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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Pamela Frank

Pamela Frank

Those who have heard Pamela Frank play the violin — and more and more people have in recent time as her career has taken off — invariably comment on the remarkable balance of passion and insight she produces. Isn't it amazing, they say, for so young an artist to be at the same time so aware of the music's structural components and be also so communicative?

Not amazing at all, considering her personal and musical pedigree. Hearing Pamela talking about her life and her relationship to her art, the only thing that does surprise is how "normal," how totally natural she continues to be despite her steady rise to stardom.

Pam Frank was born and raised in New York City, the only child of two celebrated pianists, Lilian Kallir and Claude Frank. She went to a French bilingual elementary school, Dalton High School, and Juilliard's Pre-College Division before going on to Curtis for her Bachelor's degree. She says that she asked to have violin lessons when she was three but didn't actually begin until she was five, and is quick to point out that she wasn't pushed into music, let alone the piano. "Friends of my parents had given me a toy violin to see what I would do with it. I (precociously and probably obnoxiously) proclaimed that it didn't have a good enough sound and that I wanted a real one. My parents laughed and wrote it off, but I annoyed them enough for a couple of years until they finally gave in. They resisted. They were the anti-stage parents and I thank them to this day."

Music was part of the Frank household. Both parents practiced, of course, but people came by all the time to play chamber music. "It took me a long time to realize that this was their profession, that this is how they made their living. I thought everybody made music. My parents both concertized but they were rarely gone at the same time, and when they were, I loved it because I went to my grandparents ten blocks down the street and they spoiled me rotten." Growing up left her with warm, secure, and thoroughly happy memories.

Recalling that some youngsters were isolated from their peer group and already treated like potential professionals when they were far too young, Frank expresses profound gratitude to her parents. "I am so thankful that I am not one of those people. First of all, my parents have probably the most healthy attitude towards any profession. What a person does is part of life, not an entire life — we need to live in order to put something into our professions, but we also need to have balance and leave room in our life for many things other than our profession. I was never put into a professional children's school or performing arts school. On the contrary, I chose to seek out people who loved the same things I did."

What she sought out became a great circle of friends, both peers and elders, who were involved with making music. One of them, Alexander Schneider, invited her to perform with him when she was just fifteen, first in the ensemble and then as a soloist. She began spending her summers at the Marlboro Music Festival where she came under the tutelage of Rudolf Serkin and she got to be part of Marlboro's touring group. For the fun of it, she also started doing recitals with her dad, and fun it must have been (and continues to be!) for both of them. ("It's a mutual kvelling society!") The other pianist with whom she has become closely associated is Peter Serkin. "Peter and I didn't meet until we were thrown together by Mostly Mozart. He jokes that he almost resisted playing with me because he had heard so much about me from his parents. I'm really spoiled in the piano department and feel lucky to have been chosen to play sonatas with my father and Peter."

The transition from being a pupil to being a professional seems to have been unusually smooth and natural. Again she points to the home exposure where the standard repertoire was absorbed daily, either by hearing others or by sight-reading everything in print just to hear what it sounded like. Her curiosity knew no bounds and she recalls spending a Marlboro summer reading through all the Haydn quartets. What has taken a conscious effort, she says, is going past the Austro-Germanic Classical and Romantic repertory and she confesses to still feeling a little uncomfortable with, for example, much of the Russian literature. She admits also that she has come rather late in her development to new music.

With professional commitments and achievements come professional obligations. How does the performing artist, especially the young person, maintain a balance that will allow for personal development? "I think it's an ongoing struggle for all of us. Some are able to prioritize better than others. Some are very afraid of saying no, for fear the engagements won't come back. I'm definitely not one of those. It's a combination of my personality plus tremendous luck, but I'm not ambitious in that way. If I turn down something, I don't have a second thought about it. That, too, is a matter of upbringing. I don't think, I know that a personal life is essential to musicmaking. If you don't live you really don't have any ingredients to put into your art, to draw from. Yes, some people are workaholics, but I think the best musicians maintain an even balance between their personal and professional lives." Having worked especially hard over the last five years, she feels that she's reached a point where she can block in chunks of time for herself, time to learn new repertoire, time to reflect, time to get married. (Naturally ebullient, Pamela's dark eyes flash and she smiles as she simultaneously relishes her happy state and tries to keep it selfdeprecatingly low-key.)

On the question of competitions, she feels that they may be important, giving somebody exposure who may not otherwise have been noticed, but she's glad that she hasn't had to go that route. She points out that winners are soon forgotten, in part because there are so many competitions that their impact has been substantially reduced. Moreover, too often judges choose the "safest" candidate rather than taking a chance on an ultimately more satisfying and lasting personality.

Nerves? Stage fright? "I think there are different types of nerves. Adrenalin nerves are absolutely essential. My weakest performances have been when my adrenalin level didn't peak and the edge was lacking. But fear nerves? No, I can honestly say that I've never had those. I like to quote my first teacher, Shirley Givens, who said that the only reason ever to be nervous is 1) if you're not prepared, and 2) if you have nothing to say. If you're truly immersed in what you're doing, there's just no time to view yourself from the outside. You have to have tremendous faith in your voice and truly care about what you're playing."

As Pamela Frank talks, the irreducible cell of her convictions takes unmistakable shape. It's not the venue, the situation, even the performance that she perceives as the essence, but the music itself. "I only play pieces that move me, that give me the goosebump factor. If my hair can stand on end even for a little and I connect to a piece of music, I want to learn it, I want it to be part of me. And if it doesn't do that to me or if I can't possibly bring anything new to it, then I should leave it alone. I absolutely adore the Mendelssohn Concerto, but I don't think I can bring anything to it that hasn't already been done, so I'd rather not play it. Same thing with the Tchaikovsky. Performing such works may be expected of me, but I feel that it's better for everybody if I don't play them. That goes especially for contemporary music. It has to reach me emotionally or there's no reason to learn it. I'm usually interested in a person's whole output, not just a particular piece. For instance, I played in the first New York performance of Ellen Zwilich's Clarinet Quintet years before doing the world premiere of her Violin Concerto."

It is obvious that Pamela Frank is as articulate verbally as she is expressive musically, that she has thought long and hard about many of the basic and difficult issues facing today's music and those who would make it. What would she say, for instance, to violin teachers if she had a chance to communicate with them? Her response was immediate. "I would say, please don't just teach violin music. Teach that all music is created equal; that it's the music that's great and we who are small; that solo and recital music and chamber music and orchestral music are all essential ingredients of our art. If you're teaching a Mozart concerto, quote a Mozart opera, show the relationship to a Mozart symphony or a string quartet. Use the composer's work as a whole and the particular piece you're teaching as an example. Have a context into which to fit a violin piece, not the other way around. The student should fall in love with a composer, not a violin concerto. In that way, it won't matter where that student ends up [in the professional ranks]. I feel that music teaching is so compartmentalized, especially in the better schools where there's an elitist mentality that creates disappointment after graduation. We're all told we're going to become soloists. There's something really warped about that. I can honestly say that I would be happy doing anything in music. It's not more glamorous to be in front of an orchestra; it's just one of many aspects of music-making. I'd be thrilled to play a Beethoven or a Mahler symphony in the back of a section. I'd advise teachers to treat music as all equally important and to teach humility as a result."

We thought her counsel to music teachers so focused that we asked her to dispense some advice to music students. Again, not a moment's hesitation: "Don't practice ten hours a day. Practice two hours without the TV on, and attack your demon. Don't practice what you already do well. There are people with great tone working on their tone, and people with great intonation practicing scales all day. A lot of people waste a lot of time thinking that sheer number of hours matters, rather than the quality of the practicing. I have honestly never practiced more than three hours a day. I really believe you can undo things you have learned by overpractice and just keeping the fingers moving. Keep your practice time focused and limited, and go do other things when you're done. Play with other people, anybody, better or worse than you. Go to museums, go to movies, go do recreational things-as they say, have a life. Nothing will mean anything if practicing is the only thing you do."

And what would she say to composers? "Please don't assume that the brain can take care of the heart. Ultimately, music that is successful to me has visceral, emotional, communicative power. I have looked at many pieces that, on paper, are fascinating. But when taken off the page, something gets lost. I really believe that music, no matter how skillful, can't be an intellectual exercise. I've looked at scores and thought, oh that's interesting, I'd like to investigate it further, but I never really have. It's got to get me in my gut. Once again, I guess I need the goosebump factor."

Coming away from a conversation with Pamela Frank, one senses her to be a supremely happy conservator of a great tradition, loving to use her talents and energies to pass the musical creativity of yesterday and today on to listeners of today and tomorrow.

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