Not many musicians can say that Paul McCartney enjoyed their performance on the back of a potato cart, but Pamela Howland doesn’t follow the same path as most musicians. A pianist and assistant professor of music at Wake Forest University, Howland was tickling the ivories during a street concert in Poland when McCartney just happened to ride by, and his spontaneous five-second thumbs-up approval of her performance was miraculously captured by a passerby and then shared internationally via social media.
It’s hard to imagine a better happenstance when considering Howland’s eclectic career. A classical musician and also mastermind behind the film “Remembering Frederic: The Genius of Chopin,” Howland shares McCartney’s talent for masterfully mixing different genres and art forms.
“It is vitally important to me as a musician to continue finding ways of bringing classical music to new audiences so that it doesn’t die out,” Howland says. “Statistics say that only about 4 percent of Americans are really involved with this genre, so my mission is to reach the remaining 96 percent.”
Howland develops “many points of entry” for her audiences. In December, she returned to Poland for several performances that included a show with her daughter, Andrea, an up-and-coming opera singer. (Howland’s second daughter, Julia, is a writer and linguist in France.)
In “Remembering Frederic,” Howland incorporated poetry and theatre with music to help expand the audience. And last year, she performed a live concert that integrated the artwork of her husband, painter Wendell Myers. The concert was called “Night Music, Part One” and the second event of the collaboration is scheduled for Feb. 28.
“‘Night Music, Part Two’ will be on the eve of our Chopin Birthday Festival on March 1,” Howland says. “My goal for the From Warsaw to Winston-Salem Birthday Festival is to present a unique, colorful, fun, and engaging free festival for Winston-Salem, to bring together pianists from all schools in the area to celebrate the composer we love, and to move, transport, welcome and entertain a diverse audience as we celebrate Chopin’s beautiful piano music.”
The festival is the latest culmination of Howland’s lifelong love of piano. She began playing when she was just 6 years old, eventually realizing that she had found her life’s calling.
“I always loved the piano and came from a family where everyone but my dad played,” Howland recalls. “My mom had been an amateur swing band pianist in the 1940s, so there was always a lot of music-making going on in my home. I finally recognized it to be my instrument and my means of expression, and I have pursued it passionately ever since.”
What inspires you?
“What inspires me the most is seeing people working the edge of their growth in any field. I especially admire the musicians, artists, and other creative souls who tackle and pursue whatever project they dream up, especially when there is no guarantee of success. That takes real courage.”
What advice would you give to other musicians?
“I would encourage young musicians to not lose the joy of making music while they are learning and seeking to perfect their craft. … The reason we put so much time into learning our instrument and achieving technical excellence is so we can convey the emotions we have to share.
What artists do you admire?
“Of course, my favorite pianist of all time is the Polish-born Artur Rubinstein. But there are many wonderful living pianists today—Murray Periah, Yvgeny Kissen, Helene Grimaud—but the living musician who inspires me the most is Yo Yo Ma. He is all about erasing the old-fashioned and unnecessary boundaries between classical music and other types of great music and is living proof of how exciting and stunning multimedia and multi-genre collaborations can be.”
In your opinion, what is the greatest threat to classical music?
“I think the greatest threats come from within—the rules imposed on classical music by classical musicians and the failure to see that any art form must be allowed to breathe and grow or it will die. Rather than chastising people for not being interested, we [musicians] must do everything we can to keep the genre interesting.”
What would people be surprised to know about you?
“That I grew up listening to all types of music, in addition to the classics. I was a huge Beatles fanatic in junior high and got detention along with my best friend on several occasions for singing Beatles songs all over the school!”
Howland’s show “Night Music: Part II” will be Feb. 28 at Wake Forest BioTech Place. “From Warsaw to Winston-Salem: The Chopin Birthday Festival” will be March 1 at BioTech Place. For more on both shows, go to www.pamelahowland.com.