Pamela Frank finds warmth and humor in Mozart's violin music

July 17, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Pamela Frank does not expect to tire of playing Mozart.

"Never!" says the young violinist, who will perform Mozart's Concerto No. 4 with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Saturday in Meyerhoff Hall in the orchestra's Summerfest Series.

"Playing Mozart is a way of honing your craft," Frank says. "The music is so exposed that you can't get away with anything. And it's important for purely operatic reasons. Every string player I know wants to sound like a singer; in every bar Mozart wrote you can imagine singing."

But playing Mozart came to Frank as naturally as speaking, she says. Her parents are the distinguished pianists Lillian Kallir and Claude Frank. And her father has been regarded for decades as one of the world's finest interpreters of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart.

The mystery is that Pamela Frank didn't become a pianist.

"Growing up with the sound of pianos in my ears all the time -- that's why I loved the sound of the violin," she says with laughter. She began to beg for a violin before she reached the age of 3. When she was 5, family friends brought her a toy violin; her tears, when she realized the instrument was only a toy, made her parents relent and buy her the real thing.

Playing the violin instead of the piano, she says, made her grow closer to her parents. She is currently recording all 10 Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano with her father. "There is a lot of wonderful stuff for violin and piano, but not much, I think, for three or even two pianos," Frank adds, her remark punctuated by another good-natured laugh.

And it is a laugh -- as deep and as rich-sounding as a cello -- not a giggle. There is also nothing girlish about Frank's playing, which does not impress as much for silvery beauty as for dusky sensuousness and passionate fearlessness.

Word of Frank's prowess on the violin began to creep out of New York's inner musical circles around the time she entered her teens. In 1986, when she was 18, she contributed to the recording of one of the best performances ever of Schubert's great Quintet in C, taking the first violin part in an ensemble of distinguished, older players. A few years later, she began making limited solo appearances. Now, at 27, she regularly plays with the most important orchestras in the country. Next spring she will make a Carnegie Hall recital debut with her sonata partner (and Peabody Conservatory graduate), pianist Stephen Prutsman. She seems poised to assault the summit of the violin world.

But while she may have become a star, Frank does not act like one -- and she prefers the musically satisfying concertos of Mozart to the audience-pleasing show pieces of Wieniawski and Paganini.

"It's music that's better than it can be played," Frank says of Mozart's works. "Mostly, it's the warmth and the humor. Humor is a fact of life more important to us than we sometimes care to acknowledge, and the more access to it we have the better off we are."

Frank needed all the good humor she could muster to get through the past year. Early last fall she sprained her left ankle -- much more badly than she realized at the time. Frank,a physically demonstrative player, ignored the pain and the dangerous-looking swelling. Finally, she consulted doctors who told her she was threatening her ability ever to walk normally again. Her leg was put in a cast and she was told to play seated. This had consequences, Frank says. The young violinist loves to indulge herself in fitted, glittering, beaded gowns that push the envelope of good taste. She recalls recently in Carnegie Hall when she sat down to play and proceeded to pop off some of the beads on her dress.

"I slid right off the stool," Frank says, laughing at the memory. "There I was on the stage of Carnegie Hall -- right on the floor!"

She even manages to laugh about an accident last December, in which her cast made her trip and fall backward down a flight of stairs.

"I broke the fall with my right hand and ended up in yet another cast," Frank says. "I was wearing so much plaster that I looked like I had been in a car accident."

That second cast left her unable to hold a bow. For three months, she couldn't play the violin. But she put her forced sabbatical to use by teaching at her alma mater, Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music.

"As I watched my students perform, I realized how much I loved to play," Frank says. "I had time to study a lot of new scores, and I got to know my boyfriend better. I'm perhaps overly independent, but being unable to do much and having to depend more on him made me realize that people need to be needed."

The cast on her arm came off several weeks ago.

"Now that I have my hand back, I'm happy just to be playing," she says. "Wonderful things have happened to me and it still sometimes seems like someone else's life."

THE MOZART MENU

These are the programs in the Baltimore Symphony's all-Mozart Summerfest concerts in Meyerhoff Hall. All programs begin at 7:30 p.m.

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