Reflection of string quartet concert of Sarn Oliver et al

A post-concert reception is just as important as a pre-concert talk. The first and last piece of the concert cannot be exchanged with the same effect of the performance.

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After attending an Ebb & Flow Arts concert, more and more I find myself unable to write a review about the entire performance.

From a pragmatic point of view, the concert is very unlikely to be repeated at the same venue, in the same format, or by the same performers. Each program is unique. What purpose does a review of a one-off concert serve? A validation for the performers, composers, and the producer? A reminder for those who attended? A snapshot for those who missed the concert? A video recording would perhaps do a better job.

To put it mildly, a review will not do justice to the live performance of Saturday 10 August 2013 on Maui. Neither would a video recording. But I shall “reflect” so that I can remember and share.

A concert of what I call “music of our time” is oddly also music that is unfamiliar to the general public who are accustomed to hearing amplified familiar sounding music. On Maui, occasions to hear unfamiliar music are not only few and far between but also extremely rare, such that every concert fetches a full house. Sadly one would have to repeat the experience several times to fully appreciate the music and the nuances.

Last evening’s string quartet concert at the new creative arts center of Seabury Hall, a high school at nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, is no exception. The concert goer’s journey begins with the drive uphill, a steep and curvaceous ascent towards the famous Haleakala. Despite it being my second visit to this private institution, I was still awed by the fairytale, fortress-like environment — the manicured lawn and gardens, architecturally designed buildings and interiors, all along the path from the parking lot to the A’ali’ikuhunoa Creative Arts Center. The hall, which opened in September 2012, is very modern and open, reminding me of the newer concert venues in the Netherlands where the inside and outside are almost seamlessly interfaced.

I highly recommend getting there an hour early for the pre-concert talk. Although the half-hour talk by Ebb & Flow Art’s founder and artistic director, Robert Pollock, and one or two members of the performing musicians is optional, it generally helps to prepare yourself for what to listen for and understand the choice of music and its programming. Selecting music and putting the pieces in an optimal order is an art. Before seeing the program notes, I could only guess at the possible ways to arrange the order of the compositions: chronological order, reverse chronological order, or alternating tempos (fast, slow, fast, etc). The art of programming for a concert surely deserves a blog post or an update to an earlier research on a related topic.

As a member of the privileged audience, I am reminded that a free concert like this is not to be taken for granted. Someone has to come up with the concept, get the funding to bring the musicians here and publicize the concert. The choice of music is not a coincidence but a deliberate undertaking.

The concert of August 10, 2013 featured two world premieres, compositions by the first violinist Sarn Oliver, and one Hawaii premiere, the rich romantic String Quartet #1 (1946) of George Walker, the honorary president of Ebb and Flow Arts. The string quartet opened with Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces from 1914, a work I consider a warm-up, for it was dominated by other more powerful and memorable pieces as time wore on. It’s not uncommon to begin a concert with a warm up or a short overture to introduce what is to come. To swap Stravinsky with the last piece in the program, Shostakovich’s String Quartet #8, would be obviously wrong. But I could imagine Sarn Oliver’s UnderTow for electric string quartet as the last piece, for it made me want to dance. Nonetheless, ending the concert with Shostakovich’s most famous string quartet brings a finality to the evening. String Quartet number 8 is hailed as autobiographical with the initials of the composer, translated into the German letters D,Es,C,H and retranslated into the notes D, E-flat, C and B, a melancholic motif which is repeated throughout the five movement work.

The function of a post-concert gathering is quite different from that of a pre-concert talk: to meet and get to know the musicians. It is perfectly acceptable to stay after the performance, walk back stage to greet and meet the musicians, thank and congratulate them, and even provide some feedback. As a concert producer and performer, I would insist that the audience stay and mingle, for they bring the perspective I long to hear in my preparation for the next concert.

How would I summarize this concert? The highlights for me were the spectacular, modern venue; George Walker’s String Quartet #1, Sarn Oliver’s electric quartet piece, and Shostakovich’s String Quartet #8. In fact, these are the three works I’d like to hear again.

Ebb & Flow Arts present North South East West Festival 2013

Seabury Hall, Makawao
August 10 @ 7:30 pm

Chamber Music from San Francisco

Sarn Oliver, violin
Mariko Smiley, violin
David Kim, viola
Sebastien Gingras, cello

Tree Pieces (1914) – Igor Stravinsky

Transparence and Transcendance ** (2013) – Sarn Oliver

String Quartet #1* (1946) – George Walker

UnderTow** for electric string quartet (2013) – Sarn Oliver

String Quartet #8 (1960) – Dmitri Shostakovich

3 things I dislike about long haul travel

Long haul travel is great except for three things: it takes time to …..

As much as I love to travel, there are several things I dislike about long haul travel.

First, it takes time to get ready.

Not only do you have to prepare for the trip, you also have to clear and clean up your home so that you can have a peace of mind while you’re gone. I’ve often made the mistake of hiding important documents for safe keeping only to forget where I’ve put them upon my return.

For my most recent trip, I had to pack the right clothes for the different weather: warm in Knoxville, possibly cool in Boston, cold in London, hot and dry in Davis, and variable in San Francisco. It was spring and the pollen forecast was important for hayfever sufferers. I carried sufficient antihistamines to ward off allergies that are nearly non-existent in Hawaii.

Second, it takes time to unpack after you return.

For the same reasons that it takes a long time to prepare for your trip, it will take time to unpack all that you’ve accumulated and attend to the backlog built up during your absence.

It took me a day to do two loads of laundry, clean the floor, and unpack my two suitcases. It took another day to review my snail mail, water the garden, and get myself back on track.

Third, it takes time to shed the weight you’ve gained during your travels.

What a paradox it is to gain weight while traveling! The lack of routine and exercise combined with the temptation of eating out all cause water retention and the build up of fat. On this trip, I attributed the weight gain to having to wear a lot of clothes to keep warm — and subconsciously having to consume more food to feel warm and comfortable.

So now I am on a strict regimen. I wake up by dawn. Walk to the office. Do the one-hour workout class. Yoga. Swim if possible. Eat often but little. Abstain from alcohol. Aim to lose 10 pounds.

If it takes 2 days to pack, 2 days to unpack, and 2 weeks to lose weight for a 4 week trip, I suppose it’s worth it. Oh — did I mention jetlag? Time to get over your jetlag?

Other than these three items, I could list a hundred things I love about traveling. I will save that for another blog post.

Mozart’s Requiem to mourn a loss

Listen to Mozart’s Requiem on full blast to experience and mourn a loss.

Can anyone tell me the name of the movie in which a man and a woman date, get into a relationship, and split — the man listens to Mozart’s Requiem to cope with the break-up? The woman can read minds, so he is never private?

I watched that movie a long time ago — and developed a habit of listening to Mozart’s Requiem whenever I wanted to feel the sadness and tragedy of a situation.

When I returned to Maui recently, I came upon such an occasion. But my CD of Herbert von Karajan’s conducting Mozart’s Requiem was no longer with me. It’s probably among the entire collection of CDs that have vanished from my life — in Utrecht.

That in itself is cause for mourning.

Thanks to the Internet, I googled “Mozart’s Requiem” and listened to a version on Youtube. Much to my dissatisfaction at the slower pace and thinner texture, I searched for “Mozart’s Requiem Karajan” to find that particular version I knew and yearned.

Not only was I able to listen to the entire Requiem but also see the performers on Youtube. This nearly beats listening to the CD, except I have no stereo system. That too is gone.

What am I mourning? The loss of what is meaningful because the situation dictates it. What is meaningful comes from intention, be it a gift or purposeful acquisition. Over time, even that which was not intentionally and deliberately acquired could become meaningful if dwelled upon and appreciated.

Two weeks ago, I returned to London and took out what I had stored in suitcases, photo albums, and boxes — everything that I had wanted to keep and preserve in the secret loft. I was like a child again, returning home, surrounding myself with everything familiar and nearly forgotten in the years I’ve been away.

Sadly, after reducing my possessions by half, I had to store the remaining half away, boxed up and sealed. I don’t know when I will return again.

In the 10 hour flight to San Francisco, I bid farewell via two onboard movies and a nap. Flying westbound was a journey of goodbye, mourning of a reluctant loss.

Listen to Mozart’s Requiem on full blast — and you will experience a great tragedy.

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.

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

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.