Sunset in La Coruña, Spain

I am writing these stories in Utrecht, nearly a week after our Spanish concert tour. First, the sunset — as recorded and narrated by Robert Bekkers, below. While he was making this video, I chatted with Christina and Miguel.

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I am writing these stories in Utrecht, nearly a week after our first concert tour of Spain.

It’s hard to forget the warmth and friendliness of the musicians who showed us around and shared the drinks and shellfish tapas with us. We ate “pulpo” at least once every day and yet still craved for more. Only on the last evening did we discover the succulent mouth-watering razor clams.

Food, music, and love definitely all go together — especially in Spain.

There is too much to engrave in the depths of my memory and savour until our next trip. Where would it be next? Barcelona? San Sebastian? Toledo? Before I went to Spain, I knew only Paella and Sangria. Now I can’t wait to discover the different regional specialties.

After our “Break a Leg” concert, we hurried Miguel and Christina to join us in viewing the sunset a few streets away, on the coast. It was our last chance to see this amazing phenomenon, for our next concert was in nearby Ferrol the next and final evening.

Below — the sunset as recorded and narrated by Robert Bekkers. While he was making this video, I chatted with Christina and Miguel on the boardwalk.

“Break a leg!”

It’s customary to wish a successful performance by saying “break a leg!”

This does not literally mean that you wish the performers to break their legs but that you wish them to perform so well that it wouldn’t be surprising if they actually broke their legs. One hour before the “cinco de mayo” concert in central La Coruña, our second concert in this coastal city and our third in Spain, I witnessed a most dramatic event.

It’s customary to wish a successful performance by saying “break a leg!”

This does not literally mean that you wish the performers to break their legs but that you wish them to perform so well that it wouldn’t be surprising if they actually broke their legs.

One hour before the “cinco de mayo” concert in central La Coruña, our second concert in this coastal city and our third in Spain, I witnessed a most dramatic event.

Concert at El Circulo Artesano in La Coruña, Spain
Concert at El Circulo Artesano in La Coruña, Spain

The concierge led us to the grand piano behind the curtains. He pulled while the guitarist pushed at the piano. In one “swoosh!” they rolled the piano on its three feet to centre stage but not without some commotion. As a bystander, I saw the covered wooden stage dip under the weight of the 6 ft grand piano.

One more pull and push — the leg towards the treble end of the piano folded under, like the way a person trips on his own foot.

I gasped.

People stopped talking.

A vision flashed before me: that the other two legs would bend and break, causing the piano to crash land on my lap as I play it. I quickly dismissed the thought and scurried to get a chair.

The grand piano at El Círculo de Artesanos in La Coruña, Spain
The grand piano at El Círculo de Artesanos in La Coruña, Spain

Nothing fitted between the chair and the piano except for empty space. Psychologically the piano looked better with the chair than without anything underneath as its broken leg was now lying on the floor, a useless piece of wood. The concierge went to call for help.

I retreated to the dressing room trying to recover from shock. There was a electric keyboard — maybe that’s the back-up.

Meanwhile, the guitarist sat alone on stage practising his runs. Later on, he confessed that he was practising solo pieces in case he’d have to play alone.

Ten minutes before the concert was to begin at 20:00, I heard the tinkling of the ivories. Opening the doors of the dressing room to the main hall, I looked towards the stage and saw a makeshift assembly.

Temporarily resurrected grand piano
Temporarily resurrected grand piano

Was the piano tuner not available? Or did he come without proper tools? Would it be strong enough to withstand my fortes? My fortessimos? My mind was filled with questions.

In other words, would I be safe?

A man came towards me and shook my hands. Introducing himself as the director of the centre, he said that it was a new piano, only 2 years old. This shouldn’t have happened.

Meanwhile, we were eager to warm up before the people started streaming in. Already I saw a familiar face in the audience. It was Miguel, an enthusiastic pianist I met in Utrecht and by coincidence ran into the other day at the beach. [another story]

“Christina asked me to translate for you,” he greeted me. “She was bitten by a fish.”

“Would you take a video of us while we rehearse the encore?” I asked. “It’s just a mobile telephone.”

Afterwards, Miguel offered to take photos for us.

Piano guitar duo in concert on 5 May 2009
Piano guitar duo in concert on 5 May 2009

Since then, the concert is no longer the “cinco de mayo” but the “break the piano leg” or “break a leg” concert!

Risk management in concert productions

Producing a concert involves managing the uncertainties and risks associated with the unexpected. The implicit contract to participate and deliver a performance rested on their integrity as fellow musicians.

The kinds of uncertainties and risks I regularly encounter in producing (and giving) concerts are not like what I wrote about when I was swimming in such jargon of energy trading and risk management. It’s no longer theoretical or mathematical. And I don’t suppose there are fancy models to hedge such risks or reduce associated uncertainties, other than the ideas of redundancy from my engineering textbooks. By redundancy, I mean having a back-up, a duplicate, something on stand-by, a readily available replacement or substitute course of action.

Producing a concert involves managing the uncertainties and risks associated with the unexpected. When I was preparing for my final exam composition concert last year, I considered every single one of the 40 musicians a potential source of risk. A musician may not show up for rehearsal or be late or leave early. No one was getting paid, and as such no one had an obligation to deliver. What assured me that they would actually show up on the day of the concert?

The implicit contract to participate and deliver a performance rested on their integrity as fellow musicians. I could have done away with this delivery and performance risk by binding them with legal contracts and financial compensation. But I was a fellow student on a shoestring budget, and the status quo was to help each other. I did actually face the above risks, and the stories deserve another blog or two.

What prompted me to write this blog entry is the dramatic beginning of tonight’s concert.

The concert of 5th of May 2009 was planned months in advance and noted on our website concert agenda. Yet for one reason or another, it could not be confirmed until the day before. This meant that it was nearly impossible to schedule other activities. The uncertainty turned into optionality when, on the day before the concert, we were given the option of having an additional concert on 6th May. Our host asked if we wanted to give one concert (and if so which) or both.

Given that these were free and unpaid concerts, we had no obligation to give them at all. In other words, we could choose (at this late stage) to 1) not give any more concerts than the two already given on this tour in Spain and spend the remaining few days under the sun; 2) give one more concert — on Tuesday 5th May or Wednesday 6th May evening; or 3) give both concerts. There was no penalty associated with these choices.

In risk management, optionality is not usually free. An option is defined in financial textbooks as the right but not the obligation. Optionality, in my language, translates to a kind of flexibility. A wide network of contacts gives you more access to knowledge and connections than a limited one. House keys are a kind of physical optionality for they unlock and open doors but you don’t have to use them. A multi-lingual person has more optionality than a mono-lingual one. A ticket to the theatre gives you the right to attend the show, but you can always choose to sell or give it away or forfeit the use and do something else.

As musicians eager to play and maximise performance opportunities, we decided to take the third option — to give both concerts . This left us with very little slack and only a few hours for a day trip to Santiago de Compostela. Whatever free time would be spent on rehearsing for these concerts.

One hour before the “cinco de mayo” concert in central La Coruña …”break a leg.”

Competing against the weather in La Coruña, Spain

The Museum of Contemporary Arts in La Coruña (MACUF) is a spacious place housed within the compound of the electricity company Union Fenosa. Our new programme of 21st century music for piano guitar duo contains two world premieres, Gijs van Dijk’s Abstract and Dance and Heleen Verleur’s Fire from the Five Elements.

The weather in La Coruña, our host and pianist friend David Lopez, is typically windy, cold, wet, and grey — the kind that makes you want to stay indoors instead of braving the elements. Much to our surprise, it was sunny when we landed on 2nd May 2009, a public holiday weekend in Spain.

Our first view of La Coruna, from the taxi ride from the airport
Our first view of La Coruna, from the taxi ride from the airport

These two factors alone, sunny weather and public holiday, would prove risky, if not deadly, for audience development. In other words, don’t count on getting as many people as you’d normally expect to come to a live classical concert.

The third factor, I learned later, is that contemporary music, i.e. works of live composers, are not readily received in this part of Spain. For that reason, Ruben Somesa, the Spanish composer who proposed this series (in its 3rd year) deliberately made it a didactic one — i.e. to educate the public.

Our new programme of 21st century music for piano guitar duo contains two world premieres, Gijs van Dijk’s Abstract and Dance and Heleen Verleur’s Fire from the Five Elements. Both composers had come to our “Duo for Export” benefit concert in Utrecht to support our first trip to the USA in 2007. While it’s always exciting to have the composers at our premieres, it wasn’t possible on this occasion. We have thus planned on a repeat of this programme in Amsterdam, on Sunday 12 July 2009 (4-page PDF). Hopefully all the composers will be there.

The Museum of Contemporary Arts in La Coruña (MACUF) is a spacious place housed within the compound of the electricity company Union Fenosa. I would have liked to have met the employees, if not to reminisce those good ol’ days in the dawn of electricity deregulation when I was frantically completing my thesis and later interviewing energy executives about competition. Piano was a companion but not the focus in those days. Now, it’s the reverse with energy just a distant memory.

As with all concerts, we needed to test the acoustics beforehand. The modern building of MACUF has high ceilings and a lot more echo than we’re used to. I tried to warm up with a relatively unknown piece that sounds like Chopin (in the video below).

To prepare for Lan Chee Lam‘s “Drizzle” I labelled a few notes on scrap pieces of paper to put on the strings inside the piano so that I could easily find them the next day. Without the usual plastic guitar picks, I would have to pluck the high C, E, A, B, D, and highest E strings with my short fingernails.

Preparing the grand piano for Lan Chee Lams Drizzle
Preparing the grand piano for Lan Chee Lam's "Drizzle

After our rehearsal, I asked Robert Bekkers to play a solo piece while I experimented with the video function of my mobile telephone. The rainbow colours of the setting sun danced upon the white walls through the suspended crystal ball, creating a magical effect on this mystical work of Barrios.

By the time we finished rehearsing, it was well past 8 pm. Time to leave, return to the hotel, and rest for the big day. We were not hungry after a late lunch of authentic mouth-watering Galician octopus, prawns, and clams. Instead, we looked forward to an early night, in spite of the big game of Madrid vs Barcelona.

Encore: I just wanted to hear one of my favourite pieces, or rather, the tremolos in Tarrega’s Requerdos de Alhambra.

Note: coincidentally my article (5 page pdf) “Betting on the Weather” had nothing to do with risk management of weather and concerts. Perhaps there ought to be some way to hedge the effect of good weather on audience development! Nearly five years ago, I wrote an article of the same title, “Competing against the weather,” but in Den Haag!

Debut concert in Spain: Madrid

How does one move from the online world to the real physical world? From youtube video to live concerts? From blogs to conversations? From twitter to chatter?

First, I need a Spanish dictionary to translate the invitation sent out by the concert producers below.

Escaping the biggest party in the Netherlands (the Queen’s Birthday on 30th April), we will instead embrace the public holiday of Friday 1st May 2009 in Spain. Will the Spaniards make a dash for the beach or will some be lured to come to our debut concert —- in Madrid? I hear there’s cava and other refreshments to make you stay — but reservations by e-mail are a must!

Why not use this opportunity to finally meet my online contacts face to face, in person, in the real physical world?  Could this be a way to get out of cyberspace and interact in the three dimensional space called LIFE?

Anne Ku and Robert Bekkers after a concert in Tuscany 2007
Anne Ku and Robert Bekkers after a concert in Tuscany 2007

I know only one person in Madrid, a tenor I have accompanied at the conservatory where we had both studied in the Netherlands. He is on Facebook and by that very fact, should be easily reached, but is he available when we’re there 29th April to 2nd May?

On other social networking platforms I should be able to find fellow alumni from the different schools I’ve attended and companies I’ve worked for.  Although I may not know them personally, we share a similar past at some similar place and point in time. But would they have the time or be interested in meeting up or attending a concert on a spring evening? Or perhaps I should look for aficionados of classical music, piano, guitar, ….? How about those who have been following this blog and are tempted to see and hear us live in concert?

How does one move from the online world to the real physical world? From youtube video to live concerts? From blogs and discussion forums to actual conversations? From twitter to chatter?

First, I need a Spanish dictionary to decode the invitation sent out by the concert producers below. Or perhaps someone will kindly translate it for me?

Robert Bekkers, guitarra.
Anne Ku, piano.
Viernes, 1 de may de 2009, 20:30hrs.
Potpourrí de ópera. Hummel.
Fantasía para un gentil hombre. Joaquín Rodrigo.
Sonatina. Moreno Torroba.
========== Copa de cava y bizcochos ==========
Verano de Las cuatro estaciones. Vivaldi.
Fantasía. Castelnuovo Tedesco.
Polonesa de Variaciones op 113. Mauro Giuliani.

En el siglo XIX no existían los auditorios que ahora conocemos, y
las obras de los compositores eran interpretadas en salones de cortes
o casas privadas. Por eso esta música se llama “musica da camera”
que traducido del italiano significa “música de salón”.
Con la intención de recuperar el marco histórico que acompañaba
a esta música recreamos cada viernes, en nuestras reuniones
privadas, el formato de concierto de cámara de la época.
Artistas de reconocido prestigio, que regularmente actúan en los
grandes auditorios, interpretan esta música en un entorno privado,
cálido y cercano, tal y como se hacía siglos atrás.
El Jardín de Belagua es una casa privada, por lo que nuestras
reuniones son estrictamente privadas. No son espectáculos públicos,
no se ofrecen como tales ni están abiertos al público en general.
Si queréis traer a familiares y amigos rogamos nos lo hagáis saber
para poder incluirles en la lista de invitados. Para cubrir los gastos
de la reunión es necesaria la aportación de 12€ adultos / 6€ niños
antes de que empiece el concierto.

Un cordial saludo,
El Jardín de Belagua

South to Sevilla

…a nearly all Dutch crew… Brussels and fly to Seville

I am typing this on an iPhone on our drive to Maastricht where we will rendezvous with a nearly all Dutch crew: a flamenco guitar player, a flamenco dancer, a photographer, a camera man (videographer), and the manager. Together we will leave for Brussels tomorrow and fly to Seville where we will stay in a villa with a pool. We will work with a famous gypsy family to download their brain — the secrets of flamenco.

Rehearsing new piece with composer

Our rehearsal with the composer brought new insights to the performance of this piece. With fresh understanding, we now have to get into the piece for its premiere on 3rd May in Spain!

Only two weeks after he heard us perform in November 2007, Amsterdam-based composer Gijs van Dijk (pronounced like “hey-s”) finished the “Abstract and Dance” for our piano guitar duo. Instead of starting on that piece, we asked if he would write something for our trio with Korean violinist Naeon Kim.

Today Gijs came to hear his “Abstract and Dance” — for the first time. I had assumed “abstract” in the title to mean an abstract, such as a shortened summary of the piece. He had deliberately made the first part increasingly “abstract” or nearly 12-tone. The pun was not intended. It’s interesting how the gist of the piece comes to light after working with the composer. Without his feedback, we would have to rely entirely on what’s specifically written in the piece.

It begins with andantino grazioso but we only followed the metronome setting at quarter note = 84 not at all andantino or gracefully. In the absence of bows and slurs, we didn’t pay much attention to phrasing. Until now the guitarist and I had been focussing on being able to play together, in synchronisation, without hiccups. There were no pedal indications, but I guessed that pedalling was necessary for such a contemporary piece. To be sure, I just had to ask, for I’m accustomed to do very little pedalling for 19th and 18th century pieces to avoid overpowering the guitar.

“Yes, do pedal as you see fit.”

We played through the entire piece without stopping. This is the usual practice, to let the composer hear it in its entirety. And then we’d work through the piece, asking questions, giving suggestions, etc.

One of my secret games with composers is to see if they can tell if I’ve misplayed a note. In a piece full of accidentals like this one, it’s not clear if certain accidentals are meant to be or deliberately left out.

Bar 12 did not indicate a C# as was the case in the previous measure. I had wondered whether there should have been a C# otherwise I would expect a courtesy “natural” to avoid confusion. I played as written, but Gijs stopped me. The C-natural in the bass sounded odd.

“Please add the sharp, just like the previous bar.”

After the second group of clusters in the guitar coinciding with a long bass trill in the piano, a new pattern emerged in bar 31. The composer asked the guitarist to play the new phrase melodically. “Put a slur over it. Can you play it legato?”

This meant I should lead into it melodically too, i.e. add a slur and make it feel like we’re talking to each other. Indeed until now, we were so set on playing the right notes, in the right tempo, at the right time, making the right accents, in the right dynamics, that we hadn’t a clue about the dialogue between the two instruments.

We could view the piece as two people talking or trying to have a conversation. I begin with a dramatic statement in bar one. The guitar attempts to say, “And I have also been …” but gets cut off by two huge sfz (suddenly very loud) chords of mine, as though saying, “I’m not done yet!” I start again, as before. My two gigantic sfz chords cut him off just as he tries to react. I continue like a soliloquy. He tries to empathise but is drowned out. When I pause to breathe, he gets his chance. He squeezes and wheezes a string of fast notes in ff desperate to be heard finally.

After a lot of exciting to and fro, the guitar bangs away on all 6-strings while the piano trills away on the lowest G#.

Here is where the melodic section begins, a gentle mp quint climb. But this melodic, legato section is short-lived. Ten measures later, both instruments pound away, 6-note chords on the guitar against 5-note clusters on both hands for the piano in ff. Either they are both mad or both wanting to get attention.

Six bars later, they’re back making melodic music again.

Connecting the “abstract” to the “dance” is an “adagio.” The composer wanted us to make it even slower than the indicated metronome tempo. “Make the half-note a 42,” he said.

We added poco rit to end small sections and crescendo’s where necessary. It was like adding extra colours to a finished work, with the creator’s consent, of course. We rounded the lines, smoothed out the shades, and made this section a true adagio, a relaxing contrast from the “abstract.”

I was eager to throw myself into the “dance” with a full blown allegro, quarter note = 120, as indicated. The guitarist complained that it was too fast for him. [Ha! I could do it and I was unstoppable.] To my disappointment, the composer asked that we slow it down to an easy quarter note = 112.

“That sounds better,” he said.

Perhaps the composer was sympathetic since he was a guitarist himself. I nearly sulked at the guitarist’s grin.

Much to my chagrin, I saw the benefits of taking it slightly more slowly. At this tempo we could express the accented notes which were not simultaneous for guitar and piano. Suddenly I heard something else. It was no longer a race to see how fast we could play it, but an intricate dance, like the kind of interlocking in minimalist music I played in gamelan ensembles.

Our rehearsal with the composer brought new insights to the performance of this piece. With fresh understanding, we now have to get into the piece for its premiere on 3rd May in Spain!