Frankly Music ‘unstuffs’ the classics

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Frankly Music, the revolving chamber group established by virtuoso violinist Frank Almond, is designed to “unstuff” the classics, making them more accessible to a wider audience.

The group opens its 10th season on Oct. 14 with a performance at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

“The idea for the series evolved from my own frustration regarding the protocols and traditions of the classical music ‘experience,’” Almond says. “I felt the whole thing was alienating and that there was a way for people to engage with this art form that was more meaningful without dumbing it down.”

“At its best, chamber music is like a really important conversation with the audience eavesdropping,” he explains. “I knew that if we could combine that (concept) with a decent party afterwards, it could resonate with people, whether or not they knew anything about classical music.”

Almond is more than well qualified to act as a classical music ambassador. With double degrees from the Juilliard School of Music, he served as concertmaster for both the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic. He holds the Charles and Marie Caestecker Concertmaster Chair with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and teaches at Northwestern University. 

Almond performs on a 1715 Stradivari violin known as the Lipinski and named for its former owner – the Polish violinist Karol Lipinski. Almond’s “Portraits and Elegies” on the Innova label was the first recording on modern audio equipment using the famous instrument. 

In order to bring the audience closer to the musicians, Frankly Music concerts are typically set in intimate venues. Introductory discussions precede what are generally exceptional performance from a revolving camp of guest artists. (Almond is the ensemble’s only resident performer.) A glass of wine with the musicians after the performance commonly caps the evening.

This season’s opening concert mixes both familiar and unfamiliar pieces under the theme “Flashback!” Mozart’s “Duo in G Major for Violin and Viola, K. 423” and his “Divertimento in E flat, K. 563” for string trio are joined by the “Duo for Violin and Cello” by the little-known Jewish composer Erwin Schulhoff. In addition to Almond, violist Toby Appel and cellist Edward Arron are scheduled to perform.

“The Mozart string trio is an undisputed masterpiece, even by Mozart’s own standards, and the only large-scale work he ever wrote for that combination,” Almond says. “It’s probably the first substantial work ever written for string trio and, at 40 minutes and six movements, requires spectacular virtuosity and stamina from all three players.”

The Mozart duo is also a strong work, one that gives the viola a prominent voice, Almond says.

But it’s Schulhoff’s composition, a relatively obscure work to concertgoers, that might be the performance’s most compelling attraction. A Czech composer strongly influenced by his countryman Leos Janácek, Schulhoff blends folk and contemporary elements with technical demands similar to those required in duos by Ravel and Kodály.

 Schulhoff was a rising star in the 1930s, but his career was cut short by unwanted attention from the Third Reich. As both Jewish and an avowed communist, Schulhoff was sent in June 1941 to the Wülzburg concentration camp near Weissenburg, Bavaria, where he died of tuberculosis a year later. 

“It’s gratifying to see his music rediscovered over the past 10 years or so,” Almond says.

Almond is excited about his co-performers for the season’s first concert. Arron, who also studied at Juilliard, has performed with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and serves on the faculty at New York University. Appel has performed with numerous chamber groups, including the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, as well as with jazz artists Chick Corea and Gary Burton.

“We don’t really do well with diva types, so the people playing have artistic sensibilities that naturally draw them to this sort of format,” Almond says. “We’ve had some huge names on the series because they like the concept and don’t get to do this very often.”

In addition to attracting top musicians, the informal format helps fulfill Almond’s goal of making classical music more accessible for Milwaukee audiences. 

“Classical music isn’t a part of most people’s lives on a daily basis, but like all great art, it has a way of seeping into your soul once you get bitten,” he says. “I’m very happy that it seems to contribute something to the local arts community that is totally unique.”

On stage

Frankly Music opens its 10th season Oct. 14 at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1584 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee. For more information, visit www.franklymusic.org.