Friday, October 23, 2015

Why I Do What I Do: The Frank Sinatra

This is a cross-post with my Hoboken Diary blog. It has a home both here as one of my "Why I Do What I Do" essays, as well as there, or so it seems to me.

The Frank Sinatra

The title above may seem odd: just what is that definite article doing in front of the name of The Sultan of Swoon, The Chairman of the Board, The Voice, when it’s not in the form of a nickname? Sure, there was only one Frank Sinatra, born just shy of 100 years ago in Hoboken, but why bother?

Yet, if you are in the trenches of the classical music business, you read that title to mean something else entirely; you read it with the definite article pronounced “tha” rather than “thee,” and as something having very little to do with Ol’ Blue Eyes. Here is a true-to-life conversation between a couple of classical musicians:

Musician #1: Did you make it to Jane’s concert last night? I was bummed to miss it; I had a gig.
Musician #2: She played great. So did Jeff. [That would be the pianist.]
Musician #1: They always do. What was on the program?
Musician #2: The Beethoven E-flat, the Ravel, the Frank Sinatra, and some showpieces.
Musician #1: Sorry I missed it.
Musician #2: She asked after you backstage.

No, Jane and Jeff did not play an arrangement of “New York, New York” or “Strangers in the Night.” It wasn’t “Pennies from Heaven” or “September Song.” What they played was the Sonata in A major for Violin & Piano, written in 1886 by the Belgian composer César Franck (1822-1890).

The Franck Sonata – or rather, the Frank Sinatra.

Ol’ Blue Eyes? Perhaps eyes of blue, perhaps not, 
but certainly César Franck (photograph by Pierre Petit).
I do not know who is responsible for this nickname, but it so pervasive that musicians use it essentially to the exclusion of a more proper name, and it will pass by without even the hint of a comment or laugh. The work is only extremely rarely referred to as “the Franck Sonata” in any casual conversation between working musicians. Its name simply IS “the Frank Sinatra.” I find a similarity here to the old joke about a bunch of stand-up comedians sitting around a bar, and one says “Number 6!” and they all laugh, and another says “Number 82!” and they roll on the floor – except without the laughing and rolling. It is the “in” joke, par excellence.

Of course with each classical musician there is a point at which this joke is first encountered.

Earlier this month, Itzhak Perlman played at the Bergen Performing Arts Center, orbergenPAC. That is in Englewood, next door to Tenafly, so how could my wife and I not take our 10-year-old violinist son (and my 87-year-old mother) to that?

The anticipation of it brought back memories of a recital I attended with my parents in my hometown, New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1976, when I was fifteen. It was the violinist Joseph Fuchs (1899-1997) and pianist Artur Balsam (1906-1994). I had no idea who they were, but I was becoming very interested in classical music at that point. I listened to plenty of classical music on the radio (WGBHWBUR, and WCRB), and was starting to assemble a collection of LPs that added to my father’s prized Beethoven symphony set (Toscanini and the NBC Symphony). But this performance was my first time hearing a live-in-concert duo recital.

It was life-changing. It was a SERIOUS program. I remember a friend of my parents approaching me after it was over and asking, “You like that long-hair stuff?” I did.

I do not have perfect recall of everything they played. It started with Mozart or Beethoven. There was definitely a Brahms sonata; I’m not sure which, but I think it was the A major. The program ended with the Frank Sinatra, which of course is not the name by which I or my parents knew it. (If the joke goes back that far, then Mr. Fuchs and Mr. Balsam certainly knew.) I remember being amazed by the Mozart-Beethoven and the Brahms.

But the Franck. The Franck!! That piece, that performance completely blew me away. How could a composer DO that? How did those musicians DO that? I’m enthralled to this day, my skin tingles just thinking about it, thirty-nine years later. I met Mr. Balsam in 1984 and I was able to tell him. I never met Mr. Fuchs, but I did once meet his younger sister, the renowned violist, Lillian.

As is common with Mr. Perlman’s recitals, there was no advance publicity about the program in Englewood. A few hours before the concert I was discussing that with my son. He was puzzled, and I did my best to explain that that is simply how things are with Perlman. Not that he hadn’t decided what he was going to play, but that it is part of the fun. You go because you need to hear him play the music – whatever music he chooses. (In fact, it was even unannounced who the pianist would be!)

My son nonetheless wanted know what I thought Mr. Perlman would play. I said, “Oh, probably he’ll start with a Mozart or Beethoven sonata. Then he’ll probably play something like the Ravel or Debussy sonata. Possibly a sonata by someone like Franck or Fauré. And then finish up with a bunch of encores, definitely including some Kreisler. You’ll love it.” I added, “The pianist is probably Rohan de Silva; they play together a lot. Perlman used to play a lot with Sam Sanders, who passed away much too young. Now de Silva is his regular. Sam and I were friendly.” (The last time I’d seen Perlman perform – far too long ago – was at Sanders’ memorial at Merkin Concert Hall.)

Mr. Perlman announced each piece (no printed program!) just before playing it. He and de Silva started with the Beethoven E-flat major Sonata (Op. 12, No. 3), then the Ravel, and then after intermission the Frank Sinatra and encores, including a couple by Kreisler. Each time a piece was announced, my son looked at me with wide eyes – wider each time. I told him he really shouldn’t be that impressed by my prowess (and he shouldn’t), but I didn’t mind looking rather brilliant. It keeps a Dad going, you know.

For whatever reason, I didn’t call the piece “the Frank Sinatra” when I predicted the program. But I made a good call, as you will see.

The performance – everything, most certainly including the Frank Sinatra (and I think in particular the Ravel) – was amazing, beautiful, all about the music. And entertaining, especially when you add the almost impossible charm and humor Mr. Perlman exudes when he talks to an audience. A block of granite couldn’t help but respond to a performance like this.

After the performance was over, my son was unexpectedly invited to join some other students to go backstage to meet Mr. Perlman. While my wife and I waited (it was a long wait – it turns out there were people from the Israeli Embassy, and they got to go first), I found myself standing at the entrance to bergenPAC, looking at this:

Itzhak Perlman plays the Frank Sinatra!
One might think it was planned. Itzhak Perlman plays the Frank Sinatra (even it is actually the Frank Sinatra Jr., in this case). Best of all, it provided the perfect way to introduce my son to the REAL name of that piece he’d just heard.

The reaction? A quick, appreciative smile and a flash of the eyes. Perfect. Next time he encounters the work, it will likely be among working musicians, and when “the Frank Sinatra” is invoked, I imagine my son will let it go by without acknowledgment but with full understanding – or he’ll be the one to use the nickname without missing a beat. I probably won’t be on hand, but I’ll be there in spirit.

If you don’t know the Frank Sinatra, I warmly recommend you get to know it. Here are links to performances on YouTube by four incredible pairs: Yehudi Menuhin and his sister, Hephzibah; David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter; Arthur Grumiaux and György Sebök (one of my wife’s teachers); and Ivry Gitlis and Martha Argerich. There is an entire world in each interpretation – and a universe in all of them together.

Second movement:
Fourth movement:




I find no evidence that Fuchs and Balsam recorded the Frank Sinatra. They certainly did record together. Here is their interpretation of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, which I offer with my eternal thanks to these two masters who changed my life.

Second movement:

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