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An Interview with Violinist Frank Almond

Q and A with a triple-threat violinist: concertmaster, soloist, and chamber musician.

by Drew McManus
October 24, 2005

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An Interview with Violinist Frank Almond
Although most classical music enthusiasts already know that the concertmaster is the violinist who walks out before the conductor to engage the orchestra in tuning as well as being responsible for playing any featured violin solos included in the programmed repertoire.
But the reality is that the concertmaster is one of the only other artistic positions within the orchestra which contains a small mountain of additional artistic and non artistic responsibilities. Furthermore, they are not like the other musicians in that they have a separate contract and typically serve at the pleasure of the board of directors.
Violinist, Frank Almond, serves as the concertmaster for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. In addition to that position he's had the unique experience of serving as the concertmaster for the Rotterdam Philharmonic under Valery Gergiev and the London Philharmonic under Kurt Masur. In addition to his posts as concertmaster he's engaged in an active career as a soloist and chamber musician. Recently, I interviewed Frank via telephone while he was out with the Milwaukee Symphony performing in northern Wisconsin about his multifaceted musical life.
Q. Drew McManus: What were you're formative years as a classical musician like?
A. Frank Almond: Very strange in the sense that my upbringing didn't fit the characteristic profile of a young musician going into the world of classical music. I grew up in San Diego, they had a fantastic orchestra, and my parents enrolled me in one of the first Suzuki programs in the country which, at that time, was very low key.
My parents were both musicians, but not orchestral musicians, and they encouraged me to participate in music as an activity but never pushed me into looking at it as a profession. They certainly weren't the typical "stage parent" associated with most children involved with classical music.
I went to public school and played violin but it was never something I considered as a profession but I never thought about it seriously as a profession until much later than most other children who later become professional classical musicians.
Q. Drew McManus: What has been your most memorable concert experience as a concertmaster, soloist and chamber musician?
A. Frank Almond: I've been really fortunate in that I've done all three of those mediums alongside a number of great people so it's difficult to pin down singular events. In regard to my life as a musician, I do think there were more general experiences than events which stay with more.
For example, when I was 15, I went to Tanglewood and that experience crystallized things in my mind for the direction I was going to go with my life. Working with Leonard Bernstein as a conductor and Joseph Silverstein as a private teacher was more than just influential. The fact that both of them could do so much within the world of music so well as opposed to only one thing was a very positive influence for me.
Nevertheless, I always enjoy playing with other musicians like Yo-yo Ma who connect with audiences in a very special way. During 9/11 I was with the London Philharmonic and it was a very intense time which helped me see a number of things from different points of view. Right after the attacks, I spent several weeks on tour with the ensemble throughout Europe and Asia. Getting the European outlook toward the events from that time while working with the orchestra was a great experience, but being in the middle of all that while also being away from the U.S. was tough.
Q. Drew McManus: Do you ever get stage fright?
A. Frank Almond: "Stage Fright" has a very negative connotation to it but I think that's because so many people aren't aware of what those conditions are like in the first place. Even so, it really depends on the parameters of what's considered stage fright. I think it's unrealistic for anyone to expect things to be exactly the same in a performance as opposed to a personal practice situation. I think the two environments should be a different situation, that's what gives performances a spark and makes them meaningful.
How each person deals with turning performance anxiety issues to their advantage is what really makes the difference in the long term. However, anxiety is a very individual situation, so I know other people who have very different reactions to performing and how they are impacted by those types of experiences.
Personally, I've never met any great artist who doesn't have some change in their mindset when they go out to perform. I think it's impossible to be completely relaxed; the trick is to figure out in your own way to maximize those changes to your benefit. Athletes, such as golfers, have been studying this for a long time and it surprises me that the field of music is only just beginning to focus on the issue.
Q. Drew McManus: Are the artistic and non artistic aspects of leading a violin section more difficult that being a soloist or just different?
A. Frank Almond: I simply never put much thought into it until after I had a concertmaster position for a little time. I was really kind of naïve going into my first concertmaster position with regard to the non artistic aspects. I'm not an overtly political animal by nature but I do have the sort of personality that provides a different perspective to some of those issues in a constructive way. 
I do think the unique sets of skills for a concertmaster are best learned on the job. The mechanics of working with a section from an administrative position can be influenced by youth. When I joined the MSO I was 31 and I'm sure there were some people who saw that as a negative but there were others who also those who saw it as a positive since I didn't enter the position with as many preconceived ideas. At the same time, I've noticed more established orchestras have a tendency to want a concertmaster to fit within the existing machinery in place.
Q. Drew McManus: You've served as a concertmaster in three different countries, all with varied approaches to the arts. Are the responsibilities of a concertmaster appreciably different in each of those countries?
A. Frank Almond: The differences are very striking, some are geographic by nature and others are simply because they are different ensembles comprised of varied individuals. However, a lot of it depends on who was sitting in that chair right before you.
During my time with the London Philharmonic in 2001, there was no set policy on how they selected a concertmaster so after the preceding concertmaster left, I was invited to perform with the ensemble for awhile. I clearly noticed that my predecessor was very active in leading the section; for example, he used to talk to the section and play phrases from them. Because of that, the section was accustomed to working with that model and that's what they wanted. However, that particular model is very different from most violin section environments in the U.S.
What I found particularly interesting working in both U.K. and European orchestras is that in Holland, the egalitarian viewpoint among the ensemble was dominant. There wasn't much of a difference between section players and the concertmaster other than the concertmaster played the solos. When I joined that ensemble, I had to watch that my personality and behavior didn't go outside of established boundaries. It was almost comical in some tiny aspects; for example, concertmasters don't have separate dressing rooms. Instead, all of the principal strings shared a single dressing room. 
In general, learning when to fit in and when to be outgoing is an important skill to develop.
Q. Drew McManus: Have you ever taken it upon yourself to receive any special training to handle political and other non artistic issues related to being a concertmaster? 
A. Frank Almond: No, I haven't had any special training related to issues associated with being a concertmaster. I don't really think there is a way to teach the non artistic components of being in a leadership position. The only way to figure it out is to get out there and do it; if someone is not naturally adept, they'll need a quick learning curve. Along those lines, there are clearly some personalities which don't work well with sitting as concertmaster.
I consider Glenn Dicterow to be a large influence on my life. I used to watch him when he was in L.A. and I think he's one of the best people sitting in that chair with regard to artistic and non artistic issues.
I do talk to other concertmasters and I've noticed that some who are closer to my generation tend to have an increased conservative outlook with regard to entering a position. Certainly, for orchestra musicians these days, the last thing they want is to have someone come in and turn things upside down. As such, having a huge personality leaping out at you in a concertmaster audition doesn't always work for them.
 However, I've noticed that the best people sitting as concertmasters eventually find a perfect balance between all these issues which work best within their unique environment.  
Q. Drew McManus: Do you think there should be some sort of fundamental knowledge that anyone serving as a concertmaster should possess?
A. Frank Almond: Nothing beyond what I've mentioned so far. I would like to see the audition process reformed in some way, but I don't really know what in detail yet. Along those lines, one thing I've found alarming in some groups is the routine denial of tenure in the standpoint of music directors going against the opinion of musician committees and patrons.
On a larger concept, I think the tenure model needs be generally re-examined to refine it in such a way that it benefits musicians and the organization in the best way possible. For example, perhaps creating a larger incentive to keep tenure and periodic re-evaluations are perhaps worth examining. However, I am not suggesting abolishing tenure in any sense.
Q. Drew McManus: Are there any significant differences you have observed between American, British, and European audiences, managers, and musicians?
A. Frank Almond: In general, depending on where you were and the local history, audiences in Europe were very literate. For example, in Holland, the audiences were very well versed with Mahler repertoire.
As for the differences in the musicians, the players in the U.K. work very long and very hard but are paid very little by comparison to their peers elsewhere. In the U.S., there is a regimented quality to most major orchestras due to the influence of the collective bargaining agreements.
When I came back to the U.S., I've always attempted to bring the positives from every environment I've worked to my current situation.
Not long ago, it occurred that one of the ironies, for me, is that being concertmaster of an orchestra the size of the MSO seems to create better opportunities for my other endeavors such as the chamber series, solo dates, and recording. The fact that we don't have a 52-week season allows for some other artistic pursuits, and my relationship with the MSO's management is such that they generally view those activities as a sort of extended promotion of the MSO. It's possible that a position with a larger orchestra would offer the same conditions, but far from certain. I've considered a few other openings in the past five years (and turned some down). Personally, that sort of flexibility is really important, and apparently, not all that common.
Q. Drew McManus: What accomplishments as a musician are most satisfying to you at this point in your career and what goals remain?
A. Frank Almond: My goals tend to shift form year to year but the overarching goal of having a career of sitting in the concertmaster chair while also being a good soloist and chamber musician is my personal goal. 
In the past few years I've been very happy with how that has happened in my life and how I've balanced that concept. As I get older, I become more interested in what I'm doing here in Milwaukee. I've been doing more recording lately and have had a great deal of success with it plus it has been really enjoyable. Overall, there's still a lot to be done.
Q. Drew McManus: Do you think the orchestra business will be very different 20 years from now?
A. Frank Almond: I certainly hope it will be different, on just about every level I can think of. However, I see some positive indication that things are changing for the better. I think the business is at a really critical level right now and it's in a contracting cycle.
Tapping into the highly intelligent, creative people out there isn't being done enough and finding solutions to that is going to be a key element for any orchestra's future. To that end, I think the iTunes idea here at the MSO is a shining example of how things need to change which also satisfies everyone involved.

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