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Violinist Travels Old-fashioned Road To Success

August 01, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — Only a few weeks ago Frank Almond was striding across Red Square, fiddle strapped across his back, listening to his Walkman, and getting strange looks from normally dour Muscovites.

Back in the States he attracted almost no attention on a recent afternoon, racing his car down Interstate 15 after a Rancho Bernardo recording session. Having made the finals in Moscow's quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Competition, Almond was not recording classical Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven, but capitalist advertising jingles.

"It's the easiest and quickest way I know of to make some money," said Almond, a self-assured, articulate and mature 22-year-old who will be a senior this fall at Juilliard School in New York.

A month in the Soviet capital left large impressions on the Patrick Henry High School graduate, who was here visiting his parents before flying to the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado for four weeks of music-making.

He found that playing in one of the world's two top music competitions (the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels is the other) "very exciting, an experience not very many people get to have," but it also was a revelation.

"There is incredible stress," Almond said. "It's a very weird atmosphere to try to make music in--TV cameras, a crowd that's very animated." In muggy Moscow, the TV lights boosted the summer temperatures in the packed concert hall to 100 degrees.

"It's very hard to find the spontaneity and pleasure of playing," Almond said. "You have to somehow inspire yourself to play in front of these guys (the 22 jurors) sitting there with pencil and paper. It's a stamina game, a test of tolerance."

His Eastern Bloc competitors' playing revealed a different training philosophy. "The emphasis is not on individuality or creativity," he said. "I found variety to be lacking in people from the Eastern Bloc and the Moscow Conservatory. The approach is, this is the way it's done. It's very dogmatic. (Their playing) tended to sound like someone had taught them everything. It sounded contrived.

"Unfortunately, music competitions tend to eliminate a lot of creative playing. You have to satisfy as many jurors as possible. A lot of it is safe, great playing that you absolutely cannot fault, except for the fact that you might not feel anything . . . .

"In the Soviet Union there are no agents, managers or impresarios. There are only competitions, so a lot of them go to a lot of competitions. They're flying all over the world."

Ironically, Frenchman Rafael Oleg's performance of the required Tchaikovsky concerto that Almond said was "completely different from anyone else," won him a tie for first place in violin with Soviet Ilya Kaler.

Although Almond failed to win an award--he received a diploma as the ninth out of 12 finalists (there were 55 violinists who entered the competition)--he was satisfied that he played well. David Kim, a classmate at Juilliard, split sixth place with Soviet contestant Dmitry Berlinsky.

Almond's parents, though both are musicians--his mother teaches piano and his father conducts the San Diego Master Chorale--did not push music on him. "They know too many unhappy musicians to force me into it," he said.

They did enroll him at age 5 in a class that taught the Suzuki method of fiddling at San Diego State University. "But it wasn't like that was the only thing going on in my life," he said. "I was going to public school, playing baseball and getting beat up just like everybody else. I wasn't practicing eight hours a day when I was 10 years old."

He "goofed off a couple of years," playing drums in a garage rock 'n' roll band, then began four years of study with violinist and Soviet emigre Michael Tseitlin, whom he credits with "putting me on the track where I've stayed."

At 16, Almond began practicing seven and eight hours a day, and Tseitlin encouraged him to enter competitions. In 1981, Almond took third place at the Paganini Competition in Genoa, Italy.

Tseitlin kept Almond from going straight to Juilliard when he graduated from high school at 17. Instead, he spent two years with Tseitlin before entering the pressure cooker atmosphere of Juilliard at 19.

"There's a little edginess at Juilliard, a sense of competition you don't find at other music schools," Almond said. It has all the problems of the top school in any field. Everything is related to how you perform."

Tseitlin calls his erstwhile pupil a virtuoso player of strong technical abilities and hopes he will try the Moscow competition again in four years. "My colleagues there say he played very well. He is very good at Paganini, Wieniawski, Ysaye, and Brahms or Beethoven for that matter. He has a very good future, but he is still very young."

Almond also won this year's Juilliard concerto competition. He would seem to be a logical candidate for a career as a soloist, yet he enjoys playing in the orchestra--as concertmaster, to be sure.

"I lean in too many directions," Almond said, but added that he hasn't had the experience to tell if he has the right stuff to be a soloist. Instead, he will not push but continue to "let things fall into place.

"I'm still sticking to the old-fashioned notion that if you play well enough, sooner or later somebody is going to take notice."

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