Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Judith Stillman brings Poulenc to the stage

Pianist/composer Judith Stillman.

Pianist/composer Judith Stillman.

Composer Francis Poulenc was “part monk, part naughty boy,” says pianist Judith Lynn Stillman. What better subject could Stillman have for her own “April in Paris with Poulenc,” which she stages on April 27 in the Carter Center, with the Trinity Rep’s Curt Columbus and members of the Rhode Island Philharmonic.

The Poulenc “play-within-a-concert” is the latest in Stillman’s series of staged composer portraits. Using the musicians from the Philharmonic and notable actors, she has written musical dramatizations that have explored the Brahms/Schumann relationships, and Beethoven’s life. 

Last year the Gamm Theatre’s director Tony Estrella starred in “Boldly Beethoven”; this production features Columbus, the Trinity Rep’s artistic director, re-imagining Poulenc (1899–1963) in his twentieth-century Paris-café environment.

Stillman, artist-in-residence and professor of music at Rhode Island College, writes the book for her composer portraits, but her words share the stage with the composer’s music. “Poulenc was a wonderful speaker and writer,” she says. “We have so much documentation about him. He was clever, eccentric and witty.

“But this is by no means a biography,” she says. “It’s a way for the audience to get a flavor of the composer. This one is all Poulenc, just sitting in a café, but there’s a seamless interweaving with the music. 

“We don’t just sit there and play three movements of a piece, we let him comment in between,” she says. “He jokes, he gossips about his friends, he hangs out. He talks about his important influences.”

Stillman’s idea of “play-within-a-concert” is certainly borne out: the music in this program features some of Poulenc’s best-known and most demanding chamber works. She and Columbus are joined by Rachel Braude (flute), Denise Plaza-Martin (oboe), Ian Greitzer (clarinet), Kevin Owen (French horn), and Ronald Haroutunian (bassoon). Selections include the wind trio, the flute sonata, and the famous wind sextet, with Stillman sitting in on all three works.

The composer’s famous artistic friendships alone guarantee that “April in Paris with Poulenc” will entertain. Poulenc wrote the flute sonata for Jean-Pierre Rampal. He hung out with Picasso, and Cocteau. He performed with Benjamin Britten. He knew Debussy—“he’s going to tell a lot of anecdotes about Debussy,” Stillman says.

Poulenc lived through an extraordinarily turbulent and creative period—in Europe for both world wars, and part of a artistic circle that included Apollinaire, Ravel, Cocteau, Debussy and others. His compositions can be jazzy, then sound like Bach—all in a few measures.

“He’s an amalgam of contradictions, and you can hear it in his music,” Stillman says. “He has a sense of humor, and he was part of the Paris café society, but he was also deeply religious. It’s that kind of duality—sacred and profane.”

Poulenc’s personality and his friendships spill out into his compositions. “You can hear it in his music,” Stillman says. “Every measure can be traced to another composer. But it’s all easily identifiable as Poulenc. I’m struck by the beauty and passion in it.”

Judith Lynn Stillman, Curt Columbus, and members of the Rhode Island Philharmonic perform “April in Paris with Poulenc,” on Sat., April 27, at 8:00 p.m. in The Carter Center, 667 Waterman Ave., East Providence. Call (401) 248-7000 or visit tickets.riphil.org.

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