Rachel Franklin is not your typical concert pianist. Rachel Franklin is not your typical lecturer. But when she combines them, the result is both brilliant and effortless. Franklin will be appearing at the Academy Art Museum (AAM) in February and March, leading a discussion on Ballet Music: The Soul of Movement. If this is the first time you’re attending her series of classes, you’re in for a real treat. If you’ve heard others, you know just how fun, entertaining, and full of information this is bound to be.
Born in Britain, Franklin began lessons at a specialist musical academy at the age of three after showing a remarkable talent for the piano. Her mother also played piano but never professionally due to debilitating stage fright. Her father, Franklin describes as an ‘all-around cultured being.’ As a family, they used to put on plays, attend chamber music events, etc., all of which contributed, she said to her calling. “In the course of building a performing career, both back in the UK and once I came to the US to do my doctorate, I’ve always wanted to talk to audiences because I felt they deserve to know why they bought the ticket in the first place. I am naturally curious about the music I play and the people who wrote it. As I began to play more and more, I started sharing my interest, did more extended talking, and then I started to lecture.”
Now the music and the words are intertwined, and she would prefer not to be labeled as one without the other. Franklin agrees that, at least for now, she might be somewhat unique in this perspective. “I honestly think those days when somebody is taught to be just a musical performer are gone. Why wouldn’t we want to embrace our audiences? Why wouldn’t we want to feel that they understood not only what we were doing but how they belong in and around the artwork they’ve paid for, which in my case, is the music and the spoken descriptions? I want them in with me.”
There are many opportunities of being ‘in with her’ There have been countless speaking engagements, whether at the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, or National Public Radio. For AAM (where she is a regular presenter), she will be reprising a course she did for the Smithsonian about ballet music. It’s one she’s given a lot of thought to. “When you think of ballet, sometimes the music is beautiful. Sometimes the music is nice, but the steps are more interesting. A lot of the time, the music is fantastic, and the classical steps are not as engaging. And I just wanted to try and understand ballet music because ballet itself didn’t start as an international movement until the late 1800s.”
Franklin is looking forward to telling you about how Tchaikovsky changed everything (she’s a real Tchaikovsky fan) and promises to show a lot of movie clips. “I’m the queen of clips,” she boasts, “I always find beautiful clips.” Her lectures are a multimedia experience with a live piano. She covers her course in four sessions but admits it’s so thought-provoking she could easily do 20 without running out of material
No doubt anyone attending will leave with a broader and deeper knowledge of the subject, but she balks at calling this a masterclass. “I consider myself a lifelong learner. I’m just a few steps ahead in certain areas. I truly love communicating this unique and marvelous material and making it come alive for people.” As to who would benefit from her lectures, Franklin has the answer, “If you’ve ever been to a ballet, I can tell you something about it. If you’ve ever put the radio on and danced around listening to Tchaikovsky, I can tell you why. If you ever get excited when you see tickets go on sale for ballets, this is for you. If you want to understand why we care, why we like it, and why ballet makes some people cry (because it does), then this is right for you.”
Franklin’s doctorate in Musical Arts confirms her credibility in academia. But besides her lectures, Franklin loves teaching one-on-one, and she has a unique perspective only she could explain: “A lot of the time, students are completely disengaged from the person they’re playing. But how could you ever be disengaged from someone like Beethoven or Chopin, or Scott Joplin? Musicians of skill, who’ve put the time in, can take an extraordinary artwork from 250 years ago and make it come alive. And they do so by channeling the fingers of the person who wrote it. And if that sounds kooky, it’s not really. I am physically inhabiting the piece that they wrote. It’s not every day you get to communicate directly with somebody who created one of the world’s great pieces of music. If you understand that, then how can you not care? So yeah, I engage my students with that concept and then get exceptional performances from them.”
Besides classical works, Franklin is also a jazz musician. She recently appeared at Temple B’nai Israel in Easton, performing musical highlights from various Broadway composers and lyricists and discussing how they contributed to modern American musical development. After her appearance at AAM, there will be a four-lecture course on Scandinavian composers for the Smithsonian. In April, she’s playing a Mozart piano concerto with the Washington Sinfonietta, somewhat of a departure for her, as the conductor will give the lecture piece. She describes the event as follows: “I will walk on stage, play a Mozart piano concerto, then everybody claps, and I leave.”
But that’s the future. For now, Franklin will be both playing and talking in Easton.
“I don’t want people to feel that somehow they’re going to worship at some kind of superior intellectual shrine. That’s not how I feel about it. I want to switch on the light and show people why we’re so lucky. We have this music that makes people feel better about their lives. And in our current climate, boy, do we need that.”
Boy, do we need that…
February 16: From the Ballet de la Nuit to Coppélia: Desperately Seeking Composers
March 2: Tchaikovsky Changes Everything
March 16: Diaghilev, the Dream Weaver
March 30: Ballet’s Diaspora
$24 Members, $29 Non-members per lecture
$90 Members, $100 Non-members for the series
Thursdays, 11 am–12:30 pm
Register at AAM. (https://academyartmuseum.org/ballet-music-the-soul-of-movement/)
Val Cavalheri is a writer and photographer. She has written for various publications, including The Washington Post. Previously she served as the editor of several magazines, including Bliss and Virginia Woman. Although her camera is never far from her reach, Val retired her photography studio when she moved from Northern Virginia to the Eastern Shore a few years ago.. She and her husband, Wayne Gaiteri, have two children and one grandchild.