Always right, never righteous: A memory of the late Claude Frank

Robert Fitzpatrick, dean at Curtis, 1986-2009, shares with Slipped Disc his fond observations of a much-mourned master.

 

claude-and-pamela-frank-playing-mozart2

Claude and Pamela Frank; portrait by Alexandra Tyng

 

 

I first met Claude Frank in 1988 after his life-long friend, Gary Graffman, invited him to join the Curtis faculty. He had a handful of students, some of whom he shared with Leon Fleisher among others on the faculty. Claude came to Philadelphia by train once a week to teach for several hours and was always a congenial presence in the Common Room and the faculty lounge. He was the epitome of the erudite, continental gentleman, always at ease, who immediately made everyone else comfortable in his distinguished presence.

One of the most memorable musical events in the history of Curtis occurred in Spring 1989 when Pamela, Claude Frank and Lilian Kallir’s daughter, played her graduation recital with her father at the keyboard. It was one of the first student recitals in memory that was reviewed by the local press. A few years later, Claude and Pamela repeated this success when they played the complete violin sonatas by Beethoven in a series of three concerts offered without charge by Curtis to the public. This provoked a virtual riot among disgruntled concertgoers who could not get in to the small recital hall, named Curtis Hall at the time, with a capacity of 235. At the second concert, the faithful were lined up hours in advance (doors always opened at 7:30 PM for the 8 PM recitals). Dozens were still turned away!

What I remember most about Claude Frank is the elegant playing of his students who seemed to share his concept of tone production, his seemingly effortless technique, and his consummate ability to shape a phrase so that the listener felt a spirit of rightness without any hint of righteousness. Claude allowed each student to develop a special musical personality and I’m sure that most of them still hear his fatherly comments when they play the repertoire which they studied at Curtis, Yale, or during masterclasses that he gave around the world. I know that some of them are already continuing Claude Frank’s legacy through their own teaching.

Bravo and thanks, Claude, for your magnificent musical life.

Robert Fitzpatrick

(Former dean at Curtis, 1986-2009; currently provost and dean at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music)

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  • Re the late, much-loved Claude Frank: It was a Sunday 1964 concert of the New York Philharmonic. The guest conductor during that Lenny-less season (he was on sabbatical) was George Szell, whose New York Times interview noting that in the right hands, his, the Philharmonic was playing up to its high standards again (there had been other guest conductors), had just appeared. Blood was sure to be spilled: Szell’s. Oboist Harold Gomberg, de facto capo of the orchestra’s notorious conductor-bashing, non-denominational mafia, called a backstage meeting near where I, a Philharmonic PR man, was standing. Also nearby was the soloist, Claude Frank, limbering up at a dummy keyboard. Gomberg & co. decided to get their revenge by the strings’ lagging ever-so-slightly behind the notoriously finicky conductor’s beat in the pinpoint program-opening “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Overture” — just enough to drive Szell batty without the audience’s obvious awareness. John Corigliano, Sr., the concertmaster, noticed that Frank had heard and was sweating bullets. Corigliano put his arm around his shoulder and growled in his best mock-New York mafia tones, “don’ worry. Not during’ da concoito, kid.” (He called everyone, including the 40 year old Frank, “kid”.) Anyway, Szell’s post-performance anger was clear. But the Frank-Szell concerto — Schumann’s — went beautifully. The day following the event a letter arrived from Szell’s doctor stating that the flu prevented the maestro from leading the Philharmonic’s Pension Fund concert with Arthur Rubinstein later that week, and it came to pass that there was a substitute conductor. Szell returned to conduct the orchestra many times, but never again insulted them in the New York Times.

  • I first had the great honor of playing ‘near’ Claude Frank when I was a freshman at the Univ. of Arizona and I played in the Tucson Symphony in the early sixties. Claude Frank was the soloist for one of our concerts. It was the first time I had ever played in an orchestra with a major artist. Not only was he a marvelous musician, elegant and gracious in his playing, but a lovely human being and so nice to the musicians, even to the kids like me. I never forgot that. A few years later, I was playing in the Baton Rouge, LA Symphony cello section and Claude and Lilian were the soloists for one of our concerts there. I was sitting on the first desk with my teacher, Thaddeus Brys, so I was very close to the pianos. Again, I was so impressed with their playing, and I remember thinking, they must really be in love to play so very well together; and they drew us into their sacred circle of making beautiful music. It was a heady experience and one I have not forgotten, albeit almost 50 years ago now. It was a great gift to be in the same room, playing in the same orchestra, with them. I like to think that I did learn something from him, transferring his elegant phrasing to my own playing. Thank you Mr. Frank!

  • I heard Claude Frank play in NY in the early 80’s and went backstage to meet him. I asked if I could contact him for a lesson (I had recently graduated from Juilliard) and he gave me his phone number without hesitation. I took a few lessons with him at his apartment and immensely enjoyed the experience. It was a joy just being in his presence. His Beethoven Sonatas are still among my favorite interpretations and I hope I can find the program when I first heard him play. An elegant musician and a wonderful man!

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