Pianist Frager is artist, teacher, thinker
Lenox, Mass. — `MUSIC, to me, is basically the expression in sound of something that's been experienced in our human life,'' says Malcolm Frager, the concert pianist. ``The most important thing in performance is to pinpoint that particular mood or character, or combination of characters, which is implicit in the music and focus all our efforts on bringing this character to life in such a way that, when the audience hears it, it responds instinctively, and somehow knows what the music is about. Otherwise, to me music can be a very boring thing.'' Such intellectual probing is not surprising, coming from a man who was giving recitals in his hometown of St. Louis at the age of 6, whose Columbia University language degree is in Russian, and who speaks six other languages as well.
Malcolm Frager is taking time out to talk with a visitor at his farm here in western Massachusetts, a peaceful haven for his family from the rigors of an active concert schedule (100-plus a year) and the pressures pursuant to sustaining a career as one of the most respected musical thinkers among performing pianists.
But even this home isn't far removed from the music at the heart of his life. It's within walking distance of Tanglewood, the sweeping estate that is now the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On Friday Mr. Frager will sound the first notes of the Tanglewood Music Festival season with piano music by Weber. On Saturday evening he will play Weber's Second Concerto, with Charles Dutoit conducting, and then, on July 5, the music of Mozart and Bach, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.
Frager made music history when he was the first to win the two most demanding piano competitions in the world -- the Leventritt in New York and the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium in Brussels. At the time (1959-60), competitions were not a built-in part of any young virtuoso's concert career.
Since then, he has become not only an acclaimed and respected musician, but a music historian as well. He has helped locate lost manuscripts. He has performed first versions of several popular piano works. He is in demand the world over as an artist, a teacher of master classes, and a competition judge.
For Frager, performance and music history go hand in hand. One of the highlights of his career to date was when he first held the original manuscript of the Schumann A-minor Piano Concerto in his hands. ``No one had seen it since the turn of the century,'' he says. ``And I discovered that the first movement had originally been orchestrated far more symphonically, with many aspects of greater modernity for that time.''
Frager prefers to go back to manuscripts when preparing to play piano concertos. He finds it gets him closer to the composer at the time of creation, because published editions were often put out years after a work's premi`ere. All this he views as part of exploring what the composer's intention might have been, mostly by firsthand study, occasionally by recalling past great artists' performances he might have heard.
``If you think back on a performance that has really stood out to you over the years, you may not even remember the specific sounds,'' he says. ``But you remember the mood that was created, the turn of phrase, the momentary vision that became clear to you at that instant.''
Today Frager has mixed feelings about the kinds of musical competitions that led to his own success. As a young performer he had moved to New York to study with the great Carl Friedburg, and from there, struggled to begin his career, which led to those two competitions.
``At that time [the '59-60 season] I had no concerts, and I needed a way of being heard. And I thought that [those competitions were] the answer. The idea of competition, I [now] think, is antithetic to the whole purpose of art.
``We're never really competing with anybody else. We're just learning to be ourselves. [We compete] with our own past performances all the time, but never with another person.
``I don't think necessarily that a wholly primrose path is an advantage for an artist. To be very honest with you, as a child I thought that's what would always be the case. It is sometimes a rude awakening. Sometimes the awakening comes over a long period of time, and you realize that this is not the way things are going to be for ever and ever -- that you do have to grow up; that you do have to find out who you really are and not be off in the clouds; that you have to face up to challenges; that you have to struggle; that you have to really strive to get beyond the surface of things. And you can't hide from yourself.
``They say that every artist wants to be loved by everybody in the world simultaneously. I think if you stop wanting the impossible, if you stop wanting to be the king of the universe, and perhaps not take yourself quite so seriously, you won't lose your love of music, and the joy you have in performing.''
Frager has a lot of outside interests that feed his musicianship. He is a voracious reader (in all his seven languages), and likes to set such goals for himself as reading through the collected works of Hardy or Dostoyevsky. He enjoys sight reading through music that is not in his repertoire. He learns about the composers that way. ``They were great masters, but they were also human beings.
``We should work with them as if they were colleagues, with us here today: What did Mozart mean when he wrote this particular phrase? Why did he do that? Bring all your imagination and knowledge to bear on that particular issue, until you reach the point where you say, `Oh, yes, this is what it must be.' ''
Does Frager have any one aim as an artist?
``My goal is to be the same onstage as off. I want to reach the point where I can look at everybody on a level gaze and feel that everyone I meet is unique, and important to the rest of humanity, and not to feel that I am more important than anyone else.''