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YSM faculty pianist Peter Frankl to retire after 30 years, having inspired generations

Peter Frankl

Peter Frankl will retire at the end of this semester, concluding his remarkable 30 year career at the Yale School of Music, where he has touched the minds — and more important, the hearts — of hundreds of students.

A virtuoso performer and beloved teacher, Frankl was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1935, into a musical family. His parents were semi-professional musicians who played piano at home. They took their son to many concerts and he remembers hearing “many great artists like Klemperer, Bernstein, and my idol, the pianist Annie Fischer.” Frankl began playing the piano at age 5. “It has been my passion in life ever since,” he said.

He made his London debut in 1962 and his New York debut with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell in 1967. Since then, he has played on the world’s top stages with the most celebrated orchestras and eminent conductors, including Abbado, Boulez, Davis, Haitink, Maazel, Masur, Muti, and Solti. His world tours have taken him to Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. He has appeared more than 20 times at London’s BBC Proms and at many major festivals. Inspired as a young musician by the legendary Leó Weiner, his chamber music teacher, Frankl is also a well- known chamber music performer. For years, the Frankl-Pauk-Kirshbaum Trio traveled the world, and Frankl’s many chamber music partners include the world’s most renowned artists.

It was Boris Berman, professor of piano and coordinator of the piano department at YSM, who invited Frankl to come to Yale, first in 1987 as a visiting teaching artist. Until that time, Frankl’s occupation was mainly concertizing; he rarely taught, even master classes. “It never occurred to me to teach on a regular basis,” he said. “However, Yale’s reputation attracted me greatly and I decided to give it a try.”

He harbored a deeper reason, however, for teaching. “By then I was 52 years old,” he explained. “I had the impression that the young generation of pianists were more interested in reaching technical perfection than in involving themselves in the emotional and spiritual meaning of what each composer wanted to express in their works. “Somehow I started feeling responsible towards the future of music-making,” he continued. “Instead of grumbling about this, I wanted to do something positive.” He thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere at YSM, including the School’s “relatively intimate size.” As two esteemed piano faculty members were approaching retirement, Yale offered to extend Frankl’s appointment. He gladly accepted. 

“The time that followed was one of my happiest,” Frankl recalled. “For many years, Boris Berman, the unforgettable Claude Frank, and I were a very special and enviable team of the piano faculty. All three of us were active in pursuing our performing careers. We helped each other with our teaching responsibilities without any problems. We were greatly assisted by Dean Ezra Laderman and subsequently Dean Robert Blocker to make this work. I’m extremely grateful to all the friends and colleagues who accommodated me.”

At Yale, Frankl has become a cherished member of the School of Music community, teaching individual piano students and coaching chamber music. He has maintained a busy international performance schedule, commuting from London to New Haven to teach. He has appeared regularly at Yale in recitals, orchestral concerts, and chamber music performances alongside his distinguished colleagues.

As a performer, mentor, and friend, Frankl has profoundly influenced his students. “He is a remarkable person,” said pianist David Fung ’11MM ’12MMA ’17DMA. “He lives and breathes the joy of music. He has so much heart and genuinely cares about all of his students. His repertoire aligns with the works I love so much, and I came to love them even more after studying with him.”

Exploring what Frankl calls the “emotional and spiritual meaning” of music is exactly what Hyeyeon Park ’05MM ’06AD experienced in her studies with him. “When I first met him, I was too concerned about making mistakes, and I was not recovering well from minor errors I might have made during my performance,” she recalled. “He simply told me that he wants me to tell stories through music. That simple fact made total sense, and I felt free from the constraints I’d always had.”

Frankl’s approach to teaching has reflected his broad mastery of music. “A pianist should be an all-around musician,” Frankl said. “They should be encouraged to be interested in, and to become familiar with all aspects of music — symphonic repertoire, operas, chamber music, lieder, and more. “I’m convinced it’s impossible to do justice to the interpretation and characterization of works like Mozart piano concerti without knowing Mozart’s operas,” he explained. “It is equally important to know thoroughly all the major works by Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, and many others by great masters.”

Frankl’s recordings include the complete works for piano of Schumann and Debussy, solo albums of works by Bartók and Chopin, a Hungarian anthology, concerti and four-hand works by Mozart, several works by Brahms, and chamber music. While he cannot choose a “favorite” composer, he said, “I could perhaps name two great geniuses who have been closest to me throughout my life: Mozart and Schumann. “Mozart’s concerti give me everything that is possible: emotion, poetry, humor, the way he uses colors in orchestration — especially in the wind section — his richness of imagination, and so on. Schumann, on the other hand, was the great romantic. His kaleidoscope of expressing passion, lyricism, and using his imagination to show all the extremes that he felt he had to express fully has been moving me to tears all my life.”

In recognition of his artistic achievements, Frankl was awarded the Officer’s Cross by the Hungarian Republic on his 70th birthday, and he was given one of the highest civilian awards in Hungary for his lifetime artistic achievement in the world of music. In 2015, on the occasion of Frankl’s 80th birthday, Dean Robert Blocker presented Frankl with the Gustave Stoeckel Award for excellence in teaching. In the Shed at the Yale Summer School of Music/Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, Frankl and his wife, Annie, were deeply honored to receive seats marked with their names. This precious gift was initiated and executed by YSM faculty pianist Wei-Yi Yang.

“As a student,” Park said, “you cannot ask for more than seeing your mentor living a life totally immersed in music, and seeing your mentor performing with so much love.” At the 80th birthday celebration, she continued, “I saw how much Mr. and Mrs. Frankl’s warmth, genuine love, and support affected his students, regardless of their generation.”

“In my concert career I meet people all over the world who have studied with him,” Fung said. “We have a connection. I call it the ‘Frankl Family.’ We have all been influenced by his teaching, his great kindness, his love of music.”

“The School of Music has been incredibly fortunate to have had Peter on the faculty for 30 years,” Blocker said. “In that time, he has had a profound influence on our lives, and he and Annie have embraced the School and community with infectious warmth and love. His passionate teaching and artistry reflect his distinguished international career. I can assure everyone that Peter and Annie will return to Yale in future years and continue to share his musical gifts and their friendship with us.”

As Frankl retires from Yale, he leaves behind his transatlantic travels to New Haven six times a year, but remains connected to colleagues and former students. He will carry on performing — “Maybe even at Yale!” he said — and giving master classes, as well as participating in jury activities at competitions. “As a musician, I don’t believe in the word ‘retirement,’” Frankl said. Musing on his career as a teacher at Yale, he concluded, “I sincerely hope my time has not been wasted.” By every measure, it has not.

Peter Frankl will perform a Horowitz Piano Series recital on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 pm, in Morse Recital Hall. He'll be joined by faculty mezzo-soprano Janna Baty and baritone Randall Scarlata in an all-Schumann program.

This article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Music at Yale.