An Interview with Vilde Frang
On a recent Wednesday, I met the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang in a café in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood: an area popular with classical musicians for its chic, international atmosphere. She had to cancel our previous appointment, writing on WhatsApp that she had a bad cold; then a doctor diagnosed her with mononucleosis. She described passing out twice during a recent concert period, once after the dress rehearsal, then again after the performance. “When I went on stage I knew it wasn’t a good idea, but when you are in the situation you give everything,” she told me.Frang has recently turned 30. Career-wise, everything has been going according to plan: she has an exclusive contract with a major label (EMI/Warner, from 2008), prizes to her name, a full calendar, and she’s in demand with major orchestras and conductors. But the hard work of finding balance in life has just begun. “In tune” is a phrase that she uses a lot, that symbolizes a lack of dissonances, being at peace with yourself—a good subject for a conversation at the year’s end.
VAN: In this magazine, Heather O’Donnell has written about the taboo of injury, sickness, and disability in classical music. Do you agree that these are subjects musicians are afraid to broach?
Vilde Frang: Yes, quite naturally; it’s one element that could make the whole thing collapse. There’s a fear, especially when you have problems in the arms or the fingers. There have been times where I had a nerve injury in my finger, but the last thing I wanted to do was cancel. If I can’t play, I’m basically in a mental prison, because everything else in life is something of a gray zone. Music has always been my oxygen, my mother tongue, a parallel world—my world. But there are other things in life: nature, the people around you. Sometimes you get stuck on one track, and that determines your life.
How do you imagine people will react if you cancel a concert? How does that compare with reality?
I don’t think any audience member would expect you to ruin your health by showing up when you’re not able to perform. If you think about how much money you’ll lose, how much publicity, whether people will be disappointed; that’ll destroy you. I’ve learned to have more respect for my body than for promoters. You save yourself a lot of gray hairs that way.
You have to plan your seasons far in advance. How can you know if and when you’ll need a break?
This is extremely important, which I just started to realize now. For the upcoming seasons I decided to keep at least one month open. The problem is there are so many requests, and they’re always so nice—and you have to say no. This is something I had to learn to do. When I was younger, I wanted to play all the time and fill every little gap in my calendar. I ended up not having a vacation for five or six years, which was so unhealthy. I wanted to clear the air a little bit, and look at things with a bit more perspective.
Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve achieved too much, too young?
No, rather the opposite. There are so many things I would have loved to be able to do in addition to playing, which I’ve wanted to explore for a long time. And I’ve been so focused on playing that I think if I hadn’t made it to where I am today it would feel almost like defeat. I didn’t waste any time, and put my soul, my entire existence into music. It probably had to turn out this way.
A recital by Vilde Frang and Michail Lifits (Piano) at the Schwetzinger Festspielen, in southwest Germany, in 2013.
It is easy for you to take a break? I imagine you get used to the constant playing.
Yes. In a way you get familiar with the lifestyle: you’re always changing cities and hotels. You come to London and it feels like your living room, Paris feels like your kitchen…You have your habits in every city, but on quite a superficial basis.
Like an addiction?
It’s like a bad habit. You can lose touch with yourself. You get so good at doing what you do, and then suddenly you have a whole day to yourself; it’s difficult socially. You’re always catching up with people in different cities, everything is so spread out. Keeping up your social life is a skill that you have to develop.
Do you have friends who aren’t musicians?
No, but I would love to. [Laughs]
Is it difficult to connect with people outside that world generally?
Yes, it’s kind of inevitable. It’s impressive if you manage not to have too much to do with the classical music world. I worked with a dance troupe one time, and I felt that their world and mine were so far apart. I would have loved to approach them, but it was hard to connect. We were able to come together on the level of the interaction between music and dance, which was terrific—but on any other level I think it’s a challenge.
What parts of Berlin appeal to you? Do you go clubbing?
I don’t need clubbing: I just cut a couple inches off my hair, for me that’s a kind of clubbing, a dramatic experience. That’s more the kind of person I am [laughs]. I can very easily be at home for the whole day. I’m a private person, I don’t need to chill out or scream or have a beer, I’m more like a grandmother. The great thing about Berlin right now is that most of my friends are here, which is why I moved in the first place.
Back to planning for a second. It must be hard to know what you’ll want to play a couple of years from now.
In the coming period, you have to play the Stravinsky Violin Concerto eight times in a row…
I’m fortunate to be doing that. If a performer isn’t convinced about the piece, committed to it, it’s never good for the audience. That’s actually the number one thing I’m trying to avoid right now. At the start of your career, you have to be flexible. People ask you, “Why don’t you play Tartini there, or Vaughan Williams here,” and you have to rise to the occasion. But as time goes by, you find out who you are and what you want to do. There are so many incredible violinists in the world who can play the most audience-friendly pieces with great passion. They should be the ones doing that; you shouldn’t get someone who wants to do something else. You owe that to the audience.
I want to play “Pierrot Lunaire” and “L’histoire du Soldat.” I’m going to record Enescu’s Octet next year. That’s something I’m happy about, but my record label isn’t. They’re pulling their hair out. “Who puts Korngold and Britten under the Christmas tree?”
Is there a piece that you would say no to at the moment?
It’s difficult to single one out.
Why is that?
It’s tricky. Sometimes you have the feeling that you’d love to play a piece, but something is telling you to stay away. You feel you’re not quite ready for it. A good example is the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I played it a bit a few years ago, and then I put it away. I felt that there was something in the piece which I needed time to grow into. The piece didn’t need me.
If you look at the Mona Lisa, you see the smile that people say is “genius,” “divine.” It’s so iconic that there’s a kind of passive aggression that goes along with the excitement. This is it, and if you don’t see it, it’s your fault. You have to be reconciled to accept the artwork; if you’re not and you want to struggle against it, it feels like that’s not allowed. But that inferiority complex isn’t a good thing either.
Are there pieces that have the opposite effect? That you want to rehabilitate and bring them the same status as a piece like the Beethoven Concerto?
It’s a really interesting thing about the Korngold Concerto: when I heard it for the first time, when I was young, it was the wrong performer, and it became almost traumatic for me. “I’ll never play this disgusting piece,” I thought. And then, by coincidence, I heard Heifetz playing it, which turned it upside down. There was something irresistible about it. Maybe my personality changed, too. It’s like getting used to the taste of coffee or olives. There are things that taste weird at first and then slowly get you addicted. Like Schoenberg, Strauss, Schnittke.
Do you get stage fright?
No. So, as the years go by, as I see things more clearly, I’ve realized that less is more in terms of concerts. And that makes me love what I do even more. I feel genuine pleasure, I’m in my element. I used to have something to prove onstage.
I always felt like being on stage was like walking out in the middle of a highway. You’re in a place where you know you’re not supposed to be. But at the same time, you feel like the king of the highway. There’s this adrenaline kick. You feel like you can be run over by a car at any time. Every concert feels like your first concert and your last concert. Or, it feels like it could be your last!
I do find it awkward when people are nice to me.
Anne-Sophie Mutter was a mentor to you. She’s also one of the most polarizing soloists in our world. She’s phenomenally successful with audiences and one of very few true “stars,” on the other hand, there’s almost no one who other musicians feel as comfortable criticizing. Why do you think that is?
I can only say what fascinated me about her since I was very young. She was a great role model for me in one respect: her incredible discipline. She has unmatched powers of concentration and focus. Growing up, I saw her as somebody who was so serious about what she was doing. For example, she has an amazing range of sound colors and a knowledge of the score—when I came to her she would always work mercilessly on the score, she was stricter than you can possibly imagine. Playing for her was always a bit terrifying.
But I was surprised at one point when she told me to relax a bit, go to the movies. She took me to a musical on Broadway; she loved it and I found it a bit silly [laughs].
Are you still in touch?
It’s been a while since I left the foundation, but I still play the instrument that was lent to me in 2004.
We’ve spoken a bit about breaks. What things would you like to spend more time with?
I’d like to be better at a lot of things: German, French. I’ve always been fascinated by dance, ballet and flamenco. I want to be more in touch with nature—plants and animals, the feeling of my hand in the soil. And I’ve want to learn how to ride horses forever. It sounds silly, but it’s true.
Can you imagine taking a really long time to focus on those things, like, say, a year?
For many years, I’ve had this feeling like they’ve already started boarding the plane and I need to hurry up to make it. I think that has been an important phase, but I’m happy to see that I’m changing and getting some clarity. And also, I’d have the opportunity to get back in the habit of practicing. I don’t feel in tune with myself when I’m not actually practicing. Practicing has always been this heavy cloud guilt over my head, like, “You should have practiced, why didn’t you practice!” If your schedule takes over your routine, you don’t spend time digging into your instrument. What you do starts to become like fast food, you don’t get the fulfillment of really studying a piece and you end up unhappy. You’re not in tune with the core of the music.
Over Christmas, I’m going to the Maldives for the first time. It’s going to be my tropical coconut debut; I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m definitely going to bring my instrument. ¶