My Poulenc Moment

On Nov. 27, 2017, one of the great experiences of my life occurred when I gave a solo piano program of some of the music of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).  He is known primarily for his beautiful “Gloria” that ranks as one of the great choral works of the 20th century.  His piano music is fine also, but is overshadowed, like the piano music of every other French composer of the 20th century, by the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

My personality is not suited to giving a solo concert.  (I am an accompanist.)  But I kept finding pieces of Poulenc that I liked, and they rather demanded that I put them together as a program.  So I practiced and memorized about 45 minutes worth of the music for about 18 months and the culmination of my efforts was realized this past November.  Of course, it helped that the music was lovely and appealing to a wide variety of people.  So, I remained motivated, even after practicing day after day for so long.

Very little gives me as much pleasure as playing substantial pieces from memory.  There is just something deeply satisfying about knowing them so well that you do not have to be buried in a score.  This memory work enabled me to walk into a hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland this past summer and play on a lovely Steinway grand for over an hour.  Every few minutes guests or staff members would walk out of curiosity into the room where the piano was located. These people were speaking Italian, German, French, English, and Spanish, and it was a delight to be reminded of what an international language music is.  I kept my mouth shut, not letting them know that they were listening to an American play French music on a German-made piano.

But playing in Gstaad or Lucerne or Wittenberg, where a man put 8 euros on the piano as a tip at the Best Western Hotel, could not compare to playing the program at my church in Libertyville.  I was pumped up, the audience was attentive and pulling for me, and a sense of anticipation prevailed.  And things actually went very respectably.  I had a memory slip or two, but was able to skip to a point of reference and keep the music flowing.  It was really a whole lot of fun.

Giving the program at all was motivated by the gift to me of Miss Perry’s piano, a 1923 mid-sized Steinway grand.  She told me she wanted me to have it if I would arrange for shipping, and would meet the mover at her door and in Illinois.  So I did, and think of her every time I sit down at her piano to play.  I refer to it as “Miss Perry’s piano” because I grew up taking lessons on it. The great irony of her gift is that she loved the organ, much more than the piano.  And now because of her piano I spend much more time at the piano than with the instrument she loved.  It has occurred to me to give another concert on the 100th anniversary of her piano in 2023.  Then maybe I will join the rest of the world and give a program on the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s death in 2027.

Before my concert I had never heard any piano music of Francis Poulenc on even a student recital.  (There are performances of it on youtube, but I had never heard any of it in person.)  Perhaps that few people play Poulenc contributed to the attractiveness of my program. Afterwards, at a reception, a friend took several pictures of audience members  enjoying some French wine, and put the pictures in a collage that I will treasure for the rest of my life.

There are wonderful happenings everywhere that all of us miss. Rather than despair, however, we can simply try to live life to the fullest.  I will not list all I doing right now, but suffice it to say that I am keeping my mind active and trying to diminish my ignorance a little bit every day.

May everyone have their own memorable moments.


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