Frances Hall: A Life at the Keyboard

IT was a warm Sunday afternoon in May; the place was the Manhattan School of Music. As I looked up at Frances Hall Ballard sitting alongside Alice Tully, I thought how incredibly young she looked. It was hard to believe that she would soon be 90. I had come to see her awarded an honorary doctorate; Miss Tully was to receive the same honor. Mrs. Ballard's still naturally dark hair, streaked a little with gray in the front, framed a lovely, youthful face.

I remembered the first time I saw her, two years earlier. Through a mutual friend, I had agreed to type some manuscripts for her. I knew only that she was a former concert pianist and a distinguished teacher, and that she was taking a writing course. When I opened my door and saw a charming, stylishly dressed woman I would have taken to be in her 60s, I was startled.

The ensuing period of working with Mrs. Ballard was one of life's unexpected joys. As she embarked on her fourth career, writing - the first three having been concert pianist, teacher, and painter - I got to know a little about this remarkable, gentle, and totally disciplined woman.

Her roots are in Erie, Pennsylvania, where both parents were music lovers and hoped one of their children would become an accomplished musician. Frances began to study piano at an early age with a local teacher.

A great step forward in her musical development came when she started to study with Ernest Hutcheson during the summers at Chautauqua, N.Y. The summer of her 18th year he told her she should come to New York City that fall and continue her study with him full time.

``But my parents had other plans,'' Frances told me. ``They had already registered me in a college for the fall term. A college education for their daughters was almost a `must' for them.''

Hutcheson was deeply concerned about the Halls' opposition to his idea; he invited them all to his Chautauqua home to discuss it further.

Frances smiled as she remembered. ``Mr. Hutcheson explained that later would really be too late for me to concentrate on a musical career - and he firmly believed that was what I should do. I must start at once to prepare. A long discussion followed. My parents were not quick to yield. Finally Mr. Hutcheson said, `When you think how proud you'll be when Frances graduates from college, try to imagine your feelings if you were sitting in an auditorium and she came out to play a concert with, say, the New York Philharmonic!'

``Father was impressed by Hutcheson's confidence in me. Up to this time I had not uttered a syllable. Then father turned suddenly to me. `What would you like to do, Frances?' he asked. I answered without hesitation: `I'd like to study piano with Mr. Hutcheson in New York. My real ambition is to be a fine pianist.'''

That settled it. Her parents let their young daughter go to the big city and start on the long path to a musical career - and they were never sorry. An early review in the Chicago American had this to say about the young concert artist:

``She has everything that makes for success - magnetism, personality, excellent training, temperament, a fine sense of shading, and innate musical instinct.''

Her performing career, which lasted about 30 years, included many performances with symphony orchestras and countless recitals here and abroad. She performed frequently at the Chautauqua summer series, where her serious training had begun.

Two years after making her decision to study with Hutcheson, Frances gave her first professional performance with none other than the New York Philharmonic. The concert was not in New York, however, but in her home city of Erie. The orchestra was touring, and the concert manager in Erie told the orchestra's manager she could fill the house if Frances was on the program.

Joseph Stransky was the conductor. Although Frances was to perform in Erie, the rehearsal was held in New York at Carnegie Hall. Accompanied by the Hutchesons, Frances arrived at the hall on rehearsal day, a little awed, but not overwhelmed.

``Stransky was not particularly gracious,'' Frances commented in her mild, uncritical way. ``He did not relish performing with young, untried artists.''

Nevertheless, she rehearsed the Rubinstein Concerto in D minor successfully with the Philharmonic. ``At the end of the first movement, the whole orchestra spontaneously applauded. After that, Stransky's attitude changed to one of respect,'' she said.

There followed years of hard work, much concertizing, and considerable teaching. Eventually a fine pianist came into her life - Rudolph Gruen. He had been for several years accompanist to the tenor Richard Crooks. The two found they were a congenial piano team, and soon their work as duo-pianists was in demand. In 1932, they were married and continued their busy career, which included nearly 150 radio broadcasts. Avoiding as much as possible arrangements for two pianos, they preferred to play from the literature originally composed for two pianos. Their joint career flourished for over nine years.

A highlight of this period was their performance for the Grand Duke Alexander of Russia. After the assassination of most of the royal family during the revolution, he escaped to America and wrote a book, ``Once a Grand Duke.'' Parties were given to promote it, and Frances and Rudolph were asked to perform at one.

The party was held in the ballroom of Del Monico's. Frances and Rudolph played Russian selections on the two Steinways, and Grace Moore, then at the height of her fame as an opera and screen star, was also on the program. The duke was enchanted with the Gruens' playing. Afterward he declared he had never heard a woman pianist play so powerfully.

Although the joint career of the Gruens was a success, their marriage ended after nine years, and they were divorced. Their only child, Keith, remained with Frances.

After two years of teaching at Oberlin College in Ohio, Frances was invited to return to the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, where she had previously taught. The association was a long and rewarding one.

When Keith was 11, Frances married Lyman Ballard, a naval architect, who adopted her son, and the three formed a happy family. Frances gradually did less performing and more teaching; she felt her active concert career was taking too much time away from her growing son.

To relieve the tension of her busy teaching schedule, she took up painting. She found it fascinating, and also proved to have much talent for it, as evidenced by the excellent paintings hanging on her apartment walls. Simultaneously her husband took up sculpture, and the two became deeply engrossed in their artistic work. Their elegant Riverside Drive apartment is filled with their creations.

``I found I was able to lose myself completely in painting, something difficult to do in my performing and teaching careers. It was just what I needed to unwind and also provided me with an interesting third career.''

As she stepped up to receive her doctorate, I thought how magnificently she had won this honor. Years of hard work, a busy, full life that never bogged down when troubles came, a beautiful disposition (contradicting the notion that artists must be difficult), and a generous, unselfish character that always recognizes others' achievements have made her more than deserving of this tribute. Her life is a model of perseverance, humility, industry, and progress.

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