Pre-concert talk Pollock and Corigliano in Ebb and Flow Arts concert by Duo Diorama

Pre-concert talk of unfamiliar music, particularly of premieres, is an essential part of the concert-going experience.

During the July 13th, 2013 pre-concert talk led by composer Robert Pollock and pianist Winston Choi, the old church at the south-south-western most beach of Maui filled up quickly. It was interesting to observe some early birds to the 7:30 pm concert arriving late to the 6:30 pm talk but searching anxiously for a seat in the wooden pews. I found a nice spot near the west window through which I’d hoped to see the setting sun, but my view of the musicians was soon blocked by the latecomers.

In describing his inspiration for writing his Duo No. 6, a violin piano piece dedicated to his wife of 44 years, Robert Pollock demonstrated Wagner’s famous Tristan chord on the piano. This chord is the subject of many discussions in music analysis and composition. Pollock, who founded the Ebb & Flow Arts organization that introduces, commissions, promotes, and produces live concerts featuring music of living composers, then added a bottom note and a top note to the chord. Surprisingly, the new chord no longer sounded atonal. Even untrained ears can tolerate the resulting chord. He then showed how Scriabin used the expanded chord that gave to jazz harmony.

While the Tristan chord may have sounded dissonant when it was first introduced in Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, our modern ears have gotten used to it. Perhaps this is one reason to challenge our ears to unfamiliar sounds, for it expands our listening.

Choi described Pollock’s new work “organic to play physically, everything was tied to one another, a natural progression like a living being.” All the discussion around this piece made me very curious — what does the score look like? Could it be shown on screen during the pre-concert talk?

Later during the concert, I listened for derivatives of the Tristan chord, the tension and the resolution, and the occasional moments of tenderness, that sweet longing expressed by violinist Ming Huan Xu’s sensitive playing. This was a modern love song, of “emotions not yet felt” and harmonies that need to be heard again and again. The world premiere of Robert Pollock’s Duo No. 6 (2013) by Duo Diorama preceded the final piece in a well-put-together program of modern works by Zupko, Stravinsky, Ruo, Pollock, and Corigliano.

The other very interesting, perhaps still unknown, story told during the pre-concert talk concerned John Corigliano’s Violin Sonata. I had not come across the story in my pre-concert research, only appearing briefly in the description of the score: “This work, although dedicated to his parents, was much despised by Corigliano’s father. In fact his father discouraged any attempts at composition. This work, composed in 1963, augurs much to come in the development of his compositional style. The piece won first prize in the 1964 Spoleto Festival Competition for Creative Arts (Walter Piston and Samuel Barber were on the panel).” The work was the turning point not only for Corigliano as a composer but his relationship with his father, who played it as often as he could for the rest of his life.

For me, the pre-concert talk is an essential part of the concert-going experience. Despite the very comprehensive and well-written program notes given before the concert, my earlier research, and my meeting the performers the evening before, I did not know what to listen for. Now that I’ve heard Mischa Zupko’s Trigger (2005), Huang Ruo’s The Invisible Compass (2012), and Pollock’s new work, I lament that there will be a time lag before I can hear them online. As for Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante (1931) and Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963), just google to get youtube recordings.

Concert promotion by other media: Ebb & Flow Arts in Maui, Hawaii

Promoting a concert involves more than announcing an event in one medium. It requires multiple media: television, radio, newspaper, and posters. View an example by photo, video, and audio of Ebb & Flow Arts Piano Synergy Concert on Maui, Hawaii.

Once upon a time, the concert was the talk of town. It’s the end result of all things. But nowadays there is too much competition for your attention — to0 many other things you can be doing, including staying at home and watching TV. To get people to come to a concert, you’d have to promote it.

Identify a concert’s unique selling points. Below is a photo of something quite rare: 4 pianists sitting at four grand pianos. It would catch anybody’s eye. This appeared in a free weekly paper that gets published on Thursdays — and just in time, too — the Thursday before the Saturday concert.

Pianists at rehearsal. Photo credit: Klazine Pollock
Pianists at rehearsal. Photo credit: Klazine Pollock

How to attract people to come to a concert? Mention the composers and repertoire, particularly if they are interesting and connects. In this case, there’s the premiere of a new piece written by a composer based in Honolulu, Thomas Osborne, who also teaches at University of Hawaii at Manoa. The date of the concert, 14th July 2012, also coincides with Bastille Day, celebrating French independence, hence a concert of music by French composers, including Darius Milhaud’s Paris.

Appeal to different audiences, including those who have access to television. The following 10 minute video clip was aired twice a day, every single day in the week of the concert on Channel 55, the 24/7 cable TV of University of Hawaii Maui College (UHMC).

Reach audiences via different avenues and media. On the Wednesday before the Piano Synergy concert, the following 25 minute clip was aired on local radio.

Kaio Radio: Ebb & Flow Arts (audio clip)

Besides local paper, TV, and radio promotions, there were also color posters, postcards, and local newspaper listings mentioning the forthcoming concerts.

What can we learn from this? While the musicians are busy practising, the concert organizer (producer) is busy letting as many people know about the concert as possible. These “previews” are important to help potential audience decide and anticipate. Here is a blog post anticipating the event.

It’s simply not enough to tell someone to come to a concert. It needs to reach all audiences in more than one way. Before doing so, one needs to think through what appeals, what attracts, what is relevant.

Canyons by Thomas Osborne

Tonight we 4 pianists premiere a new 4 piano work by Thomas Osborne, assistant professor of composition and theory at University of Hawaii Manoa. It will be the highlight of a program of works for 2 and 4 pianos by 6 pianists in celebration of French Independence Day and John Cage’s 100th birthday on Maui.

We six pianists first met on Sunday 4th March 2012 in Ruth Murata’s Maui Music Conservatory. Ebb & Flow Arts had commissioned a new piece for 4 pianos. As time marched on, we got anxious if we’d get the score in time to study individually and then rehearse as a group.

As with all new music, the approach is to first scan it, assess the difficulty and amount of time required to study it. We’d identify the challenging areas and spend more time studying them than the rest. We’d use a metronome to ensure we keep to a steady beat.

When we got together to rehearse on subsequent Sunday afternoons, we’d notice that the music for 4 pianos was quite different from the single score we were given to study. After studying Milhaud’s Paris, Busby’s Four!, Depue’s 16 Pawns, and two piano works, we learned towards the end of May, that Honolulu-based composer Thomas Osborne’s new work was ready.

When I first looked at “Canyons” I didn’t know what to make of it. The mp3 recording sounded extremely exciting though. I was willing to give it a chance. I became one of the pianists committed to studying it for premiere on 14th July. Robert Pollock, the founder and director of Ebb & Flow Arts, planned for us three pianists to rehearse and the last 3 rehearsals with the composer as the 4th pianist.

“Canyons” plays on the term canons. It uses imitation and terraced dynamics to produce the kind of echo effect you can hear in a canyon. The first pianist to play is Piano 4 — loud. The next pianist — Piano 3 — is slightly less loud. These dynamic levels are to be kept throughout the piece.

Canyons by Thomas Osborne, page 1
Canyons by Thomas Osborne, page 1

Robert Pollock and I discussed this and other works on Kaoi Radio recently.

Here’s the 25 minute audio clip.

Tonight’s concert is FREE — and expected to draw a standing-room only audience. My only regret is that we get to perform each piece just once — tonight.

Piano Synergy! Concert, 14th July 2012 at 7:30 pm at the Maui Music Conservatory, 2nd floor of the very centrally located Queen Ka’ahumanu Shopping Mall in Kahului, on Maui, Hawaii. We begin with a work of John Cage and end with Darius Milhaud’s Paris.

The highlight of the evening will surely be Thomas Osborne’s “Canyons.”

Canyons by Thomas Osborne bars 84 to 87
Canyons by Thomas Osborne bars 84 to 87

Improvisation workshop

Miss Lee Pui Ming is an exceptional improvisation pianist who began her classical music training from the age of 3. Her approach to improvisation is very unique. After giving an improvisation workshop in Kahului, she will give a solo concert in Makena the next evening.

The workshop was in full swing when I arrived — 5 minutes late. The pianist, Lee Pui Ming, looked up and acknowledged me. She said that they were just going around introducing each other. She’d let me catch my breath and get to me last. I didn’t have to feel guilty. I already felt like I was part of the workshop.

Only glass doors and an entire glass wall separated the inside of the Maui Music Conservatory from the rest of the mall. It was a Friday night. Teenagers were out and about. Where else do you hang out on Maui, as a pre-drinking aged teenager? At night?

Yet inside the spacious reception of the conservatory where 4 grand pianos stood in a fan shape, lids wide open, ivories fully exposed, waiting to be consumed, was a different kind of space. No teenagers sat here — only individuals my age and older. The Friday night here was filled with purpose.

Every person there was interested in improvisation.

“Can you practice improvisation?”

“Do you know what you will play before you play it?”

“Can you repeat yourself if you like it?”

“Is there any structure to it? Where does your inspiration come from?”

At some point, I wished the questions would stop. I wanted badly to hear the pianist play.

Nearly 45 minutes into the workshop, after several hints, someone finally asked her to play. She stood up and said, “I feel like a teenager again.” She gestured, “My mother is telling me: go, go play for these people.” In other words, she was not ready to perform for us.

Instead, she asked three volunteers to sit at the pianos. She asked one to start, and the second to join in whenever he felt like it. When the first one takes a break, the third pianist should then enter. It was like a relay duo.

Robert Pollock, the founder of Ebb & Flow Arts, the nonprofit organization which introduces such variety of interesting contemporary and avant garde music to Hawaii, began his improv on the black grand piano. Although the trio had never played together before, they sounded like they knew just what to do. The transitions to different genres were organic and unpretentious. They listened to each other. Each got to lead with their forte. I could almost sense what they were feeling and thinking as they improvised. I felt no anticipation or worry about how long they would play or get out of sync. Amazingly they ended their performance at the same time.

We discussed the improvisation performance. I had forgotten that it was possible to enjoy watching others improvise together.

Years ago, I was invited to an improvisation concert in River Oaks in Houston. I had brought half-the audience. When it was my turn to improvise, I played just the white keys on the Steinway Grand. I didn’t know what to think or say about improvisation then. But tonight, there was much observation and articulation.

It was nearly 9 pm. Lee Pui Ming wanted to stop, but we didn’t. Upon urging of the conservatory’s owner, Ruth Murata, I went to a piano. Lee Pui Ming started tapping an ostinato on the wood of the piano. I barely sat down before I copied her on the piano bench. Then I moved to the keys. She was behind me, so I could only hear her. Another person joined me on the other piano. I crescendo’d and added more fingers, then the palms of my hands, my fists, my elbows. I did clusters all over the keys to a fortissimo. I could sense the audience’s reaction behind me. I was pounding on the piano, like the young boy whom I taught in Utrecht. He had pounded on my piano to vent his frustrations. So did I. The piano suffered. The pianist next to me changed his tune. He wanted to move into a soft, melodic soundscape. I resisted joining him until another pianist went to the 4th piano. I was overpowered. And the world ended in a whisper.

Tomorrow evening, Lee Pui Ming gives a solo performance in a stone church at the very southern beach of Maui. It’s a church I’ve seen from the waters. She wanted to hear the ocean as she plays, so she said.

I want to walk the beach, watch the Summer Solstice sunset, and listen to her improvisations.

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.

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

Three on One piano duet by Anne Ku

Anne Ku’s multi-hand piano duet “Three on One” receives a third performance, this time on the island of Maui when she was still in the Netherlands on 16th July 2011.

It’s a delight to hear the live recording of my multi-hand piano duet “Three on One” performed on 16th July 2011 in the Battle of the Pianists at the Maui Music Conservatory in Hawaii. I was in Utrecht, Netherlands on that date.

The CD arrived in the post along with the programme notes. It’s nice to see my name after Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche, a 4-hand, 2-piano 3-movement piece that I’ve heard played in Munster, Germany.

The Battle of the Pianists was one of several events in “A Little More Summer Music, Please” organised by Ebb & Flow Arts, the same nonprofit foundation that produced our piano guitar duo concert in Makawao in December 2007. When I first heard of the duet concert, I wanted so much to participate, especially to play the Canto Ostinato which is a rare gem.

Ironically it was Dutch composer Simeon Ten Holt’s famous Canto Ostinato which inspired me to write my minimalist duet for 6 hands on one piano when I was still studying at Utrecht Conservatory. This multi-hand duet was first sightread by 5 composers (including myself) at the Cortona Contemporary Music Festival in Italy in July 2007. I called it “Five on One” then. When Thomas Rosenkranz asked me for the score to premiere at the University of Hawaii in Manoa a year later, I changed the music slightly and renamed it “Three on One.” [Download the score in PDF]

Three on One piano duet by Anne Ku
Three on One piano duet by Anne Ku

After sightreading various new piano duets this year through my Call for Scores project, I am inclined to rewrite this piece. For one, the notes should be bigger. Two, it would be easier to lay it out in parts not in parallel as I have done. Readability is extremely important. A minimalist piece needs to be longer. At 2 minutes 26 seconds, it’s ridiculously too short. Listen to the performance by Karyn Sarring, Robert Pollock, and Lotus Dancer.

Three on One duet by Anne Ku (mp3) – click to listen.

Fellow collaborator of my Call for Scores project Karyn Sarring played the bass. Lotus Dancer played the middle part and Beatrice Scorby the top (highest, primo).

Composer’s biography in programme notes (tailored to the Maui audience):

Born in Brunei of Chinese parents, Anne Ku grew up on Okinawa, Japan where she learned English from age 7 and the piano from age 8. After graduating valedictorian from Kubasaki High School, she won a full scholarship to Duke University where she double-majored in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics. She actively participated in chamber music performance while studying the piano under Randall Love. Fast forward ten years later, she was interviewed by the weekly newspaper of the largest university in the Netherlands for her second chamber opera Culture Shock! which premiered in Utrecht on 2 June 2008. Since then she has focussed on chamber music performance with guitar, French horn, and cello and active as producer of Monument House Concert Series and traveling the world with her piano guitar duo and sharing her adventures through her blogs.

Piano duet by Robert Pollock

Maui-based composer Robert Pollock’s “A Little Transition Music, Please” is exciting and engaging to play. Listen to the recording and judge for yourself.

One of the reasons for calling composers to submit sheet music for multi-hand piano duets (i.e. my Call for Scores) was that I got tired of the predominance of the existing repertoire for 4-hand one piano music that’s easily available in libraries and in music stores. I was sure there was more music than the quartre mains of the bygone 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, composers readily arranged piano versions of chamber music and even orchestral works. Some began with duets and then orchestrated them.

When I told Maui-based composer and pianist Robert Pollock about my Call for Scores, he immediately gave me his “A Little Transition Music, Please” — quatre mains written for the occasion of 21st November 2010 – MACC presents E&FA. Robert Pollock founded Ebb & Flow Arts after he moved to Maui from New Jersey. Most recently the foundation organised a “Battle of the Pianists” on 16th July 2011 in which my multi-hand duet “Three on One” (6 hands on one piano) was performed.

As I could not participate in the “Battle of the Pianists” because I would be physically on the other side of the world, namely in the Netherlands not Hawaii, I carried his piano duet across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco to sightread it with Chong Kee Tan and across the Atlantic Ocean to Utrecht, Netherlands where I finally recorded it with Brendan Kinsella on my Steinway on 4th July 2011.

What emerged was a duet we all found to be exciting, engaging, and fun. Click to listen to the recording below.

A Little Transition Music by Robert Pollock, performed by Anne Ku and Brendan Kinsella

The secundo starts with what seems like an ostinato on the left hand, setting the scene, or rather the pace and the anticipation. The primo joins in the second beat of the third bar, like a conversation. In fact, the entire piece is a conversation that gets more and more charged and exciting. The secundo never stays still but keeps the momentum going.

A Little Transition Music, Please - duet for 4 hands, one piano by Robert Pollock
A Little Transition Music, Please - duet for 4 hands, one piano by Robert Pollock

Music that has been performed is obviously more ready to be sightread and played than untested sheet music. Let’s hope works like these find their way into mainstream quatre-mains repertoire.