ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
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
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.