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Huylebroeck’s Kay El’leM Sonata for Piccolo and Piano

Peter Verhoyen | May June 2011

   At the Antwerp conservatory, a compulsory piece has to be performed at the final concert by the piccolo master students. I commissioned a new Flemish piece, Kay El’leM, for that purpose in 2006.
   Jan Huylebroeck (1956) lives in Bruges, Belgium, only two blocks away from my house. He is a very gifted musician, who works as a percussionist in the Symfonieorkest van Vlaanderen and is the piano accompanist at the Bruges Conservatory. As a brass player he performs on ophicleide and serpent. I knew Jan and his work from some wonderful flute pieces: E Ouro e um metal for flute and tape and M
égané for flute and string trio. I asked him to write a piccolo sonata, keeping in mind the level of the piccolo course in Antwerp. With pianist Stefan De Schepper, I also included Kay El’lem on my first piccolo CD Piccolo Tunes. (More biographical information is available on Huylebroeck’s website:
   This piece has a very optimistic character, sometimes interrupted by short moments of reflection and melancholy. I was impressed by the way Huylebroeck writes for the piccolo, always placing it in the correct register in order to create the right colors for each musical idea. When I first saw the title Kay El’leM I thought he was referring to the Dutch Airline company KLM, but he soon told me it has nothing to do with it. K, L, and M are the first letters of the names of three women that played a very important role in his life.
   The movements have titles that refer to some spicy specialities of Mexican kitchens, well-known in the United States but lesser known here in Belgium, so I checked a cookbook before I started to practice the piece.

   The opening of the first movement, is quite challenging. The repetitive themes seem endless, and you have to avoid cracking the middle Es. Try to adapt the air speed to these middle-register notes (but think one octave higher) without pushing too much. You should be able to play this passage by memory before your first piano rehearsal. Good intonation is crucial in order to obtain the perfect colors. I practiced by playing chords on the piano with the sostenuto pedal down, while playing the piccolo part slowly to hear the colors created by the blending of piano and piccolo together.
   In measure 70, Huylebroeck refers to Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. Listen to recordings of this masterwork for inspiration on how to perform the passage. A strong low register is needed for the Andante passage that begins in measure 76. Don’t worry about a fuzzy, airy, sound, as all noises will disappear when accompanied by the piano.

   From measure 87 you get the opportunity to show your creativity by playing the same combination of notes six times in a row. No dynamic markings are added here, but use your imagination in changing volume and color. A little tenuto on some notes might be a good idea as well. Pay as much attention as possible to the pitches that change slightly in bars 92 and 93.

   Just before the cadenza in bar 99, the pianist has arpeggios that include all the harmonic material used in the cadenza itself. Listen carefully to this to match the piano’s intonation precisely.
   The cadenza passage can be quite free, but try to bring out the correct rhythms: don’t confuse the triplet figures in measure 105 with the dotted rhythms two beats later. The third-octave D trill in measure 110 should be a tremolo obtained by fingering low D to low F and overblowing.
   The repeated Presto measure in 118 is played without the piano the first time through and is a real tongue-twister. I personally get the best results by combining double and triple staccato in order to stay flexible. At concerts, I try to switch to double tonguing in measure 132.

   The opening of the second movement is a citation from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and is marked molto legato en sempre p. Instead of using your tongue, articulate the quarters with the letter P in measure 19, being careful not to disturb the legato line between the E, D, and C in measure 20. Note this section is marked Bluesy. I suggest using the thumb B flat fingering for the A# in measure 24.
   Avoid a crescendo in the ascending lines in measures 31 and 32. You can get a special color by lifting your pinky finger on the high E in 32. In these long melodic lines, experiment with vibrato. I find that vibrato should be relatively fast and small in comparison to vibrato on flute in similar settings. By keeping a yawning feeling in the throat, you can find the right color for the low notes in  51 and 52.

   The music changes from a bluesy character to more of a dancing atmosphere in measure 56. Try to keep a singing feeling in your throat when playing the high notes at the end of bar 57 to avoid a squeaky sound. Measure 58 requires a smart combination of single, double, and triple tonguing. Don’t move in the two last bars of this movement; keep the bluesy feeling and only drop your head after the pianist releases the pedal.


   The third movement is fun to play and comes as a reward for all brave piccolo players after the previous two difficult movements. Take a fast tempo and try to get the most out of the accents in the first three bars of the movement. Measures 66 and 68 should sound like explosions!
   Measures 70-100 always remind me of cartoon music. Play the ornaments as loud and large as you can, and exaggerate the dynamics. Don’t forget to lift your right-hand pinky on high B.

   Ensemble between piccolo and piano gets a little tricky after the double bar at 100. It is a good idea to write some piano cues into your piccolo part before the first rehearsal with piano.
   Quotes from Stravinsky return at measure 147 at pp and ppp levels. Take a risk, even if nothing comes out, and you will create a thrilling atmosphere for your audience.
   At the end of the movement, as in the second movement, the composer gives the last word (or note) to the piano. Perfect timing and ensemble feeling is very important at this moment.
   I had a lot of fun preparing this piece for recording together with Stefan. At concerts, Kay El’LeM has proved to be a perfect piece to convince a large audience that the piccolo is a respectable recital instrument. I hope you will all enjoy performing this wonderful piccolo sonata.