Sunday, November 21, 2010

ConcART III Review

Another ConcART event is in the books. And I'm happy to report it continues to be a great success. The numbers were down a little this year: about 35 people made it to the recital with another dozen showing up during the art show. But it's still a thrill to pack that many people into your living room for a piano recital and party. We're thinking of expanding a little next year and coming up with some creative additions to the ConcART template.

The calm before the storm

As usual, I began the party with a welcome and introduction before launching into the recital. My little stories before each piece were once again very warmly received. And I think this year I was more prepared than ever before, so the performances went very well. I was most worried about the Brahms (Hungarian Dance No.2) being messy, but it came off very clean. I had no problems with the Handel (Harmonious Blacksmith), and several people commented later that they liked this one a lot. The Corelli/Godowsky (Pastorale) offered the only real flub of the day, but I recovered pretty seamlessly. Of course it was at a spot that usually gives me no trouble, but that's the way things go. The trickier spots that I was concerned about were fine, and the performance was good. So overall, I'm very happy with this one. The Nin-Culmell (Muiñeira) went great. I don't think I could have played it better, and I heard several joyful outbursts at the end. As expected, the Schumann/Liszt (Widmung) was a crowd favorite. This piece was very well prepared and I was really able to put myself into the performance. The final piece (Falla's Ritual Fire Dance) turned out to be the second crowd favorite, which surprised me a little. It's a great end-of-program piece. Johanne confirmed to me later that the performances were all comparable to my practice performances, and that the tempos were all dead on. (One of my biggest issues is playing too fast when I'm nervous, which then causes other performance problems).

The art show was also a big success. Johanne sold eleven paintings. And the sales seemed a little more intense to me than past years. Many people had strong favorites and went straight to the office to make sure they got their first choice. This year we also offered CDs and DVDs of the first two ConcART recital programs for sale. We sold 26 discs. I was a little surprised (but happy) that the CDs were more popular than the DVDs. The ConcART-II CD was the biggest seller (10) followed closely by the ConcART-I CD (9).

Bottom line: I declare ConcART-III the most successful ConcART yet. Even with fewer people, we sold almost as many paintings (in fact, more per-guest), and the desire to buy seemed much stronger to me. Add in the disc sales and it's undeniable that our guests were very generous to us this year. Most importantly for me, the more I think back on it, the recital really was the best so far.

On to ConcART-IV!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Get 'Em While They're Hot

Some time last year, Johanne and I got the idea that I should record video and audio for all of the pieces from ConcART and ConcART-II, and offer DVDs and CDs for sale at this year's show. After nine days of recording, six piano tunings, hundreds of hours of audio and video editing, hundreds of dollars in discs, cases, paper and ink, days of babysitting the disc burner and printer, 800 cuts and 150 folds, I finally finished them all.

And here they are: $10 apiece, buyer's choice, until I run out!

Saturday, October 30, 2010


It's the most wonderful time of the year... ConcART time!

Our first art-show-slash-recital was in October, 2008. We followed that up with ConcART II in November, 2009. Both were more successful than we dared hope. Now we're just two weeks away from ConcART III, which will be held Sunday, November 14, 2010.

Johanne has been busy with pastels and oils (including some great explorations with the palette knife). I've been busy 'shedding for the recital part. There are some challenging bits, but I really, really like this program.
  1. Hungarian Dance No.2 -- Johannes Brahms
  2. Air and Variations (The Harmonious Blacksmith) -- George Frideric Handel
  3. Pastorale/Renaissance No.8 -- Arcangelo Corelli/Leopold Godowsky
  4. Tonadas No.24 - Muiñeira (Galicia) -- Joaquin Nin-Culmell
  5. Myrthen Op.25 No.1/Widmung -- Robert Schumann/Franz Liszt
  6. Danza Ritual del Fuego -- Manuel de Falla
Come to Austin, see the show!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Video: Rachmaninoff--Prelude Op.23 No.5

After the first ConcART recital (in October, 2008), someone asked me if I had ever played any of the great Russian composers. I decided then and there that I'd answered "no" to that question for the last time. So I started hunting and in December, 2008 decided on this Prelude by Sergei Rachmaninoff. I figured "I've got ten months to learn it for the next ConcART... no problem".

Well, I may have underestimated the piece, or overestimated my skill, because I don't think ten months was quite enough, given my short, after-work practice schedule. I did play it at ConcART-II in November, 2009, and it went well enough. But I promised myself I'd work it a little harder for the video. So I gave it a half-year's rest and started over.

Overall, I'm happy I learned the piece, because it fills what was an obvious gap in my repertoire. It's a beautiful piece and it's fun to play, even if it serves up the occasional trainwreck. And I learned something else from this piece, too. Rachmaninoff had really big hands.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Video: Albéniz--El Puerto (HD)

El Puerto was the first piece I recorded when I got my piano back in the summer of 2008. Two years later I finally got around to redoing it in HD with a good audio recording.

Isaac Albéniz wrote twelve pieces (four books of three) in his masterpiece, the Iberia suite. El Puerto is the second piece in book one. It's a very special piece for me, not just because I love it so much and I played it so much in my youth. Iberia was also a favorite of my teacher, Douglas Voice, who performed all twelve pieces in concert. Douglas passed away in 1998. I still think about him just about every time I play this piece.

I'm quite happy with the video. There's a lot that can go wrong in this piece. But this performance is pretty clean.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Video: Liszt--Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (HD)

Here is the latest installment in my series of HD remakes of SD videos. The old video of this piece is nearly two years old, and was only the second piano video I made. Definitely time for a makeover. Sonetto 104 will always be special for me, since it's one of the pieces I performed most towards the end of "the performing days of my youth". It's also one of the first I recovered when I started practicing again in 2007.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Coming Home Again

Various uninteresting events kept me from traveling home to Ottawa in 2009. But I made sure to hard-schedule a visit in 2010. As in 2008, I made sure to take advantage of Paulette's invitation to play her young Steinway B. My small audience was mom, dad, Johanne, Paulette, mom's friend Louise and my first piano teacher, Edith Orton. It was a very casual gathering and I made sure to play the pieces I'm working up for this year's ConcArt recital. I also played a couple of "oldies", a couple of "requests" and one piece on Paulette's Baldwin L1. Here's the list:

Friday, July 16, 2010:
  • Quejas, ó La Maja y el Ruiseñor (Enrique Granados)
  • Danza de la Pastora (Ernesto Halffter)
  • Air and Variations: The Harmonious Blacksmith (George Handel)
  • Widmung (Robert Schumann/Franz Liszt arr.)
  • Muiñeira (Joaquin Nin-Culmell)
  • Hungarian Dance #2 (Johannes Brahms)
  • Ritual Fire Dance (Manuel de Falla)
  • Danza del Gaucho Matrero (Alberto Ginastera)
  • Impromptu Op.90 No.4 (Franz Schubert)
  • Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (Franz Liszt)
I think everybody had a good time. I had two very nice comments and one good piece of constructive criticism. Paulette asked when I bought my piano because it sounded like my playing had matured and become much more expressive since 2008. She attributed it to having my own piano to play every day. Edith asked if I practiced technique (scales, etc.) regularly. I explained that with my limited practice time, I practice technique in service of the pieces I'm learning/playing only. But I do practice the runs, arpeggios, trills, etc. from the pieces as though they were technical exercises in order to get them as clean as possible. Her impression was that my technique and articulation were strong.

The constructive criticism came from my mother's friend Louise. She suggested (and everyone agreed) that it would be nice to have more tranquility in my repertoire, since most of the pieces I played were quick or fiery or energetic (or all three!). I do have slower, calmer material, but didn't play much of it. The comment reminded me that even in a casual gathering, you shouldn't ignore program-level considerations. It also convinced me that I really need to add one more piece to this year's planned ConcArt program. Now I just have to find a new piece that's a slow/tranquil foil for the rest of the program, something that's melodic and beautiful, something that's not too trivial, and that I can learn and get up to performance level for the Fall.

Having fun at Paulette's Steinway B

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Video: Granados--Quejas ó la maja y el ruiseñor

This video is my HD remake of Enrique Granados' wonderful The Maiden and The Nightingale from Goyescas. That leaves just two more HD remakes to do: Liszt's Sonetto 104 del Petrarca and Albeniz' El Puerto. The Liszt is already filmed/recorded, but not edited. Look for it to appear around the end of July/beginning of August.

I feel like my performance of Maiden has really improved over time. But I just went back and watched the old, crappy SD video and the performance wasn't bad. There are definitely some things I prefer in the new one... and there are plenty of very subtle improvements. And of course, the video quality is a million times better. But my playing of the piece hasn't changed as much as I thought.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Happy Second Pianoversary

Today marks the second anniversary of the delivery of my piano. I can't even imagine life without it. In two years it has starred in 18 videos and audio recordings, it's shown itself in two recitals to 100 people, it's learned about 25 pieces, and it practices almost every day (I assume it doesn't play when I'm out of town).

It's been tuned 10 times, voiced twice, had its shanks fired, been tweaked, lubricated and adjusted. It's been covered on three occasions and wiped down 700 times. It has been played by two people.

It has never had a cat inside of it, although this is not thanks to any great self-restraint on the part of the cats. I've never touched its case with my bare hands, but I think today I will.

Happy Birthday, piano!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

So That's What It Sounds Like

I've had my piano for two full years now. But believe it or not, I've never heard it played (I'm always the one playing it). I've invited others to play it, but have never had any takers until last weekend.

My neighbor's father is a fairly advanced pianist, and we talk about repertoire pretty regularly, but he's never taken me up on offers to play my piano. Last Saturday after dinner Johanne and I were out throwing a football in the street when he came out with his grandson to see the football. After chatting for a few minutes Johanne invited him to try the piano again and this time he took us up on it.

He played parts of Schumann's Carnavale and Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words, and even the first page of Liszt's arrangement of Schumann's Widmung, which was really fun because that's a piece I play too. I couldn't stop smiling, hearing my piano for the first time. And it's amazing how rich and full it sounds from "out front", even though its unisons are horribly out right now. I can't wait to have him back when it's tuned so I can hear it at its best.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Video: Ginastera--Danzas argentinas (HD)

The pieces I posted in the last three blog entries are often (usually?) performed together as one big work: the Danzas argentinas. I wanted to do the same with my video: have one continuous performance/video of the three dances together. (The individual videos posted last month were actually edited down from the full-length video). So this week I'm posting the complete video.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Video: Ginastera--Danza del gaucho matrero (HD)

Here, finally, is the third piece of Alberto Ginastera's three Danzas Argentinas. This is The Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy. It's not a remake like the other two, because I never got around to recording it when I first recorded the others.

Listening to the performance, it occurs to me that I approach videos and recitals quite differently. For recitals I think energy and expression are more important than cleanliness. People take away the big picture more than the details. But in a video the details are much more noticeable. And permanent! So I think my video performances are a little more conservative. That is certainly the case here. Comparing it to the hundreds of other videos of this piece you can find on the web, my performance here is quite clean, but maybe not as fiery as some.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Video: Ginastera--Danza de la moza donosa (HD)

Here is my HD remake of Danza de la moza donosa (Dance of the Graceful Young Maiden), Ginastera's second piece from the Danzas Argentinas. It's my favorite of the three dances. And although I think the performance is quite a bit better than the old SD version, I still find it just a little lackluster. Will I ever really love one of these videos? Maybe not.

The video itself is part of one long video of all three dances, so the visual similarity to this blog's previous installment is not coincidental. I guess I'll post the long, complete thing after the third dance.

So, no further ado, etc.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Video: Ginastera--Danza del viejo boyero (HD)

Welcome to the second in the Ripoff Series of videos (videos of pieces that I've posted videos of before). My first stab at filming this piece was exactly 18 months ago. And not only was it crappy SD, it was crappy mono audio. Mono audio!

I think the audio is pretty good on this one. I'm still learning and improving. And I'm still getting used to my new camera, and experimenting a little more in video post-production. Video experts will no doubt cringe at my heavy hand on the levels.

When I blogged about the original video in September, 2008, I promised (?) that I would do videos of the second and third Argentine dances, too. I did manage to post a pretty terrible performance of the second one, but not the third. This time there is no risk that I'll renege. The second and third are already "in the can". I have a little editing to do before I can post them, but they'll be online in the next couple of weeks.

So here is the HD/stereo remake of Alberto Ginastera's Danza del viejo boyero, the first of the Danzas Argentinas.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Video: Beethoven--Pathétique Sonata, 2nd Movement (HD)

Ok. I know what you're thinking: "What a ripoff! We already have a video of this piece!" It's true. But this is a better video. I'm going back and redoing all my earliest (SD) videos in HD.

The SD/HD cutoff also (coincidentally) marks the line between what I think are the worse performances and the better performances. My goal is to have decent performances on HD for all of the pieces in my repertoire. The videos I need to redo are the Beethoven, Liszt, Albéniz and Ginastera.

This video is also my first video with the new camera Johanne bought me for my birthday! It's a Canon SX1 IS. The camera is in the category they call "superzooms", a bit of a misnomer for cameras that are halfway between point-and-shoot and SLR. They have most of the flexible manual controls of an SLR, significant glass and an internal viewfinder. But the lens is not interchangeable and the viewfinder is an internal LCD (as opposed to a mirrored view through the lens). Among the superzooms, the Canon has the best video features for me (full 1080 HD, full swivel on the LCD, manual focus and exposure locking, and a remote control).

My New Canon SX1 IS

The video quality is great when there's enough light. Here, the video seems a bit noisy, especially if you look at the darker areas. I'll have to keep experimenting with light, settings, etc. But you can't believe how great it feels to be released from the shackles of digital video tape. I'll never go back.

Beethoven: Pathétique Sonata (2nd Movement) from Ken Barker on Vimeo.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Happy Repertoire Season

Hello Blog.

Well, it looks like I let February go by without a single post. Shame on me. The good news is that the blog going dark doesn't mean I've been ignoring music. Au contraire, I'm in the middle of a busy "repertoire season". This is the time of the year for me to be learning brand new pieces to add to my repertoire. Immediately after the late-Fall ConcART, I like to start planning a new program, and that means finding new pieces to play.

I usually hunt around YouTube for pianists I like and composers I'd like to try. If a piece jumps out at me I'll go get the manuscript from the library at UT and spend a week or so reading it and trying it on for size. And if it survives reading week, I order my own copy of the music.

Right now I'm working up four brand new pieces by Johannes Brahms, Manuel de Falla, Robert Schumann (arranged by Franz Liszt) and another new Spanish discovery: Joaquín Nin-Culmell. I realize it's a bit pretentious of me to claim him as a discovery, but when there's only one recording on YouTube, I think that counts as a discovery. I'm also resurrecting an old George Frideric Handel.

The Handel, Falla and Nin-Culmell are already memorized and up to speed. I'd say they're "performable" (given adequately loose performance standards). The Brahms is memorized but not up to speed. It's definitely not at performance, but it will be. The Schumann/Liszt is still in the earliest stages of learning.

Counting everything except the Schumann/Liszt, my memorized repertoire sits right now at twenty: Albeniz, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Falla, Ginastera (×3), Granados (×2), Halffter, Handel, Liszt, Mozart, Nin-Culmell, Rachmaninoff, Schubert and Soler.

Happy Repertoire Season!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

How to Film a Piano from Above

I promised that I would write a blog post on how I got the overhead piano shots in my last video.

The problem is that it the camera needs to be directly above the piano and high enough to use a longish focal length (to avoid fisheye distortion of the straight horizontal lines of the piano). You can't just use a normal tripod... it would have to be a really tall tripod with a long boom arm.

But this is exactly the kind of puzzle Johanne and I like to work through over Sunday morning coffee. We put our heads together and came up with a pretty simple solution.

We have ten-foot ceilings, so there's definitely enough room to get the camera high enough. We gave up on the idea of stands and booms right away, which left fixing the camera to the ceiling. Johanne came up with the idea of a T-track like the tracks in power tool tables that let you fix jigs, fences, etc. to the table. The track itself is in the shape of a C, which gives it a T-shaped slot. You slide a T-bolt into the slot, place your object (with a hole in it) over the T-bolt, then tighten it down with a knob.

So we installed a short length of T-track on the ceiling above the piano:
Gold T-track fixed to ceiling above the piano

In the zoomed-out photo, the gold T-track above the piano just looks like a gold line on the ceiling. Zooming in, you can make out the C-shape of the track forming a T-slot:
T-track on the ceiling

To fix the camera to the T-track, we bought a simple L-bracket. We fix one arm of the L-bracket to the T-track with a T-bolt and a knob:
T-bolt passing through the L-bracket

The T-shaped head of the T-bolt slides into the slot of the T-track. Tightening the knob fixes the L-bracket to the T-track. Using a single bolt allows us to rotate the bracket under the T-track to get it perfectly square with the piano keyboard. We attach the camera to the other arm of the L-bracket using a 20-1/4" knob bolt, which is one of the standards for camera tripod mounts:
Camera attached to the perpendicular arm of the L-bracket

A thin piece of wood keeps the L-bracket from marring the camera and prevents the knob bolt from bottoming out in the camera's tripod mount. The camera can swivel on the L-bracket to make sure the focal plane is parallel with the keytops (to avoid trapezoid distortion).

Simple! I bought the T-track, T-bolt, knob and 20-1/4" knob bolt at Woodcraft, and the L-bracket at Lowe's. Total cost: about $15.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Video: Schubert--Impromptu Op.90 No.4

Here is another piece that I didn't really plan on adding to the repertoire. I only intended to learn it well enough to record it back in Spring 2008 as a surprise for my mother. As I wrote on the blog back then:
Schubert's Impromptu is a piece that my mother used to play. Some of my earliest memories are of her playing it on her old Chopin upright piano. I couldn't have been more than four or five years old. But it was one of the pieces that got me interested in learning the piano and has stuck with me all these years.
But I found that I really enjoyed playing it, and it was close enough to performance level to work it up for the first ConcART in October, 2008. These days I probably run through it at practice once or twice a month. That seems to be enough to keep it "ready".

The piece itself is a little deceptive. There's nothing obviously difficult about it. But keeping the right hand "waterfalls" light and even is very technically challenging. This recording shows that I still struggle with the evenness. That's also what makes it risky to play this piece on an unknown piano. If the action isn't responsive enough you're in for a hot, gooey mess.

I continue to push my experimentation with the video, here. I'm finding that mixing up different camera angles adds to the interest of the video, making it easier to sit through the whole thing. (I'm also finding that it's important to plan the angles/switches instead of just jumping around between them randomly). One of my favorite camera angles in professional videos is the direct overhead shot. But it's not an easy shot to get: how do you get the darn camera up there? And it has to be high enough to get the whole keyboard without fisheye distortion. Anyway, I batted some ideas around with my personal problem solving expert (Johanne) and we came up with a nice solution. I'll write a separate blog post about it soon.

Schubert: Impromptu Op.90 No.4 from Ken Barker on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Video: Mozart--Variations

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote these twelve variations on the melody from a popular French children's song called Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman. The title translates roughly to "Well, let me tell you mother...". The words to the song catalog the grievances a young girl has with her parents, such as putting too much emphasis on lessons and not enough on candy. The exact same melody is also used in at least three English children's songs, too. Namely, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Bah, Bah, Black Sheep, and the Alphabet Song ("Now I know my ABCs").

My history with the piece is kind of spotty. The score was always nearby when I was growing up, and I would often mess around with it, but I never had any interest in really learning it. Then last Spring when Steinway Guy asked me to play in his students' recital, it seemed like the perfect fit. So I worked up eight of the variations for that performance. Having that much of it under my belt, it was easy to add the remaining four variations for my ConcART-II program. I don't imagine I'll continue to play the piece much, but Johanne suggested that it would be a good idea to videotape it before it starts to degrade.

So here we are.

On the video... I'm still working on the process, trying to improve lighting, video quality, production values, etc. This is my first attempt compositing video from more than one camera angle. And the audio bugs me on this one. It's too harsh... not warm enough. Part of that is the piano. It's brightened considerably over the last year and a half. I had Gary the Piano Tech bring down the voicing a little, but it needs more for my tastes. I think I'll do more experimenting next time with mic position and maybe fool around with more eq/filtering during mixing.

One last comment: listening to some other videos of this piece on YouTube, I notice a few differences in arrangement. Most people don't tie those notes over the bar line in variation I. And there even seem to be some differences in notes in the right hand B section of variation III. I wonder if these are actual differences in the different editions of the score. I used the International, but I know there are several other publishers, too. I'll have to check it out at the library.

Mozart: Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman" from Ken Barker on Vimeo.