik Otte.

Danza de la Vispera from Suite Rio de La Plata (2004) by Erik Otte

We saw what it took to create the perfect close miking environment at the Houston Public Radio last December: a sound-proof recording studio with a grand piano and several good microphones. One result from our live performance was David Harvey’s Floating from Little Suite which we will premiere in its entirety in Spain in early May.

What about an empty church?

The sound engineer Gaston Matthijsse, invited us to Belgium to try an old church in Vaals, famous for being on the Dutch-Belgian-German border. When we arrived in early May 2008, much to our chagrin, the reverberation was too high as most of the furniture had been removed. Still, we spent an entire day recording an entire CD-worth of music, three centuries of music written for piano and guitar. Robert loaded it on his ipod to listen closely and decided that we needed another try. This time, a full church.

It was for this reason that we set up a live recording in a monastic church in Warmond on 30 November 2008.

Summer (3rd movement) from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, arranged by R.A.Bekkers

However long and winding it is to record our first CD, we can at least confidently say that no CD will capture the live concert experience. Having said this, we are keen to try podcasting!

Getting ready for a concert

How do you react if one makes a mistake, such as playing a wrong note, a wrong chord, playing something too early or skipping a beat? There is no “undo button” to correct the situation. It’s all moving too fast. Not only do you have to anticipate the next move and prevent a wrong move, you have to cover up a wrong move if it happens.

Revised from “Getting ready for a concert” Facebook Notes, Monday 8 December 2008

Why is it necessary to be in shape (physically and mentally) to perform in a concert?

A concert is a real-time experience. In a duo situation, a performer not only has to be alert to his/own movements but also that of the other musician. It’s necessary to hear well and anticipate because performing chamber music is not only about making a sound from your instrument but mixing the sound with other(s).

How do you react if one makes a mistake, such as playing a wrong note, a wrong chord, playing something too early or skipping a beat? There is no “undo button” to correct the situation. It’s all moving too fast. Not only do you have to anticipate the next move and prevent a wrong move, you have to cover up a wrong move if it happens.

It’s a dead giveaway to show you have made a mistake by your facial expression. I didn’t know this until a few ladies in the audience told me they enjoyed my performance but felt that perhaps I didn’t because of the way I frowned. I learned afterwards never to show that I made a mistake or that my duo partner made a mistake.

How do you get yourself prepared for such a real-time “battle”? I say battle because it’s like fighting the chance of imperfectly executing your prepared moves. How do you get totally alert and stay focussed when you’re on stage?

A good night’s sleep helps. I have seen the detrimental effects of a late night’s sleep and jetlag. You can only stay 100% focussed for so long, and it becomes extremely hard when you’re fighting a lack of sleep. There is enough to battle on stage without having to fight the desire to fall asleep. It’s happened to me when I’ve “blacked out” in seconds to a dream-like state simply from lack of sleep. That’s toxic for the other performer.

Keeping in shape is another way to be prepared. I take regular exercises in aerobics, weight-lifting, yoga, and pilates. The guitarist is training for a marathon. In the Netherlands where there are safe cycle paths everywhere, cycling is THE way to travel from A to B. Cycling is tough in dark, wet, windy, gloomy winter weather. I still don’t know how the Dutch manage to carry things in the rain on their bicycles without getting wet. But they certainly stay trim and fit.

The relationship between the performers has to be clear and good. Misunderstandings, resentment, and other unspoken disagreement all get in the way of a good performance. Long ago I used to get stressed out before a major performance, and I’d argue with the guitarist and get mad. After awhile, he figured out that I was just nervous. With better preparation, good night’s sleep, physical exercise, better communication, and getting to the venue with plenty of time to spare, we now avoid such stressful confrontations.

Finally, a good diet and regular routine helps. My father always preached the Chinese way of walking the middle road and achieving balance in life. As impetuous a risk-taker as I am, I have learned that “extreme” living requires compensation at some point. If I eat too much, I feel uncomfortable. If I eat the wrong thing, I react. There is comfort in knowing the certainty of routine, as boring and predictable as it may be.

One more thing — a very important one: Don’t overeat before a concert, for digestion takes away concentration. I once cooked and ate a huge meal just before giving a full moon concert in North Wales. Not sure how the guitarist fared, but I will never forget that bloated feeling of fighting to focus on the music and finish before my stomach takes over everything else. Musicians are naturally hungry after a concert. And hungry musicians are eager to play.

Related stories:
Preparing for a concert, March 2004 Bussum

Competing against the weather, June 2004 Den Haag

The second set and Schumann’s Traumerei, June 2004 Bussum

The nuts and bolts of a duo concert

The last concert we gave in November 2008 took place in a monastic church in a village north of Leiden (home of the oldest Dutch university). We drove there in the snow. We received a standing ovation and did an encore out of courtesy.

Revised from “Starting a blog of my concerts” from Facebook Notes, Wednesday 3 December 2008

My life these days revolves around concerts. That is, performing on the piano, with my duo partner — the classical guitarist. Hence our rather generic name of “piano guitar duo.”

It begins with fixing a date, time, venue, and programme — blocking off a chunk of time on the calendar. Then practising (by myself), rehearsing with my duo partner, and preparing for the concert. When the day arrives, it’s the usual ritual to put on my make-up, fill a thermos flask with hot rooibos or other herbal tea & sometimes make sandwiches or other light snack to eat in the car, drive there, warm up and check the accoustics, change into concert clothes, and play.

My duo partner meanwhile has the arduous task of finding the route on Google Earth and jotting down the necessary phone number and address. [After he received the surprise free gift from his mobile phone provider for New Year’s Eve, he started using the iphone’s GSM facilities instead of the old paper ritual.]

I never don’t know what to expect in terms of the quality of the piano and the acoustics, unless we get to rehearse before the day of the concert. Because the piano and the guitar are “attack” instruments (rather than the “sustain” kind of string and wind instruments), it’s necessary to get the balance right. The quality of the sound we produce is highly dependent on the acoustics of the room and the piano.

We have to get there at least half-an-hour before the concert, preferably one hour before, to permit enough time to warm up and adjust to the acoustics and instruments. If the acoustics are too dry, I have to use more pedal. If too resonating (like in a big church), I sometimes avoid the right pedal altogether. If the piano is too loud, I may have to close the lid completely and reluctantly.

I usually never get to see the piano or the venue beforehand, unless it’s a place my duo has performed before. So far, of the concerts we’ve given in the past 7 years, it’s always been for the first time at that particular venue. The surprises make interesting stories, enough to fill a book or a television series.

The last concert we gave in November 2008 took place in a monastic church in Warmond, a village north of Leiden (home of the oldest Dutch university). We drove there in the snow. We received a standing ovation and did an encore out of courtesy. We had arranged for a recording engineer to record the 1 hour concert and a photographer to take professional photos of us afterwards. There was a lot of equipment and setting-up. The concert was also video recorded by a student of the guitarist, see below.

Summer (second movement) from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, arranged by R.A. Bekkers

Rendering 7 for violin, guitar, piano by Gijs van Dijk

I urged the guitarist to extract the video of our premiere of “Rendering 7” from the 8 hour video of the Chamber Music Marathon concert of 5 June 2008 in Utrecht. It was a piece the Amsterdam-based composer Gijs van Dijk wrote for our trio with the young Korean violinist Naeon Kim.

In preparation for Gijs van Dijk’s visit this past Wednesday, I urged the guitarist to extract the video of our premiere of “Rendering 7” from the 8 hour video of the Chamber Music Marathon concert of 5 June 2008 in Utrecht. It was a piece Gijs wrote for our trio with the young Korean violinist Naeon Kim.

Rendering 7 by Gijs van Dijk
Rendering 7 by Gijs van Dijk

That we chose to study and perform the “Rendering 7” as a trio before attempting “Abstract and Dance” for our duo was largely due to our readiness and eagerness as a trio to tackle new music. The Strung Out Trio of duo46 and pianist Nathanael May had commissioned, performed, and recorded bespoke works for their violin, guitar, piano trio years before our piano guitar duo thought of getting together with another instrument.

Our trio was formed rather serendipitously. At the beginning of my fourth and final year at conservatory, I suddenly developed a kia soo tendency to grab the most of what was left of my four-year full-time music education. [For a definition of kia soo, scroll down to the middle of the page on Clutter.] I signed up for the Chamber Music Marathon, which entitled an ensemble to coaching sessions with some of the top performers and teachers at the conservatory as well as two recorded concerts in the big concert hall (the oldest in the country).

“Piano and guitar?” questioned Joyce Tan, the violin teacher who was head of the chamber music project. “That doesn’t make an ensemble. You need at least three performers.”

Do we have music for piano, guitar, and another instrument? Yes! A not very well-known piece by the not so well-known 19th century composer Nicholas Stossel (1793-1844). Divertissement op. 33 was written for keyboard, guitar, and either flute or piano. As performers, we preferred to play either well-known works or not so well-known but exciting and challenging compositions to break from the tradition.

The works of Florida-based composer Paul Richards fall in the latter category. Commissioned by the Strung Out Trio Richards’ “Falling on Lobsters in the Dark” ignited our interest, not only because of obscure title but also the history behind it. His three-movement “Cypriot Structures” was the third piece we knew of.

I went back to the conservatory, on a man hunt. Could I find a violinist or a flute player who was good and not taken? On the final day of the chamber ensemble registration, I asked Joyce if she knew of a violinist who fitted the bill. She pointed to a young man who had just whisked into the reception area.

“Are you a violinist?” I asked naively, seeing that he carried what-looked-like a violin case.

“Yes, errr…. sorry?” the tall, slender violinist replied. “I just got back from Korea.”

“You mean, you just arrived?” It was rather late. He must have missed the first two weeks of school. “Are you already in an ensemble? It’s the last day to register for Chamber Music Marathon.”

He scratched his head. “Well, some people have asked me. But I’m not sure if they have signed up.”

Dazzling with hope, I asked, “Would you like to be in a trio with me and a classical guitarist? I have some great music for us.”

“Guitar? That sounds interesting.” I got his attention finally. “Sure, why not?” he looked confident and relieved.

“Wait! What year are you in? Are you any good?” He looked familiar. I vaguely recalled that I had been introduced to him the year before, by my classmate the Indonesian pianist Elwin Hendrijanto. But I had not yet had a conversation with him. And I certainly had no clue if he was a good musician to work with.

“I don’t know. I guess you can ask around if I’m any good,” he smiled as though he had never encountered such an accusation.

Well, I’ll just take my chance then, I thought. There are plenty of violinists at this conservatory….

That was how our trio got formed — on the last day of the chamber ensemble registration by sheer coincidence.

Later I learned that Naeon Kim was one of the best violinists around and very much sought after. He started taking lessons from his violinist father at the age of three in Pusan where he was born. By the time he became a teenager, he had already performed in Japan. To assist the sparsely populated viola department at our conservatory, he even learned to play the viola.

We premiered Gijs van Dijk’s “Rendering 7″ in early June 2008 after undergoing a masterclass with pianist and musicologist Ralph van Raat and separate coaching sessions with violinists Chris Duinham and Kees Hülsmann. Below is the recording of our premiere at the Utrecht Conservatory.

Concert in Bennebroek

Bennebroek was the smallest municipality in the Netherlands before it merged with Bloemendaal, an extremely affluent area known for its hockey club. Probably formed in the 13th century, Bennebroek now serves as a commuter town for nearby cities of Haarlem and Bloemendaal.

Today was another fine spring day to make me forget that there ever was a long winter and all the indoor existence from October to March was worth the wait for today’s flawless weather.

What to wear? Good question. I still insisted on tights, a long sleeved dress, and a silk scarf to cover my entire body, including my neck and four limbs. The usual routine seemed risk averse in this spring weather. It did feel warm enough though to put away my Barbour jacket in favour of my Laura Ashley cotton coat hibernating in the loft.

I woke up too late to practise piano but didn’t mind too much because it was to be a short concert at a psychiatric clinic in a village I had never heard of before. Only 45 minutes instead of the usual 2 x 30 minutes or 1 hour concert of our most popular programme (reduced by two or three movements) —- it should be easy. I didn’t bother to read our Maandrooster (month schedule) what sort of piano and concert hall awaited us. After recent disappointments, I expected very little, if anything at all.

On the drive north towards Amsterdam and west towards Haarlem, I shared a pre-packed brunch of sandwiches and carrot cake with the guitarist. It was well past rush hour (10:45 am), and the journey to Bennebroek should be without interruption.

Bennebroek was the smallest municipality in the Netherlands before it merged with Bloemendaal, an extremely affluent area known for its hockey club. Probably formed in the 13th century, Bennebroek now serves as a commuter town for nearby cities of Haarlem and Bloemendaal.

To my surprise, we arrived at a big church (pictured below). I did not expect a church nor one in such picturesque surroundings. As the previous time we played in a psychiatric centre was unpleasant, I had mentally tried to block out the low ceilings and temporary location. A beautiful church was the last thing I expected today.

Church in Bennebroek, Netherlands
Church in Bennebroek, Netherlands

Halfway from the car to the church, we met a man smoking a cigarette. He introduced himself and shook our hands. It was 11:40 am. He had been expecting us.

Close-up of church in Bennebroek, Netherlands
Close-up of church in Bennebroek, Netherlands

Inside the big church hid even more surprises: a beautiful Bechstein grand piano on a stage. The 6 to 7 ft piano looked extremely familiar, like the 1920’s 5’6″ German piano I owned in London. It must be around 100 years old, I thought. Indeed I later read that it was built in 1910. Something about old German grand pianos makes me feel instantly at ease.

Organ and piano in Bennebroek church, Netherlands
Organ and piano in Bennebroek church, Netherlands

The man then led us to a big meeting room behind the stage which would serve as our changing room. He pointed to a big covered box containing sandwiches for lunch. This was most unusual as we never get more than refreshments and a tiny snack.

Before changing and donning make-up, we wanted to test the acoustics — as usual and as always. Unlike the previous two venues with dry acoustics, the hall had ample reverberation, typical of large churches. This meant that the guitar would sound very powerful and beautiful on its own. And equally so, the grand piano, but it would be not as easy to hear each other when we played together.

Indeed once we started playing, we found it impossible to stop. The sound was too beautiful. The combination of great acoustics and great instruments made us feel very free to play. [And I would say, if you want to lure musicians to play for you — give them these two things.]

At the end of our 45 minute concert, those that were not in wheelchairs stood up and applauded. The man who took care of us earlier then walked on stage with two fat bouquets and a beaming smile.

The day was too perfect to waste. We took our lunch in the gardens of this church. It was a rare occasion to have time to enjoy the good weather without rushing to our next appointments. And now was the time to test my mobile phone for good photos to remember by.

As we left the premises, we waved goodbye to the daffodils that adorned this village.

Daffodils outside the church in Bennebroek, Netherlands
Daffodils outside the church in Bennebroek, Netherlands

Larger photos of Bennebroek can be viewed here.