My recent viewing of SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION, the new film documentary by Ethan Hawke, has struck all manner of resonances within me about two great pianists, the titular Mr. Bernstein, and the late Claude Frank (1925-2014), pictured below with me at the University of Kansas.
Hawke’s informal portrait of the noted concert pianist/ educator Seymour Bernstein touches a lot of bases (or, piano keys!), namely the biography of a New York-born artist who grew up a keyboard prodigy, survived service in Korea, studied with the eminent British pianist Clifford Curzon, garnered world fame on the concert platform, and has spent his later years teaching the craft and philosophy of art and music.
There’s plenty of piano music, of course, mostly performed by Bernstein himself, with fascinating sidelights on other pianists, notably the eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, insights into the great piano composers (notably, a passionate commentary on Robert Schumann’s great C-major Fantasie), a tour of the legendary Steinway basement during a piano selection, and peeks into his work with students in master classes.
Ah, yes, the master class. . . Bernstein adopts a warm, patient, and magisterial approach to his students, unlike other master classes I have attended, where somebody like Menahem Pressler is nothing short of ferociously impatient with his students. That is appreciated. But watching these sequences brought to mind my friendship with the late pianist Claude Frank (my drawing below).
I first met Claude when he visited the University of Kansas in 1983 in the first of several Artist-in-Residence appearances there. Instantly, the old-world charm and wit of this master pianist—student of Artur Schnabel and master of the German school of Schubert and Beethoven and Schumann—appealed to me and everyone he met at the University. He sat down with me at the keyboard and talked about his early years in Nuremberg, his escape to America before the onset of World War II, his experiences in the American Army, his subsequent concert career, and his ground-breaking recordings and performances of the complete Beethoven Sonata Cycle. His passion for music and life infused his every word, while he generously punctuated his remarks with performance excerpts. That led to our many other encounters. He became a vital resource for my Public Radio series, The World of Robert Schumann; and just recently, I produced a radio program that featured his affectionate tribute to music in the movies, in particular, his one-man platform performance that mildly satirized the Schumann biopic, SONG OF LOVE (1947). He had allowed me to tape that performance fifteen years ago, and hearing it again now brings tears to my eyes.
Claude Frank and his wife Lillian Kallir (my drawing pictured here), also a world-class pianist, frequently performed together. I vividly remember hearing them both perform a Mozart two-piano concerto. And their daughter, Pamela, has become in her own right a celebrated violinist. Here, indeed, was a family that made beautiful music together. Pamela survives both parents, and a recent performance with Emanuel Ax consolidates her position as one of the pre-eminent violinists in the world.
Master classes. . . nay, MASTER MUSICIANS both, Seymour Bernstein and Claude Frank. I never met the former, alas, but my memories of the incredible generosity and engaging humor of the second, remain a special “musical tone” in my memory.
And kudos to Pamela Frank, whose career carries on the Frank legacy.