The Austin Chronicle

Anton Nel

Babar comes to the concert hall

By Robert Faires, January 28, 2011, Arts

If the legend is to be believed – and really, it's too good not to be – the French composer Francis Poulenc was noodling around on the piano one day, probably pursuing some musical idea to the edge of atonality, when his cousin Sophie – a budding music critic at the age of 3 – told him that he should instead "Play this" and slapped onto his music stand a copy of Jean de Brunhoff's L'histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant. Not one to disappoint a fan, Poulenc began reading the story aloud, improvising musical interludes for each section as he went. His adaptation hit big, so big that neighborhood kids dropped by to hear the new composition. When Poulenc composed a formal piece for piano and narrator, he dedicated it to his young cousins and their friends.

Anton Nel has wanted to play L'histoire de Babar ever since he heard it on a program of French music in graduate school. "I was enchanted by the work," recalls the Butler School of Music piano professor. "The music is very typical of Poulenc: many kinds of humor – sardonic, witty, charming, coy – and often touching and very moving." Still, his longtime affection notwithstanding, Nel hadn't planned on including the work in his upcoming solo recital. Then he went to the theatre.

"I had honestly worked out an all-solo program for this concert, and then I went to see Zach Theatre's production of The Drowsy Chaperone," Nel says. "Martin [Burke] is a friend, and I'm an enormous fan of his. I have seen him in many roles, but there was something about the way in which he portrayed the Man in Chair that I found very affecting and extra special. I went back to see it a second time, and the idea came to me to program this, literally in the middle of the show."

Nel broached the subject of narrating Poulenc's Babar to Burke in the lobby right after the performance. "I was thrilled and honored that Anton would even entertain the idea of allowing me to 'accompany' him in one of his solo performances," says the actor. And though he didn't know the Poulenc piece, he says, "I immediately said I'd love to do it. I discovered Babar when I was a child, and ever since I have loved drawings and paintings of animals in clothes. We met shortly after over coffee to talk about the piece, and he gave me his copy of the score that he purchased a very long time ago in Cape Town. He was so generous."

The program includes plenty of "serious" music for the grownups to enjoy: works by Beethoven, Liszt, Debussy, and C.P.E. Bach. But all of us who are still kids at heart – and Nel counts himself among that number – will be waiting for the gentle king of the elephant nation.

The Jessen Series of Distinguished Faculty Artists presents Anton Nel in concert on Sunday, Jan. 30, 4pm, at Bates Recital Hall, 2420 Robert Dedman Dr. For more information, call 471-5401 or visit

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