Pamela Howland is on a mission to get music-lovers out of their comfort zones.
“I like to put things together that don’t seem to fit,” she said. “It’s just about the joy of the music.”
Howland will share her joyful mission in a concert, “Chopin Meets The Beatles,” Sept. 9 at Brendle Recital Hall on the Wake Forest University campus. The concert is free, and donations will be accepted for a scholarship fund that she has founded.
“This concert is part of my mission to share a Classical program that everyone can like. That’s why it’s Chopin-Beatles,” she said. “Chopin and Paul McCartney are genius creators of melody. McCartney has these most singable melodies.
“The thing about Chopin and The Beatles is that they are both great storytellers. Chopin does it without words. You don’t have to know about classical music to hear the emotion and feel the connection.”
Howland, a Steinway artist and a longtime Chopin scholar, first visited Poland, Chopin’s homeland, in 2006 with her family to find the birthplace of her grandfather. Howland has returned there to perform numerous times since then.
In 2013 on World Music Day in Warsaw, she was playing piano on a potato cart outside the Church of the Holy Cross, where Chopin’s heart is buried.
“A limousine rolled up, and Sir Paul McCartney leaned out the window and gave me a thumbs-up,” she said. That moment validated her belief that mixing genres and art forms was right for her.
“It let me know that I could combine my two loves,” Howland said. “In Classical training, one isn’t often encouraged to step outside the Classical canon, but I don’t believe in those categories any more.”
She will play seven pairs of Chopin and Beatles pieces in the concert at WFU.
“I take a beloved Chopin piece and then a Beatles piece arranged in Chopin style,” she said. “It’s a way to get Classical listeners to listen to The Beatles and a way to get people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to a Classical concert to join in.”
In 2017-2018, Howland returned to Poland on a Fulbright Scholarship. She taught and did research at Adam Miczkievicz University in Poznan, Poland.
“I taught about American music and culture — everything from American Celtic hymns in the 1600s to hip-hop and movie music,” she said. “They love American culture, those students.”
The research she did was on “Chopin’s muzurkas as a form of Slavic blues,” she said.
At the time, there were 35 Fulbright professors and scholars spread out across Poland. She met a young man named Michael Gilmor, 22, who made a big impression on her.
“Michael was an English teaching assistant,” Howland said. “He was truly the smartest, kindest, humblest, loveliest person you can imagine. He met a girlfriend, Briana Crewson (another Fulbright teaching assistant), there.”
Shortly after he returned to the U.S., Gilmor died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm.
“When he died last year, it just threw me,” Howland said. “I never thought I would compose something, but the music just came out of me as a way of coping with the grief.”
Besides Chopin and The Beatles, Howland will play “Three Scenes From Poland,” a piece in three movements that Gilmor inspired.
“The third movement, ‘Golden Summer (Michael & Briana’s Song),’ is dedicated to them,” she said. “It is the anchor for the first two movements. It’s my way of coping with the grief and immortalizing their love.
“They were by themselves in separate small towns, teaching English and music and providing outreach.
“Michael worked tirelessly to promote international understanding, not only through his Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship but also through extra outreach activities with Polish youth. It is precisely this type of extra outreach which will be supported by this scholarship.”
The Michael Gilmor Fund for Leadership and Empowerment will help American Fulbright grantees in Poland do extra outreach, by paying for train tickets and supplies.
“We have already raised $16,000 out of the $20,000 goal,” Howland said.
On the day of the concert, there will be an event at WFU starting at 3 p.m. in the Benson Student Center to educate students and the public about Fulbright Scholarships.
A program of the U.S. Department of State, Fulbright Scholarships go to people who want to study abroad and foster cooperation in science, culture and mutual understanding worldwide.