By Inge Kjemtrup
Photos by Marco Borggreve
Had it not been for her father, Vilde Frang might well be playing the double bass today. Her father and older sister both played the instrument, so as a child, Frang was sure she, too, would play the biggest member of the string family. Her father, however, had other ideas. He made a tiny violin for her to play. “It sounded awful, and I only made noise for a year until I got a proper violin,” Frang says with a laugh.
But her father’s gamble paid off. Today the 30-year-old Norwegian violinist is a rising star, performing with major orchestras around the world, recording for Warner Classics, and enjoying a reputation for searing, passionate playing—and not just in performances of the well-trod concertos that are the cornerstones of most young violinists’ repertory.
For her debut, age 13, with the Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Mariss Jansons, Frang shunned Mozart and Mendelssohn in favor of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasia. At the time, Frang was obsessed with the famous 1984 film of Carmen featuring Julia Mignes-Johnson and Plácido Domingo. “I knew the opera by heart. I wanted to be like Carmen and I wanted to be a gypsy. She was my idol and I would put on clothes and act the whole opera every day. So when they asked me what I wanted to play for this debut, there was no doubt, because I felt so at one with this repertoire.”
The fact that it was Jansons’ final concert before he left his position as the chief conductor in Oslo helped bring Frang attention both inside and outside Norway. At that time she was still a student at Oslo’s distinguished Institute of Music, where she was studying with Henning Kraggerud and his brother Richard. She credits both of them with shaping her playing.
That she was bound for a solo career may have been obvious two years earlier, when she met and played for Anne-Sophie Mutter after the latter gave a concert in Oslo. A few years later, Frang auditioned for Mutter and won a scholarship with her foundation. Mutter was blunt with Frang about what lay ahead. “It was a very tough perspective, especially for me, coming from the very protected environment in Norway. It was like an awakening for me. She told me that there’s such big competition out there and if you really want to make a living out of your violin playing, you have to move to Germany, you have to study, you have to finish school, you have to spend full time on your performing and practicing.”
Frang took her mentor’s advice, moving to Germany where she found not one, but two teachers—a “healthy contrast,” she explains. “Ana Chumachenco is sort of like the Hillary Clinton of violin teachers; she’s such an iconic figure. She encouraged me to study with Kolja Blacher, who was concertmaster of the Berlin Phil under Abbado.
“Ana Chumachenco is on a human level: She is always the most encouraging, the most loving, caring lady. To study with [Blacher] was really tough—it was like cold showers every lesson. He would not hesitate to tell me exactly what he thought: ‘This is below your level and you have to go home and practice.’ I got messages that I needed, actually. He really made me practice a lot of scales and a lot of études. I had always refused to do that because I was always kind of stubborn in my early years. I hadn’t played a single scale before I was 17.”
“To study with [Blacher] was really tough—it was like cold showers every lesson. He would not hesitate to tell me exactly what he thought.”
Later, when she was in London as part of a Borletti-Buitoni fellowship, Frang found another mentor in pianist Mitsuko Uchida. “She’s so brimming with joy and enthusiasm for music. I went to her house for the whole day. She had a whole library where she would show me any recording and any crucial text. Then occasionally there was playing in between, and she would then make pancakes. That was like a vitamin injection for me that I was very grateful for.”
As a performer, Frang is greater than the sum of all her many influences and mentors. She is tall and slender, with a free-floating, delicate manner that transforms into concentrated focus when she begins to play. I witnessed this for myself when she gave a lively performance of Bach’s A minor and E major violin concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra at Kings Place in London in April.
Her discography, meanwhile, reflects her tendency to seek out the less expected path and follow her enthusiasms. There is, for example, the (predictable) recording of the Mozart concertos made with the (less-predictable) Arcangelo ensemble, directed by Jonathan Cohen. So eager was she to play with Arcangelo, she tells me, that it wasn’t until the day of the recording that she considered that she’d be playing on
a modern-instrument setup along with a period-instrument band.
“Suddenly I thought, oh, is this something I should worry about? Is this something that will raise eyebrows? Will people be skeptical?” She decided not to worry. “It was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. I learned so incredibly much during these sessions with them.”
Last year’s release of the Britten and Korngold concertos marked another departure from the expected repertory route. “They are two Romantic violin concertos, but written in a 20th-century language. The level of technique is similar and they are both very richly orchestrated. I think they contrast each other beautifully.” Frang has become a particularly strong advocate of the Britten. “Overall, the concerto is very dramatic. The end is like a requiem. Whenever you play it, people are so caught and so surprised because they don’t expect it. It’s one of many underestimated pieces by Britten.”
Prepare for something even more off piste with her forthcoming Warner Classics disc, due out in September. It’s a collection of encore pieces, most dating from the early 20th century, when performers felt emboldened to rearrange a piano solo or a section from a ballet or a German art song for the violin. Fritz Kreisler figures prominently with ballet music from Rosamunde, a Beethoven rondino, and a Gypsy caprice, while Heifetz is represented by his transcriptions of music by Albéniz, Ponce, and Prokofiev. There are plenty other sparkling miniatures, too.
Frang had great fun choosing the repertory. “It’s like being locked in a candy shop. You can pick all the caramels and chocolates and candies of your liking. It’s a huge selection; it’s very hard to choose what not to play.” Her goal was to pick lesser-known pieces and to keep it all under 50 minutes.
Surprisingly, Frang is not one of those performers who loves to serve up encore after encore. “My relationship with encores was always a little bit ambivalent. I always feel terribly nervous if I’m listening to some soloist having just finished the concerto. The audience is automatically expecting an encore, but I never really saw the point in encores, really: ‘Oh no, but now it was all going so well, and you really want to take the risk? Let’s stay with the wonderful resonance of the concerto you just performed!’
“I feel the same thing when I’m onstage myself. It’s a little bit like when you call someone, and you get a voice mailbox: ‘Please leave a message after the beep.’ Then you have a choice whether to hang up or to speak. I’m sort of the type of person that would rather hang up.”
The audience at the BBC Proms festival in London this August will get to see for themselves if Vilde Frang decides to hang up or present them with an encore at her performance with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. She’ll be performing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with violist Lawrence Power, so a solo encore is less likely in any case.
The Proms concert will be at vast Royal Albert Hall, usually described as “barn-like” or “like a cavern,” but it holds no special terrors for Frang. “It feels more intimate when you are onstage then when you watch it on TV. Every time I watch it on TV, I think, oh no, I don’t want to play there, ever. I will die if I’m there! And once you’re actually in that room . . . you see it from another perspective. Somehow you manage to find your comfort zone.”
For Frang, getting into the right zone onstage is important, where performers can’t be paying “too much attention to the things around you or if you’re caught up with thinking or noticing too much. The most important thing is distancing myself. Without distance I don’t create my own space and that’s completely crucial every time I stand onstage because it feels like every time is the first time. It’s never a sense of routine for me. And every time I play, it is as if it was the last time.”
That need to create her own space may explain why she is based in Berlin, which she describes as “such a melting pot of cultures.” Except for its sauna-like summers, Berlin has been ideal for her. “There is always a concert, always an exhibition, always something going on that you can catch up with when you come home. Also it has the [right] pace. It’s not so frenetic, speedwise, as London or New York or Paris. You feel that things are going at a somewhat slower pace.”
She has a similarly relaxed feeling about her 1864 J.B. Vuillaume violin, which she has been playing for 13 years. “It has a lyric sound, a very tender voice, and also very direct somehow. It’s not a powerhouse—it sounds like a child somehow. We got very attached. I think we are sort of encouraging each other, and quarrelling and developing.” She has been considering other options, and a more high-powered 18th-century Italian violin might suit her developing career, but it will always be a far cry from that first tiny violin placed in her hands by her father many years ago.