When Dr. Rachel Franklin sits down to the piano, you know you are going to get a treat. This British-born concert pianist is a renowned teacher and performer in the Mid-Atlantic region. Her acclaimed wit, scholarship and insights about music have led to countless speaking engagements for such distinguished organizations as the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and National Public Radio. Probably what makes her musical lectures so unique is that her topics explore intersections between classical and jazz music, film scores, and the fine arts while sharing the stories behind the music that we all love.
Franklin has taught at the Royal College of Music and the Peabody Conservatory, where she received her Doctorate of Musical Arts. She also studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Royal College of Music, and the Rubin Academy of Music, Tel Aviv University, where she won First Prize in the school’s piano competition and received highest honors upon graduation. A regular presenter at the Academy Art Museum in Easton, MD, we sat down with her to learn more about what is behind her performing artistry and engaging style as she illustrates on the piano.
Q: Why were you drawn to the backstory of music in your teaching?
A: I did what we all do or we have done, you trot on the stage, you bow, you put your nice duds on, you play, you bow, and you come up again. Fairly early on I started to think I’d like to talk to my audience, as they’ve come all this way. I like this music and I thought I’d like to get to know them. So, I started to just do little descriptions from the piano bench, and I felt that was pretty important. People liked it and it just kind of went from there.
When I came to Peabody to do my doctorate, I got involved in teaching Elderhostel. This was quite a long time ago and many in my audience had been to war in Europe and they were very cultivated people and intensely interested in the connections that one could make through the different cultures. I wanted to let them know, as a recitalist, why they had bought the ticket. I wanted to share with them why the music is special and why they should trust their feelings and relate to the musical experience. I found every single time I did that, that I got an exceptionally warm response and people were very anxious to let me know that I’d made the concert experience better. It sort of validated what I was feeling – that audiences deserve love and respect. I learn and enjoy an enormous amount about why our world is the way it is now by doing this.
Q: How did you decide to do the upcoming class at the Academy Art Museum on Russian Masterworks?
A: As a concert pianist I’ve always loved Russian music. It’s amazing to play and amazing to listen to. Through Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and so many other composers, Russia has provided us with some of the most exciting and original music in the repertoire today. Our concert halls always have Russian music programmed. The tradition of all those vibrant colors, explosive energy, and passionate emotional drive seemed to spring from nowhere barely 150 years ago, expanding meteorically in breadth and national confidence over an amazingly short period. It’s incredibly interesting to explore exactly why.
The fact is that Russian classical concert music didn’t really exist until at least the middle of the 19th century. For a country that is thousands of years old with such deep cultural riches and roots – that’s really extraordinary. Because of the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church, music was essentially a banned item, so musician guilds, as they had in France and Germany, didn’t develop. Musicians were flogged and instruments were burned for centuries. The divisions between the haves and the have nots just got wider and wider and there was no middle class to support music. The wealthy decide to train up their serfs, so serf orchestras and serf opera houses became a thing. These musicians didn’t have tax status though and couldn’t move from town to town and be independent.
It took a long time for serfdom to be abolished. And only then could people leave their estates and go and do something else. In the mid-1800s, a pianist, Anton Rubinstein and his brother, Nicholas, worked and petitioned the Czar government to start conservatories in Moscow and Petersburg and to give musicians a legal tax status. These composers of the 19th century included Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, and many others who I will cover in my upcoming lecture at the Academy Art Museum.
Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching at the Academy Art Museum?
A: I love the Academy Art Museum. I feel special every time I walk in the door. I think being in an art environment just enhances everyone’s experience. You know, you can walk out and go and wander around a gallery and think about what you’ve just heard related to what you see. I also find, of course, that the people who come and attend are extremely cultivated. I mean, I’m a bit spoiled.
Q: Tell me about your jazz concert happening on April 28 at the museum?
A: This will be my classical/jazz chamber ensemble SONOS, which features myself on piano, and my two wonderful colleagues – a French Canadian violinist named Christian Tremblay, and fretless jazz bassist, Jonathan Miles Brown. It’s our trio’s third concert for the AAM and we’re really excited about it! We’ve performed widely throughout the area, including several highly successful concerts for the Friends of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. We also anchored the orchestra’s “12 Days of Music” 2020 Holiday video performance series. Our music explores the cross-pollination between different types of musical art forms. Our programs are designed to tell the story of how these different musical subcultures could intersect.
The April concert is called “Coming to America” and will be a multimedia event. It is a passionate subject for me. It is a celebration of the incredibly rich musical traditions that came to this country from somewhere else. The music we enjoy today was brought by countless enslaved people, and immigrants who came here to escape persecution or for a better life. Every single person who either was carried off or crawled off the boat had music in their head. They brought their music with them. So, our program features spirituals, immigration songs, classical works, and jazz numbers. We feel this is an important program and we love it to death. We honor the types of people who came here and brought their music with them. They became part of and created the great musical traditions that are now American and that we celebrate today.
“Russian Masterworks: Music Lectures with Rachel Franklin” will be held on Thursdays, February 17, March 3, March 17 and March 31, 2022 from 11 a.m.–12:30 p.m. at the Academy Art Museum. The lectures are priced individually or for a series of four. Dr. Franklin’s free concert, “Coming to America,” will be held on April 28 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the museum. Pre-registration is required for these events. Visit academyartmuseum.org or call 410-822-2787 for further information.