Eighteen years ago, Pamela Frank was on her way as one of the very best violinists in the world. She was recording; she was soloist with the great orchestras; and nearly the only pianists to “accompany” her were Peter Serkin and her father, the legendary Claude Frank. Then it stopped suddenly. Dead.
“I sustained a traumatic injury in 2001 which dramatically changed my life overnight,” Pam told me in a 2017 interview.
“It drew on all my resources as a person to not link it to my identity as a person. It was very difficult at first, because we identify ourselves by what we do more than who we are. It took me a while to figure that out,” she said. “So I had to sort of reinvent myself.”
After some 10 years of hard work, drive and desire, Pam started to recover. She began by performing chamber music with friends. In September 2017, she joined her teacher Jaime Laredo on viola and conducting the Vermont Symphony Orchestra in exultant performances of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, in the September 2017 Made in Vermont tour. Pam and Jaime simply couldn’t stop smiling at each other.
And the performances were a reminder of Pam’s artistry in her heyday. While her virtuosity was always there, as well as a beautiful sound and expression, there was no self-aggrandizement or show. Her playing was purely in service to the music, much like Rudolf Serkin — and her father.
Well, she’s back. Pam will be the soloist in Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, with the VSO at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at Burlington’s Flynn Center, closing its 2018-19 Masterworks season. Jaime will also conduct Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 and Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infant défunte.”
I knew Pam through her father, whom I met while a 17-year-old freshman at Marlboro College, my first concert pianist ever. I remember Blanche Moyse, a Marlboro Music Festival co-founder and my teacher, introducing me to Claude: “This is my student Jim. He’s a bad violinist — but he’s getting better.”
Claude Frank (1925-2014) and his wife, Lillian Kallir (1931-2004), Pam’s parents, had deep roots at Marlboro Music Festival. Claude was on the faculty from the early ‘50s and the two were married there in 1959. Pam grew up between New York City and Marlboro, where she came under the influence of Rudolf Serkin, violinists Alexander Schneider and, of course, Jaime, among others.
After graduating from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with Jaime, Frank’s career took off. In addition to her “glamorous” appearances, Pam and her father played a number of all-Beethoven recitals for the Brattleboro Music Center. (Claude was a revered Beethoven pianist.) That’s where I met Pam.
I remember, at the reception following the first such concert, Blanche Moyse, who was hosting, introduced me to Pam: “This is my student Jim. He’s a bad violinist — but he’s a good musician.” Oh, well.
It was soon after winning the exclusive Avery Fisher Prize in 1999 that Pam’s solo career came to its abrupt stop. Fortunately, Pam had already begun teaching at Curtis and Baltimore’s Peabody Institute. (One beneficiary was Berlin-bred violinist Jesse Irons, now a professional based in Boston.)
“Teaching absolutely changed my life, and I can say unequivocally that I learned more from teaching in those first couple of years than I had in all the years playing beforehand,” she said in the 2017 interview.
The unplanned hiatus also allowed Pam to care for her sick and dying mother, and later to be present for the decline of her father.
“So, in a way, it was lemons turned into lemonade,” Pam said. “I think a trauma teaches you what you’re made out of. I started to feel like a person, even if I didn’t have a violin in my hands.”
Pam gives great credit for her recovery to her physical therapist, Howard Nelson.
“Whom I, of course, had to marry as a result,” Frank said. “It was the only way to thank him.”
Today, Pam is gradually returning to her former stature. If her performances with Jaime in 2017 were any indication, she’s well on her way. Next weekend’s VSO concert should indeed be memorable.