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15 Questions to Frank Almond

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Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I’m doing really well, in Seattle at the moment as a guest Concertmaster.

What’s on your schedule right now?
We just finished the MSO season and I have a little vacation coming up. Also working on some weird summer repertoire like the Strauss violin concerto and some new material for the next CD.

If you hadn’t chosen for music, what do you think you would do right now?
I really don’t know, since I’ve done this my whole life. I have lots of other interests, so I'm sure I'd find something simpler than playing the violin. Maybe study quantum theory, for instance.

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist?

Probably a few people, and certain specific concerts early on. When I was 15 I spent some time working with the renowned Boston Symphony Concertmaster Joseph Silverstein, who I found really inspiring, not just as a musician but as a really intelligent and thoughtful artist. He's probably the person who most inspired me to try and avoid being pegged as a "soloist", or "chamber musician", or some other label. That same summer I also got to work with Leonard Bernstein, who was quite a force in many different artistic areas. I think another defining moment came when I realized many of my friends in high school were working at McDonalds, and I thought I had a better shot at being a musician.

What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?

I think the hardest part is that in the US, classical music isn't really relevant to most people's lives. There's an audience, but the whole concert experience is a bit abstract for them since there isn't a lot of history or education behind it. They can enjoy it and may have a strong connection to a certain piece or concert, but they probably won't understand why or how I actually do this as a profession. By contrast, I find that whenever I play in Europe (for example) it's a different atmosphere. It still might not be relevant in the same way as pop culture, but at least there's a fair segment of the population that has a sort of cultural literacy. Since I live in the US, there's a kind of alienation that goes with being a classical musician. But to me that's also one of the best things, since I don't know very many people who have a sense of inspiration and variety built in to their profession almost by definition. If you're bored being a musician, it's you, not the music.

What’s your view on the classical music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
Maybe, depending on your definition of "crisis". I recently read a great many quotes from various sources predicting the death of classical music; the first one was from 1926 (you can find them on a Alex Ross's site It's always something, because it's a niche interest compared to pop culture. It takes intellect, imagination, and curiosity to play classical music well; sometimes to really enjoy it beyond the surface those elements are also required by the audience. But I think the bigger issue is how the classical music business has generally failed to adapt adequately to contemporary culture; however, I think this is getting better in certain ways. Still, it has taken a remarkably long time for the classical establishment to realize that the general public is often intimidated by both the music as well as most of the orthodox concert formats. It's just silly to expect people these days to go to some cavernous hall and see a bunch of old farts wearing tails playing music that they have no connection to except for what they see in program notes (if they've bothered to read them). There are definitely more inviting ways to have an audience experience a concert in a more meaningful sense.

Some feel there is no need to record classical music any more, that it’s all been done before. What do you tell them?
I'd say there's no need to record classical music using the same methods, mentalities, and business models that left the major labels with all the artistic ownership while simultaneously causing the collapse of the industry. With some ingenuity and requisite level of talent, there's always a market for a great recording that's easily accessible to your audience. People are still buying lots of recordings, just mostly downloading them. Again, the numbers aren't like, say, Coldplay, but they aren't insignificant. And the music is certainly more durable than a lot of pop nonsense.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
I think a good live concert has a kind of intangible element of spontaneity coupled with a powerful connection to the audience; a very special sort of communication. That's always what I'm after, so I guess that's my approach. There are different ingredients that help create a great concert, but in the end it's kind of mysterious when it happens (or doesn't).

What does the word “interpretation” mean to you?
In classical music you're usually playing someone else's notes on a page, unless you're a composer/performer. So I think the goal is to take that manuscript and give it a compelling spin, somehow fusing your own personality with what the composer actually wrote down, and taking our contemporary views into account to some degree. For example, we all play with varying styles of vibrato these days, but relatively speaking that's a fairly modern expressive device. You end up making lots of choices like that whether you want to or not. Anyway, it's all very subjective and for the most part we're playing on different instruments that someone like Mozart could've ever imagined.

How do you balance the need to to put your personal emotions into the music you play and the intentions of the composer?
I don't do it consciously; some sort of balance just naturally occurs. But I would emphasize that different degrees of taste and sensibility obviously are hallmarks of certain artistic profiles, my own included. So sometimes those elements are dominant in relation to what the composer supposedly intended. Again, it all sort of depends on your perspective, and there's a great deal of subjectivity involved.

True or false: People need to be educated about classical music, before they can really appreciate it.
False. I know lots of people who love classical music and haven't the slightest idea of what it is intellectually. Sometimes those are the best audience members. I know when I see a painting that grabs me, or taste a great bottle of wine. I can instinctively appreciate those things; I might get more interested later on, however, and crave a few more details.

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?
Well, I could be idealistic and come up with all kinds of things that you think would appeal to various people's tastes and interests, and then see if we sell any tickets. Or I could be more realistic, and take all the other factors in as well, such as the community in general, the budget, size of the hall, popular tastes, recent box office history, all that kind of stuff. Personally I'd lean towards a substantial quality of artistry (no Bond or Browns, thank you) but make it accessible instead of intimidating. It's a complex mix, especially when you try and balance artistic integrity with the bottom line. Artistic directors tend to be better at one or the other.

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?
Ultimately it's really the relationship to yourself. In the best concerts, the instrument just translates it so the audience can listen in.

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?
My brother Cliff is a pretty well-known drummer; over the years I dabbled on the various instruments he had laying around. I wasn't very good, but I learned a lot about time and rhythm. After a couple of drinks I can get around on guitar and bass. I had to take piano at Juilliard, but I wouldn't say I can actually play it. And one afternoon I learned how to play the viola. Just kidding.

John Cage: Works for Piano & Prepared Piano, Vol. 2 (1993) Wergo
Timeless Tales & Music of Our Time (2001) An die Musik
 The Emperor's New Clothes (2004) An die Musik
Brahms: The Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano
Respighi :: Janácek :: Strauss

Frank Almond

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