Tag Archives: Spain

Real-time crisis management of concert performers

Recently I found myself describing the busiest period of our duo’s life as that of real-time crisis management. Each concert was real-time. Each concert held surprises. We could never fully anticipate  what might go wrong. It took a lot of practice (giving concerts) to get good at dealing with the unexpected.

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Arranging Carmen for piano and guitar

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo, photo credit: Serge van Empelen, Amsterdam

I borrowed the Dover edition of the orchestral version for Bizet’s Carmen opera months ago. The full score looked intimidating, a reminder of the arduous score reading exercises I had to do during my years at conservatory. And so the hard-back book laid on my piano unopened until I found free sheet music of piano solo and duet transcriptions on the Internet.

Eureka! I found a short cut.

It is possible to reduce orchestral music to piano and fewer instruments. It requires a lot more imagination the other way around.

At first, I split up a quatre-main (4-hands, one piano) duet into separate parts for a single guitar and piano. Then I noticed that the piano duet left out many wonderful melodies. To do Carmen justice, I opened the orchestra score, found those beloved themes and allocated them as I saw fit.

Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers stopped me when he saw that I was giving the exciting parts to the piano. It reminded me of my own protests when he had given himself the interesting, virtuoso passages in his arrangements of Bach’s Badinerie, Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and the Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba for our duo.

“I can do that!” he pointed to a chromatic run. “I love scales. Better, let us do it together!”

Now that’s a challenge — to play the fast notes completely in sync with each other! We do that quite a bit in Vivaldi’s Summer from his Four Seasons. I can have the guitar play exactly what I play in the same register or an octave apart. Or we can play a third apart.

“Give me big powerful chords,” he said. He wants to show off, but so do I. We’ll just have to take turns, I decided.

Robert also gave me advice. “To be safe, don’t give the guitar more than two voices at a time.”

Bizet’s opera was set in Seville, Spain where we had visited in April 2009 for a gypsy flamenco project. I remember the flamenco rhythms and the percussive nature of such exotic music. Arranging Carmen brought back memories of that week as well as my visit to the Netherlands Opera production of Carmen at the end of the Holland Festival in Amsterdam.

Technically speaking, the piano and the guitar can replace 16 single-note instruments: 10 fingers on the piano plus 6 strings of the guitar. If we add our feet and elbows, then we can do even more. I love sound of the guitar being used as a percussive instrument. Can I do the same on the piano? Or would I need drumsticks?

What shall I call my arrangement? There are numerous Carmen Suites and Carmen Fantasies on Naxos CD Online and youtube. Mine is not a suite or a fantasy. A suite is structured — mine is a medley of various sticky tunes, and yet it’s more than a medley. A fantasy would require a lot more imagination, dedication, and virtuosity. I want it to be fun and interesting, not like some of the 19th century arrangements of popular opera themes for guitar and piano.

How about Carmen Potpourri for piano and guitar? Coincidentally when I google “Carmen Potpourri” I find our piano guitar duo website and this blog. Maybe that’s what it should be called: Carmen Potpourri for piano and guitar.

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A Mediterranean Summer on 12 September

Our Mediterranean Summer began in May with Spain and ended in August with Crete. It was a summer full of sunshine, beaches, fresh octopus and shellfish, new friendship, and cross-cultural collaborations. 

The “Mediterranean Summer” programme is part of the larger traditional programme we’ve performed throughout the Netherlands and three times in Spain. This Saturday we will give it away for free in a 600-year old building in central Utrecht: the Academiegebouw at 13:00. 

Dare we conclude our summer in Paleochora, Crete, the last week of August? I certainly hope not, for I have already booked a flight to Italy for mid-October, to stretch the summer in the Mediterranean just a wee bit longer.

The last sunset in Paleochora, Crete, August 2009

The last sunset in Paleochora, Crete, August 2009

“A Mediterranean Summer” concert programme

Federico Moreno Torroba (1891 – 1982)

Fantasia para un Gentilhombre (1954) (complete guitar concerto!)
Joaquín Rodrigo (1901 – 1999)
Villano y Ricercare
Españoleta y Fanfare de la Caballería de Nápoles
Danza de las Hachas

Asturias (Leyenda)

Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909)
guitar solo

Summer from The Four Seasons
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)
Allegro non molto arr. R. Bekkers (2008)
Adagio e piano – Presto e forte

Walking through a misty shower on the strand in Paris, August 2009

Walking through a misty shower on the strand in Paris, August 2009

In between Spain and Crete, we ventured into Paris for some inspiration. The modern art exhibition at the Pompidou Centre got us thinking about contemporary music. Why doesn’t the music of live composers attract the large crowds that pour into contemporary art galleries?


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Wanted: venues with grand piano and great acoustics in Leiden, Amsterdam, around Utrecht, Crete, and Taiwan

alternative title: Planning for the future

I am floating between the past and future (concerts) this June, a month for practising new repertoire, forever working on our first CD, getting coaching from great masters, and doing market research. That is, I’m waiting for video and audio clips of our concerts in Spain (to load onto our website) and simultaneously looking for venues with (grand) piano and (great) acoustics for future concerts. Rather than waiting for someone to “discover” us, we are deciding where we want to go and actively looking for venues and sponsors.

Dutch composer Gijs van Dijk, Spanish biography May 2009

Dutch composer Gijs van Dijk, Spanish biography May 2009

We are giving our contemporary programme of music of (mainly) Dutch composers in Amsterdam on Sunday 12th July. I’m looking for other venues around that time, as the composers will be present — and only max 50 will be admitted in Funen Park 125, Amsterdam. How about Saturday 11th July in Utrecht and Monday 13th July in Leiden, for example? Where can I find concert producers and venues with piano?

Dutch composer Heleen Verleur, Spanish biography May 2009

Dutch composer Heleen Verleur, Spanish biography May 2009

We presented the same 21st century programme of piano guitar duo music on 3rd May 2009 in La Coruña, Spain, in the beautiful Museum of Contemporary Arts. Three of the Dutch composers were featured, with their biographies translated into Spanish, printed on nice glossy paper, inserted into the ongoing “El Oido Contemporaneo” hard-bound binder initiated and researched by Spanish composer Ruben Someso. This impressive collection of biographies of composers, 20th and 21st century composition techniques, musical instruments, and related musical vocabulary will surely become a book one day.

Dutch composer Henk Alkema, biography in Spanish, May 2009

Dutch composer Henk Alkema, biography in Spanish, May 2009

In the last week of July, the celebrated violin guitar duo of Matt and Beth Gould, also known as Duo46, will stopover in Amsterdam on their way back from the Contemporary Music Festival (founded by pianist Nathanael May in 2005 and continued annually in Cortona and Pavia, Italy). We’re actively looking for a suitable venue in Utrecht or Amsterdam, or surrounding cities/villages, for a double duo concert, tentatively called 2 + 2 = 6, on Monday afternoon 27th July 2009. How many combinations can we make out of 2 guitars, a violin, and a piano?

The million dollar view in Cortona, Italy July 2007

The million dollar view in Cortona, Italy July 2007

Ideally we’d like to give a concert everywhere we go. But I honestly think we will have no time the first week of August 2009 when we’re in London. That is, no time to organise a concert, I should say. We will never say NO to someone else organising the publicity, concert venue, ticket reservations, etc, especially if the concert is for Sunday 2nd August. Maybe I should just throw my wish to the wind? A concert in Ealing? Or a solo guitar concert or a guitar/flute concert as part of the analyticalQ home concert series?

Embracing uncertainty and opportunity, we’ve booked our flights to Chania, Crete for the 14th Levka Ori project in the ancient village of Paleohora. We’ve put a deposit on our accommodations for 21st to 28th August, and look forward to working with other artists with open minds. It’s our first trip to Crete, and Robert Bekkers’ first to Greece. So far, I have NOT found a piano in Paleohora (also spelled Paleochora). Between now and then, if we’re lucky and find a piano, then I’ll be able to schedule a live concert there. And whatever we plan or produce will get presented and exhibited in a museum in Belgium the following January.

In September/October 2009, we plan to give a concert in beautiful Leiden or its surroundings, so as to work with some 14 videographers, to communicate the real-time live performance to an audience who cannot be present physically. In other words, it will be podcasted — captured on video, for the rest of the world to see, whenever and wherever they want. It’s going to be a very interesting experience. But we still need to find a venue and set a date.

As the saying goes, “if Mohammed can’t come to the mountains, the mountains will come to Mohammed.” We took our music to Maui to share with my mother and sister, who had never seen us perform until then. Next winter, we’re looking for venues in Taiwan. Any ideas?

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Rewind to unwind in Galicia

I shall now rewind my recollections of Spain by going backwards. At this time of night, I’m also trying to unwind from the long day of planning ahead and juggling a portfolio career in Utrecht.

Any day now we will be receiving the CD recording of our first concert in that beautiful villa in Madrid. When Robert returns from Maastricht, where he is finishing the transcriptions of live flamenco music taken in Seville, he will continue viewing and clipping the video of our concert of 21st century music at the MACUF (Museum of Contemporary Arts in Coruña) — our raison d’etre for going to Spain in the first place. Had it not been for the invitation to take part in this didactic concert series of music of 20th and 21st centuries, we wouldn’t have gone to Madrid, La Coruña, Santiago de Compostela, and Ferrol.

Until the Madrid CD and the MACUF video, I will go through my photo and video albums, select the ones worth sharing and remembering on this blog, and walk down memory lane for as long as I can.

After the MACUF concert, which ended around 14:00 on Sunday 3 May, we explored the Galician coast. The rest of this blog is all about that day in La Coruña.

Anne Ku at the coast of La Coruna

Anne Ku at the coast of La Coruna

It was an achingly beautiful day. The sun warmed our skins, and the Atlantic Ocean roared loud and clear. Robert watched the distant surfers with envy and declared that he would hunt for a wet suit to join them. I was content just being outside and near the water.

Robert Bekkers posing on an outdoor sculpture in La Coruna

Robert Bekkers posing on an outdoor sculpture in La Coruna

The wind blew us in one direction. As we walked and talked, I noticed the figure in front of us.

“I know this person.”

“Who? Him?” Robert pointed to the young man ahead of us.

“Yes! He looks very familiar. Where have I seen him before?”

I quickened my steps to catch up with him. I walked in front of him and turned my head.

“You! Didn’t I meet you in Utrecht? What are you doing here?” I stopped him dead in his tracks. “Sorry, I forgot your name!”

He looked at me quizzically.

“Miguel,” he said. “Anne Ku, what are YOU doing here?”

“You remembered my name!” I laughed and pointed to Robert. “Have you met? This is Robert Bekkers.”

“Yes, we’ve met. I saw your photo in the newspaper this morning.” Miguel scratched his head. “Contemporary music? You gave a concert today?”

I met Miguel in Utrecht in 2007 or so. He was a very enthusiastic Spaniard who asked what I composed. I replied that there were still two piano solo pieces that have not yet been premiered. Would he like a copy?

“I’m going to accompany singers tonight,” Miguel said. “I have to hurry. Where are you staying? What’s your number? Let’s get together later.”

We spent the rest of the day walking along the coast, visiting the aquarium, and climbing to the cliff that offered a panoramic view of the ocean.

By the time we meandered into town, we were hungry and tired. At 9 pm, my mobile phone rang.

“Where are you?” asked Miguel, the pianist.

“At Maria Pita Square,” I said. “Or is it Pita Maria Square?”

“Okay! I will be there in 10 minutes.”

Maria Pita Square in La Coruna, Spain

Maria Pita Square in La Coruna, Spain

Seconds later, my phone rang again. It was Ruben, the composer. He arrived with Paula. After introductions, we walked to a nonsmoking bar to have drinks and tapas.

Musicians in La Coruna, Spain

Musicians in La Coruna, Spain

The phone rang again. It was David, the pianist.

“I hear you have made a lot of friends. I won’t join you tonight. Have fun!”

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Beach, concert, dinner in Ferrol and La Coruña, Spain

It seems only yesterday that we were madly packing our bags to leave Utrecht for Schiphol airport, to fly to Madrid….. for our first concert, the experience of which still begs a blog or two. And before we knew it, we’re saying good-bye to 8 nights and 4 concerts in Spain.

    Silhouette on Ferrol beach in Spain

Silhouette on Ferrol beach in Spain

While editing and uploading photos from Robert’s iphone and (videos from) my mobile phone, I’ve been mulling over what an eye-opener this trip has been. Did having no or near-negative expectations make everything a welcoming surprise? What a contrast it was from the expedition to Seville two weeks earlier in which we had expected to venture into the gypsy flamenco world only to fall headfirst into a smoker’s paradise.

Thankfully our time in Madrid and La Coruña have been smoke-free, with nonsmoking classical musicians who understood our need to breathe fresh air. The lack of smoke and smokers made all the difference. [I suppose I really should write about my escape from the smoking villa of chain smokers to beautiful Sevilla, in particular, the conservatory superiore. And to complete the picture, I should write about our concert in Madrid, our trip to Santiago de Compostela, and more.]

Let me follow from the previous blog which detailed our decision to go to the beach BEFORE our last concert in Spain. The drive to the gorgeous beach (with good-looking surfers in wet suits) took 45 minutes, leaving barely enough time for a snooze. I fell asleep on the sand for 20 minutes. And then we had to quickly drive back to give our final concert in Spain.

After the one-hour concert at the conservatory in Ferrol, we drove back to La Coruña to join the others for dinner in the crowded but popular pulpeira at Pita Maria Square. All the restaurants adjacent and across the octopus restaurant were empty. Yet people would patiently stand and queue for the pulpeira. Once we sat down, we learned why.

How reluctant we were to say goodbye! First goodbye was to Ernesto, the violinist. I promised to send him my music. The rest of the gang took us back to our hotel. Until the next time!

Group photo on the last night in La Coruna

Group photo on the last night in La Coruna

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A stage with a view — in Ferrol, Spain

After a hearty lunch of Galician octopus tentacles drowned in a sea of olive oil with pressed garlic and chillies, we were ready for the fourth and final concert on our first trip to Spain. The drive to Ferrol in Christina’s orange and grey car crossed over rolling hills, plush valleys, and panoramic ocean views. She asked if we wanted to see the conservatory before heading for the beach.

“Yes!” we answered simultaneously. After yesterday morning’s focussed rehearsal in the “professional” conservatory in La Coruña, we looked forward to something similar before the evening concert.

Ferrol is a coastal city east of La Coruña, where we had been staying since 2nd May 2009. Our host David, who teaches there, organised this concert for us. He greeted us at the busy reception area and led us to an air-conditioned room with a new upright piano. “Sorry, it’s not a grand,” he apologised. “You can practise here for an hour. I will be next door.”

In the Netherlands, this “professional conservatory” would be the equivalent of a music school. The kinds of conservatories I’m familiar with are called “conservatorio superiore.”

Exactly an hour later, a dark-haired lady opened the door and came in. I recognised her immediately.

“Alexandria! I didn’t know you’re here!” I exclaimed to the pianist who had played in the first composer-in-residence ensemble project at Utrecht Conservatory in 2006. She was shy then, even during the rehearsal of my “Fantasia on Vibrating G Strings” which I wrote for that project led by Chiel Meijering and conducted by Henk Alkema in the Vredenburg.

“This is my room. I teach here,” Alexandria replied self-assuredly.

“We’re playing tonight,” I announced.

“I know,” she responded. “I will be there.”

Alexandria was not the first familiar musician I ran into. Only yesterday I had spotted another dark-haired Galician pianist. Hector, who was in my arranging class in Utrecht, was chatting outside the conservatory in La Coruña where we had spent the morning practising. Earlier I had discovered the pianist Miguel walking just ahead of us on the boardwalk after our concert on 3rd May. He was equally surprised to see our photo in the newspaper that morning. “Contemporary music?” he had shaken his sleepy head at breakfast. “What are Anne and Robert doing here in La Coruña?”

David appeared at this point. “You can go to the hall now, and try the piano before the concert before yours begins.” Our concert was scheduled just after another concert. We were lucky to have any time at all in the hall.

I had heard Miguel, at our “Break a Leg” concert, say that it was a special hall with a beautiful view.

View behind the stage in the Concert Hall in Ferrol, Spain

View behind the stage in the Concert Hall in Ferrol, Spain

The acoustics were not bad either. “Christina!” I asked. “Would you take a video of us?”

Robert prefers to end our popular three-centuries programme with the last movement of Mauro Giuliani’s Variations Op 113 (65) because it is very demanding. It’s printed as “Polonoise” but we think it should be “Polonaise” though it doesn’t sound like one.

Time to go to the beach! But why do we need to go to Christina’s car? Isn’t the beach just outside? Behind the stage?


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