Malcolm Frager: American Pianist


Malcolm Frager: American Pianist

Malcolm Frager: American Pianist chronicles the award-winning musician's life, work, and legacy. Frager's talent and scholarship was honored with numerous prestigious awards, and his influence and perseverance uncovered a cache of more than a thousand original manuscripts by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, and Mozart that had been missing and believed lost since World War II.

AIRED: October 26, 2016 | 0:26:46

(man)I always think of Malcolm Frager

as highly intelligent,very serious.

Had the best of liberal artseducations

as well as the best pianoeducation.

He was the only authentic geniusI personally knew.

He was just one of the mostlikable men I've ever met.

He was a very warmand humane individual

and his great humanity wasreflected in his music.

I think he was a great pianist

and not as appreciatedas he should have been.

[Malcolm Fragerplays a classical piece]

(woman) "Malcolm Frager,American Pianist,"

is funded by...

the Minnesota Artsand Cultural Heritage Fund,

with money from the voteof the people of Minnesota

on November 4th, 2008...

The Eastman School of Music,Rochester, New York,

and by the membersof Prairie Public.

[playing in bright rhythm]




My grandmother was playingsomething at the piano

and my brother is 2 years old,she stops, and he plays it.

Something musical is going onlong before anybody else knew.

(male narrator)Someone who did understandyoung Malcolm was

his aunt Evelyn Rubenstein,Malcolm's first piano teacher.

My mother was just warmthpersonified, you know,

she just exuded love, and sheloved her students

and she loved Malcolm.

They would get together andplay music, two piano music,

and she would playthe orchestral part

and concertosthat he was working on.


(Jason McManus) He wasour class prodigy.

Everybody knew Malcolm wasspecial, really special.

(Joan Rosen Sessel) Once I heardMalcolm play,

I knew it would be special.

It just wasn't like any of myfriends who were playingthe piano.


Malcolm and I encounteredeach other on the sidelines

and we started talking

and Malcolm explained to me

how he could not participatein any kind of contact sports

where it might hurt his hand.

And he was so intent; I wouldnever have disturbed him

while he was practicing.

He never bragged about himselfor promoted himself

amongst his peers;that wasn't his style.

Very centered in himself, Ididn't find him insecure,

which usually shy people are.

(Morag Frager) He describedhimself as being painfully shy.

He was occasionally subjectedto teasing.

People didn't understand theimplications

of being a classical musician.

At this time more than ever,

I was making plansfor the future.

I imagine myselfas a great pianist,

touring all over the world,

Paris, Vienna, Berlin,and many other places.

And if I were to succeedin these future dreams,

I must work diligently now.

(narrator)In 1948, the 13-year-old Frager

traveled to Kansas Cityto participate in master classes

under celebrated pianistand teacher Carl Friedberg,

keeping detailed journals.

Then Malcolm traveledwith Friedberg to New York

to continue his studies.

The summer that I met MalcolmFrager was 1956,

which was a summer in whichI decided

that I was not going to bea pianist,

that even practicingat 10 or 12 hours a day

was not going to put me inthe league with Malcolm Frager.

I was one of the dozen or sopianists

and Malcolm Fragerwas one of them,

so was Anton Kuertiand Gilbert Kalish,

Van Cliburn, James Levineat the age of 10 or 11,

all absolutelyfirst-rate pianists.

You won't find more than 2or 3 that are both interested

in performance at a very highlevel and the scholarship

that stands behindthat performance,

and Malcolm was one of those.

(narrator)Although his family wasoriginally Jewish,

Frager was raised in the faithof Christian Science.

As a young girl, Sadie Freedman,Frager's maternal grandmother,

had become seriously ill

and hope for her recoverywas all but lost.

She rallied unexpectedlyfollowing the intervention

of a Christian Sciencepractitioner, rendering her

a devout Christian Scientistfor the remainder of her life.

She raised her daughters,

Florence and Evelynin that faith.

Frager was as disciplinedin his faith

as he was in his music making.

The first time I saw a boyishlook on his face as a grown man,

we were in Stockbridge

and it wasa Christian Science Church.

At the time he wasa First Reader,

and my parents were visiting

and he didn't tell them he wasgoing to be doing the sermon.

And he gets up there, and he'sjust beaming like a little boy,

'cause he knows his mom'sgoing to be proud of him.

(narrator)Whenever he traveled, even ontour, faith had been a priority.

He was in Rochester for avisiting committee meeting

and I said, well we're goingto have

a special rehearsal of some kindwith the Cleveland Quartet

on Wednesday night thatI'd love you to attend.

And he said, no, I've got to goto the testimonial meeting.

And that went to a discussionof Mary Baker Eddy

and Christian Science and howimportant that was to his life.

(narrator)In the decade of the '60s,Frager was in demand.

Concerts were his for the asking

and his childhood dream wasbecoming a reality.

New York had been good to him

and he was about to meetthe love of his life.

I came on a travelingscholarship

and I was probably 22 or so,

21, 22, and actually met Malcolmon that first trip.

I was introduced to himby friends.

And then I watched himwalking up Fifth Avenue

conducting a scorewith his hand,

walking up Fifth Avenue,and I remember thinking,

what an odd person! [laughs]

I emigrated within a yearto New York

and just as sort of luckor fortune would have it,

I met Malcolmthat very afternoon

that I landed in New York City.

I was looking for a job.

My father's in town, he has

a lot of contacts,a lot of business contacts

and give me your phone numberand I'll ask him

and I'll let you know if there'sanything that can come of it.

Nothing came of the job,but he had my phone number.

We were married 2 years later.

He had a concert that day.

That was the pattern of my life

well-establishedfrom the very beginning.

I could always tell when he washappy with a performance

just by the sparklein his eye afterwards,

his readinessto talk with people

and to go out afterwardswith friends.

(Robert Freeman)He came to Boston and playedalso at Esplanade,

and I went to the concert.

Esplanade is not a terriblydistinguished gig

even for somebodyin his early 20's,

but it's the Boston PopsEsplanade Orchestra playing,

and Malcolm knewthat I was there

and the next day called meat home,

to ask me how I really thoughthe had played.

I had gone backstage afterwards

and said that I thought heplayed wonderfully,

but now he wanted to know howI really thought he played

and I told him I would not havesaid that he played wonderfully

if I had not believed that,and it must have taken me

5 minutes on the phone toconvince him that I meant that.

I was impressed by that'cause I thought a guy

with his prowess at the pianodidn't need to be encouraged

by the likes of me,but apparently I was wrong.

In 1963, Mr. Frager havingestablished himself

as an artist of internationalstature by winning back to back

in the '59 -'60 season boththe Leventritt Competition

and the Queen Elisabethof Belgium Competition,

was invited to undertake a touron Soviet Territory,

and that was alsothe beginning of

his professional collaborationwith Vladimir Ashkenazy.

[voice of Vladimir Ashkenazy]

He told me that he got kickedout of the Soviet Union

because he spoke Russian.

I said well, why wouldthey do that?

He said, they actually thoughtI was a CIA spy.

I said, were you?He said, I'm not telling you.

That's on a need to knowbasis! [laughs]

I listened to his recordingof Ashkenazy and Frager

just hundreds and hundredsof times.

Frager was from very early on,one of my idols,

and I listened to that,and it was so fantastic.

It's impossible to describelistening to him play

in Carnegie Hallor anywhere else.

You just cannot describethe emotion,

words can't do it,only music can.


Yes, he had a lot of talentplaying the piano, but he

also worked at it very hardand he was very dedicated to it

and very disciplinedabout practicing

and studying and learningand always learning more

and readingabout different composers.

His name Frager, if youpronounce that in German,

then you have Malcolm Frager,

and "frager" means "the onewho asks questions"--

that's very typicalMalcolm Frager.

He just wanted to know an answerto everything

and he was notthe kind of person

who settled with questions--he wanted answers.

Whatever he learned, whatevercrumb he learned,

from a manuscriptor a musicologist,

or someone who had discovered anidea, he used.

And so he was constantlylearning

and teaching quite literally.

[playing in bright rhythm]

[Malcolm speaks German]

(Andreas Boyde) Malcolm had aphenomenal influence on me.

Just before he had startedteaching me,

I had been to a numberof master classes,

and I had felt like putty inthe hands of these teachers,

they try to squeeze youinto shape according to

their musical ideas, and Malcolmwas completely different.

He encouraged me to be myselfand he taught me to bring out

what is special in me,

and he also taught me to bemy own teacher.


(Morag Frager) There was oncean article,

and the headline of the articledescribed him, Malcolm Frager,

musician... neighbor,

I think traveler, scholar,and he got very upset

at that word scholar beingin there.

He didn't want to be identifiedas a scholar,

he wanted to be the performer.

He always wanted to knowwhat the composer had written,

and to get the essence of that,

but he also always wanteda performance to be spontaneous.

One thing that he used to say

was that he loved to playthe piano,

to make it seem for the audienceand maybe for himself somewhat,

that it was the first time thatthey had ever heard the piece.

I think his intellectand his research

informed his interpretationto a certain extent,

but for him they alwayshad to be

at the service of the affectionsand the feelings and the heart,

and he often spoke of this,trying to understand what it was

the composer feltat the moment of composition.

He was always wanting to findfirst editions

that were published inthe lifetime of the composer.

He had a number of firsteditions of pieces,

for instance, the TchaikovskyPiano Concerto,

he had a first edition of that,

which is totally different thanthe 2nd version of it.

(Morag Frager)To see the handwritingof the composer, it opened up

for him an understandingof their character.

How Mozart wrote everything downalmost perfectly from the start

and Beethoven wrote,scored things out

and tried over and over again.

He did the greatest service

to music by discovering

and by making it possible forthe world to find out

about this cache of manuscriptshidden in Poland.

I recall many differentconversations about

the manuscripts, which were lostafter the Second World War.

(Robert Levin)They had been taken outof Berlin

when the aerial bombardmentsbegan for safekeeping,

and as the Nazis were moreafraid of the Soviets

than they wereof the Western Allies,

they stored most of thesemanuscripts

in the Eastern part of Germany,

in Silesia, in territorythat became

after the Yalta Accords,part of Poland.

And after the war ended,apparently,

trucks from the Polish armymade the rounds

to some of these castlesand in particular,

to the cloister churchof Grussau in Silesia

and rounded up these woodencrates branded with P.S.B.,

and they drove off intothe horizon, and after that

there was no traceof these things.

It wasn't really clearwhat was going on,

but there was denial all around.

And gradually,as these things happen,

rumors began to circulate

that these manuscriptsmight be in Krakow.

(Morag Frager) Malcolm hada tour of Poland one year.

We were having dinner witha Polish professor

and musicologist and his wifein Poznan, I believe,

and when Malcolm raised thesubject, he was very interested

and said, let me goand make a phone call.

And he did this and then cameback into the room and Malcolm,

who wrote about this experienceof the manuscripts,

said he came back with an ashenface, and he said,

this is a state secret, nobody'ssupposed to know about it.

Malcolm later had theopportunity

of meeting Madame Lissa.

After he introduced the subject,

she said, yes, the manuscripts

were in safekeeping atthe Jagiellonian University.

She looked at Malcolm,and she said,

"You know, I like your face,

I can trust you," and she openedher drawer and gave him

a list of all the manuscripts

that were in the possession nowof the Polish government.

Shortly after that,he went to the library

and asked the librarianif he could see the manuscripts.

The librarian said, well,I can't imagine how,

if they knew about it in Warsaw,we wouldn't know about it here

because you're talking about itsbeing here, but alright,

if you're insistent, come backtomorrow, and I'll let you know.

And he went to the librarianthe next morning and said,

I have an idea, perhaps I couldgive you the questions.

Your assistant could lookat the manuscript

and give me the answers.

[in loud voice]They said, alright, alright,

so give me the list, alright,come back tomorrow!

And Malcolm came back the nextday, and when he came in,

the man turned around,and he pulled open a drawer

and took out the manuscriptand handed it to Malcolm.

And he said-- he just wept--

it was an extraordinaryexperience for him.

When he regained his composureand wiped his eyes,

he put on the white glovesand looked at the manuscript.

He stared at every note,at every rest,

he thought this might be

the only opportunity in hisentire life to see this thing.

"Might I lookat something else?"

Because he knew that there wereall these other treasures.

And he told his assistant, letMr. Frager go up to the stacks

and see anything he wantsto there.

(Robert Levin) And at the endof the day,

he decided to go for thejackpot.

He said, is it possibleto get a microfilm

or a photocopy of anyof these things?

They said,what would you like?

When they sent these thingsto him,

he gave them to the Mozarteum,one of the most spectacular

moments in the historyof the Foundation.

And that's one of the reasonswhy Malcolm was a guest of honor

whenever he was in Salzburg,for these irreplaceable services

that no one else but he couldhave rendered to world culture.

(Melanie Griffith) I know heloved to be at home.

He loved the feeling of peace

that he got at home in theBerkshires.

It's the reason that heand my mom decided

to move out of New York City.

He spent so much time in citiesand in hotels,

and so he just loved to havean oasis that was his home.

(Morag Frager) Foothill Farmtransformed him as much as

he transformed Foothill Farm,I think.

I remember calling homefrom New York City once

and asking to speak to Malcolmand being told,

oh, I'm sorry he's out inthe orchard pruning the trees!

He had a wonderful studio.

We bought it because we couldmake the barn of the farm

into his studio so that hecould, he used to say

he was going to the office,and he could separate himself

from the family and really workand not interrupt the family.

We didn't have to be quietall the time for him.

He had 2 beautiful pianosup there that he played on

and my brother and I would goover there quite often

and lay on this shaggy rugthat he had on the floor,

listening to him practice.

I loved to just go into hisstudio

and lie under the piano andlisten or lie on some

of the pillows in his studioand listen to him practice.

He would play Liszt's"Hungarian Rhapsody."

The Rhapsody No. 8 beginswith a slow introduction,

quite sad and melancholy.

And later on,it turns into a dance,

at first rather gracefuland capricious,

later becoming more and moreboisterous until finally,

everyone joins in, stamping hisfeet and clapping his hands.

My brother and I,with our schmoppy hair

would just dance around likemaniacs around his piano

and he just would laugh.

Whenever he played "TheHungarian Rhapsody No. 8,"

he would always start offsaying, "By special request."

and that special request wasalways my sister and my request.

[playing "The HungarianRhapsody No. 8,"]

(David Coppen)The Frager Collection arrived

at the Sibley Music Libraryin 1992.

It was the gift ofMrs. Morag Frager,

one year after Mr. Fragerpassed away.

The Malcolm Frager Collection is

the second largest collectionthat the library holds.

As a concert pianist of course,his career was on all continents

and one sees that readily

from the sweeprepresented in the documents.

The concert programs,beginning in the 1950s,

his earliest years ofperforming, extending through

to the last seasonwhen he was living.

(narrator)Frager's final performances werein Baltimore in July of 1990

with longtime collaboratorand friend, David Zinman.

There wasn't any kind of closurewith Malcolm.

The last time I talked to himon the phone,

I could hardly recognizehis voice.

No one, no one told mehe was sick.

(David Zinman) Well, I had

a very strange and creepyexperience.

There was music playing,and I was shaving

and suddenly I turned around andMalcolm was standing there.

Just that... and I kind oflooked away

and I looked back,and he was gone.

Then I went into the other roomto look and the radio said,

Malcolm Frager, with the"Contredanse" from Chopin.

And then I realized that somehowmy mind had made this connection

because Malcolm always playedthat piece as an encore,

and I associated, of course,that piece with Malcolm.

So my subconscious probablyprojected the image of Malcolm,

but I also like to thinkthat maybe

that was his wayof saying good-bye to me.

[Malcolm playsChopin's "Contredanse"]

(woman) To order a copyof this program,

call 1-800-359-6900

or visit our online storeat

(woman) "Malcolm Frager,American Pianist,"

is funded by

the Minnesota Artsand Cultural Heritage Fund,

with money from the voteof the people of Minnesota

on November 4th, 2008...

The Eastman School of Music,Rochester, New York,

and by the membersof Prairie Public.


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