The Classical Station’s interview with Francine Kay for Preview!

Interview with Francine Kay
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: Bo Huang)

Tonight, pianist Francine Kay appears on Preview! She has performed with the Princeton Symphony, the Toronto Symphony, and won the New York Pro Piano Competition at Carnegie Hall. She spoke with Rob Kennedy about her recent recording, Things Lived and Dreamt, and her career teaching at Princeton. 

ROB: Francine, tell our listeners about the inspiration for this recording of piano music by Czech composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

KAY: The idea of this recording was born when I came across a wonderful piece by Joseph Suk, op. 30, Things Lived and Dreamt, which was the title track of this recording. I just fell in love with this work. There’s something about the just the breadth of the imagination in this piece that recalled to me Schumann and all his fantasy pieces, in the sense that there was an entire personal world created. In fact, Suk himself referred to this piece as an artist’s diary. There are elements of his life experiences in the piece.

For example, there’s a piece that he dedicated to the recovery of his son, who had had a severe illness. The breadth of emotion in that piece is just astonishing. There’s another piece that one of his biographers says was inspired by a fly that fell into his beer glass. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but certainly you can hear in the music a very fantastical realization of that kind of flitting around. How can you not love a composer that uses espressivo every other bar?  

It also wasn’t very well known. It’s a huge piece, a cycle of ten pieces, and it’s quite difficult. I had certainly never heard of it, and many people that I knew had never heard of it. So the seed of the idea was my love of the music combined with the mission of wanting to bring this piece to wider attention. 

And around the same time, I was searching for a piece by a woman composer to add to my repertoire, and I came across the music of Vítězslava Kaprálová. I instantly knew that this was the music for me. 

The Janáček Sonata was already in my repertoire. I mean, this is a piece so full of raw emotion, having been inspired by this tragic death of a young worker who was demonstrating for a Czech university, which Janáček himself witnessed. And so you can really hear emotion beyond desperation in this music, very directly transmitted, almost like speech. I feel like I can hear gasping in the silences. So I’ve always loved that piece. So here I was with this repertoire, and it just seemed to make sense. You’re presenting the folk roots of this wonderful musical character. 

ROB: Tell us about Vítězslava, because besides being a composer, she was a conductor, and that seems rather an unusual position for a woman of that time.

KAY: Absolutely. She was definitely a trailblazer and exceptional in every way. You’re absolutely right. She was one of the first women to conduct the BBC Orchestra, in fact. She conducted her own work. It was actually broadcast by CBS to the United States. And of course, relating back to Janáček, her father actually was also a composer and she studied with Janáček. So there’s all these connections between the composers. She wrote the April Preludes shortly after meeting Martineau in April, and Martineau went on to be a very important mentor for her. Of course, she very tragically died at the age of 25. She left an enormous body of work considering the amount of years she had to compose. And her pieces, like the April Preludes, are so colorful and vibrant. I think they really express her personality; I’ve read that she was an extraordinarily vibrant person. They’re also very modern sounding–I hear influences of Debussy and Bartok, but they’re all also her own voice. Particularly I really love the third Prelude, which is just a little jewel, kind of a contrapuntal treatment of folk melody. Another interesting fact is that she was posthumously made a member of the Czech Academy of Fine Arts in 1948, and she was only one of ten women at the time out of 648 men in that membership. 

ROB: It’s exciting, isn’t it, when you think of some of these trailblazing women like Amy Beach and Lillie Boulange, who died so young in France. You can even go back as far as Louise Farrenc in Paris, back in the mid-19th century. It’s just incredible, isn’t it? 

KAY: It really is incredible to think of the obstacles that these women faced and how they were able to persevere and to make their voices heard in spite of them. I’m very grateful that we can perform and bring their music to life as it should be. 

ROB: Now, Francine, tell our listeners about your current work as a teacher at Princeton and as a performing artist. 

KAY: Teaching at Princeton is really kind of extraordinary. The students are so brilliant and gifted. It’s really a privilege to be with them. And I really love teaching; one thing that stands out for me is that, even if I’m thinking about other things, as soon as the teaching begins, it’s almost like playing music. The music itself is so inspiring to both me and the students that it starts this energy flow and the time goes by and all of a sudden, the lesson’s over and it’s time for the next person. So it’s really a joyful experience, and I really, really treasure the relationships I have with my students. It’s just an honor. What can I say? Performing is also such a tremendous opportunity. I feel really lucky that I can do both of these things. One of the things I love about performing is actually the preparation that goes into performing, because you get to spend so much time delving into the depths and intricacies of the pieces. I can’t think of anything better. 

ROB: Francine Kay, thank you so much for sharing with our listeners this marvelous new recording, Things Lived and Dreamt, and all about your career and work as an artist. Thank you. 

Join us for Francine Kay’s interview at 7 PM on Sunday, May 21st! Download our app, stream online on, or turn your radio to 89.7 FM.