When you’re planning an event, the soundtrack helps create the mood. It might be as insistent as a DJ pulsing to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” or as subtle as a pianist unspooling Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
At the recent launch of Highclere Castle Gin with the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon — owners of the castle, which is better known as the setting for “Downton Abbey” — pianist Heloïse Piéaud set a romantic tone at Manhattan’s SoHo Grand Hotel that was as delicate yet unmistakable as Chanel No. 5. It helped, of course, that among the pieces she threaded through the Great American Songbook like a string of pearls was the main theme of “Downton,” John Lunn’s “Did I Make the Most of Loving You?” with its urgent pianistic opening.
In a sense, piano bar suits Piéaud’s temperament as well as that portion of her Franco-American repertoire that embraces everyone from Cole Porter to Edith Piaf, with stops at Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald along the way. Although she is in her last year at the 100-year-old Manhattan School of Music on a full scholarship, hers is a somewhat reserved demeanor. Playing at a cocktail party allows her to recede naturally into the background.
“It’s not a concert,” she says. “They’re not listening to you but they can be listening.”
Indeed, if they have any sense they will or stop to pay tribute. Piéaud is that good.
The Highclere launch was not her first big gig, Piéaud says. That would’ve been a birthday party for Lois de Menil, the political historian and wife of Georges, middle child of a family that The New York Times dubbed “the Medici of modern art.” Piéaud put together a Franco-American program of standards for this most Franco-American of families — printing the music, rearranging it, because she had to play the melody as well as the harmony since she didn’t have a singer, and reviewing it.
“It was very stressful but a great experience, because it taught me how to deal with stress,” Piéaud says.
Giving a recital, she adds, is “way more strict.” She talks about this with her teacher at the Manhattan School, Jeffrey Cohen.
“You can’t have a piece by Ravel after a piece by Bach,” she says of the jazzy modern composer and the baroque master respectively. In a program that may be 1½ hours long, you have to balance short pieces with longer ones. Cohen is also particular, she adds, about matching key signatures from the end of one piece with the beginning of the next so that the whole program flows.
Cohen — whom Piéaud met at a music festival in Tignes, France — was the reason she came to the United States four years ago. Born in Toulouse and raised there and in Paris, attending conservatories in each place, Piéaud always loved the piano though her first instrument was the harp. Pedagogy has also always been important to Piéaud, herself a piano teacher. A dissatisfaction with her harp teacher led her to forsake that instrument for the piano. The conservatoire approach proved no more fulfilling.
“In France, the teachers are very good, but they are also very strict” — to the point, apparently, of being hypercritical. “I lost my confidence a bit.”
When she met Cohen, “I liked his approach. It was different.” In America, she has also found her fellow students to be less critical — collegial rather than jealous.
Now with one more year to go and a recital coming up in December — in which she will no doubt play some of the Romantics who are her favorites, Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, themselves great pianists — this New York City resident is looking to her future.
“I love the piano so much,” she says, even collecting autographs of some of the greats like Lang Lang. “But I see a lot of competition. Years ago it was easier to have a solo piano career. Today everything has to be perfect.”
She’s also discovered, for better or worse, the role that marketing plays in any career.
“I know people who are not as talented as others, but they’re good at Instagram and so they get many more offers to play.”
That’s why she’s contemplating a master’s degree in the business side of music.
“I don’t think it’s possible to have a solo career if you don’t know how it works.”
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