Interview by Tim Janof
Sitting third chair in Philharmonia Northwest, one of the best community orchestras in the Seattle area, is 71 year old cellist Frances Walton, one of the most radiant musical souls I have ever met. “I’m 71 and I love it. As long as I can move without arthritis, the world is good.”
One wouldn’t necessarily expect to find such a powerful musical force in a place like Shorecrest High School auditorium, the orchestra’s concert venue, but there she enthusiastically plays. As I watch her, I can’t help but wonder if anybody realizes just what she has done for classical music — formed and conducted two orchestras, conducted a third, founded a music camp, co-founded a music library, formed a statewide concert tour, and inspired countless musicians of all ages. She is a real jewel.
Frances was born in Inglewood, California, in 1928. Her father was the president of a successful furniture manufacturing business and a lover of Beethoven and Johann Strauss. Her mother played the piano, and, because no one else could do it, accompanied the hymns in church starting at age three. Her mother earned money for college expenses by playing the piano for silent movies, taught German and English in her hometown high school, and returned to teach German and ancient history at her alma mater, Syracuse University. “Though my mom never studied music, she could improvise the most beautiful harmonies for anything you could sing.” Growing up, she accompanied many stage shows, since her hometown and the neighboring town (Nanticoke and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) were testing grounds for productions destined for Broadway.
Frances and her family moved to Tacoma, Washington, (40 miles from Seattle) when she was 6 years old. Her first instrument was the piano, learning at first to play by ear like her mother. “I didn’t know there was another way to play.” In third grade she began piano lessons, first at school, and then privately with Leonard Anderson, a fine pianist in Tacoma, who also taught her friend Leonard Raver, organist of the New York Philharmonic. She and Leonard Raver were duo piano partners for two years.
While studying the piano, Frances also became an avid swimmer. “When we first moved from California, it seemed like it rained endlessly. I didn’t go outside and play like I used to, so my mom sent me to the girls’ YMCA to swim. She wanted me to have an outlet for my youthful energy.”
She was no casual swimmer, however. In fact, she was the second seed on the 1948 U.S. Olympic swim team. “I was 20 years old, which was considered young at that time, though it is now thought of as ‘old’ by today’s standards.” But tragedy struck soon before she was to go to London for the Olympics. “My mom had just gotten out of the hospital and we went out to a show that same evening. A car ran into her that night and she ended up in the hospital with a blood clot in her lung and brain. I decided that I could not handle it if my mother died while I was away, though she ended up living another 16 years. Suddenly, swimming didn’t seem so important. The third seed on our team, who qualified seconds behind me, won a silver medal. Who knows what would have happened if I had gone? I am glad that I had all the fun of the training, the comradery of the team, and the joy of working under an exceptional coach.”
She sees many connections between athletics and playing an instrument. “Coordination, timing, and rhythm in a stroke establishes a balance for body attitude that planes the water. Playing any string instrument is an athletic pursuit as well, a total body endeavor that requires superb small muscle coordination. Of course, a sport can never yield music’s intense cerebral and spiritual satisfaction, but there are many parallels, not the least of which is the sheer joy of responsive movement. The one thing you need for music is a decent ear, and most good athletes have that, oddly. You’d be surprised how many can harmonize at the drop of a hat and yet don’t know how they do it.”
Back in junior high school, Frances, while still taking private piano lessons, was encouraged by the band teacher to take instruments home with her during summer vacations. “I didn’t master anything, but I did gain a fairly decent knowledge of the clarinet and viola, as well as the double bass, which I played in the band and orchestra. But what really interested me was the cello, though I couldn’t get my hands on this popular instrument.”
Her serious piano studies eventually paid off. She won a local competition and was sent to Tanglewood when she was 16. “Tanglewood required a second instrument, though piano was my real focus. I stood in line behind the barn where extra instruments were stored. We could hear the orchestra rehearsing and I could almost feel a cello in my hands. A voice said, ‘You’re next,’ and I was handed a baton instead. Just like that I was conducting the third movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto! Fortunately, I had played it before, though not very well. There is a 27-note scale which comes several times; you have to know about it — it divides neatly into 3, but the last movement of the Grieg Concerto is basically in 2/4. I anticipated the runs well, so I was selected for the conducting class. As the only female and the youngest, I was to observe and sit next to the instructor, Leonard Bernstein, who encouraged me to continue conducting. He talked, nudged, and shared comments like ‘Never do that,’ ‘Try this,’ etc. Much of what I do now when I conduct is a result of those intense two weeks — memorizing by phrase, independence of arms and hands, establishing a frame size for dynamic response, leading to the cello/bass section when rhythmic focus falters, plus many intangibles that opened further understanding … and questions.”
After returning from Tanglewood, she borrowed a high school cello which hadn’t been put in storage for the summer. She played it for two weeks and then contacted Gordon Epperson at the University of Puget Sound [see the interview of cellist Gordon Epperson in the ICS Library Archives]. “He was patient and such fun; I learned loads before I had to return the cello. But the piano was still my primary instrument.”
After graduation from Stadium High School in Tacoma, she entered Washington State University on a piano scholarship, earned a BA in applied piano, and auditioned for the Josef Lehvinne scholarship at the Los Angeles Conservatory. The scholarship led to lessons with Rosina Lehvinne for 10 months, which ended when she and her husband, Roger, had their first baby, the first of three children.
Some might assume that having three children would put her musical exploration on hold. On the contrary, this was to be her path back to the cello. “When I returned to Tacoma after several years, I had lost most of my musical contacts. The conductor of the local university orchestra, Raymond Vaught, knew me when I studied with Gordon Epperson. He assumed that I was a cellist because of my association with Gordon, but I had actually studied piano with Gordon. I told him that I didn’t play the cello, but he said, ‘That’s ok. We have an extra cello. Why don’t you come play with our orchestra?'”
Meanwhile, “my mom saw in me the signs of ‘cabin fever.’ I was taking care of three children, all under the age of 4. She also knew that I was becoming frantic because I really wanted to play music. One day she came trudging up the walk with a $100 cello and bow. I was thrilled! I remember playing in our laundry room when my children were very small. I would do my laundry, play the cello, and talk to the kids. I joined Vaught’s orchestra and took a few lessons with his wife, the late Kathryn Vaught, who was a beautiful cellist.” Her cello life thus began in earnest at age 27.
She eventually moved to Seattle and ended up taking lessons with Eva Heinitz [see the interview of cellist Eva Heinitz in the ICS Library Archives]. “Kids would come out of her lessons in tears, but none would say a bad word about her. They loved her. She was so ethical and so honest and she bailed many students out of real problems — both emotional and financial. She was totally selfless when it came to young musicians and had a tremendous interest in humanity.”
Music is Eva Heinitz’s ‘religion’, so she is very vocal about her musical views. “She wears her heart on her sleeve and is an extremely passionate person, so honest and true to her art. I was never one of her great students but she did say once that I was the oldest ‘wunderkind’ she’d ever had. I finally confessed to her, when I was 40, that I had first come to her years before with less than 6 months of lessons. She couldn’t believe it.”
Anybody who has studied with Eva Heinitz knows how demanding she can be. “There were times when I found the lessons very scary. My playing was often ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ for her. Finally, I was simply frozen, which infuriated us both. But there were times when I could block out my anxiety and just let the music flow.”
Frances discovered that the cello had great advantages over the piano. “I became more interested in the cello because I could draw a tone and do so much with it, changing the colors, etc. There are a lot of tricks you can use with the piano to create the illusion of a singing line, but when you get right down to it, the tone is beginning to die the instant you touch a key. No matter how much I tried to use the harmonies and the pedal, I knew I wasn’t really singing. But you can certainly sing with the cello.”
While studying the cello with Eva Heinitz, she also pursued a Master’s degree in conducting, finally following Leonard Bernstein’s advice, as well as a Teacher’s Certification. “I was lucky to know the local conductor Mikael Scheremetiew. He gave me opportunities when no one else would. It wasn’t and still isn’t easy for a woman to break into the male dominated conducting world, but it was particularly difficult in the late 1950’s. I remember talking to the conducting professor at the University of Washington. Dr. Stanley Chapple, about getting my Master’s. He said, ‘I don’t believe in a woman conductor. I’m Victorian and I’m not ashamed of it.’ After some convincing, he relented, saying, ‘I notice that you’re happier with your back to the audience than you are facing the audience.'” Frances eventually became a highly respected conductor in the Seattle area.
Her conducting experience has definitely helped her cello playing. “What I try most to do now is simply think about how I really want the music to sound, and I try not to think about technique. I enjoy reading scores and visualizing the sound. It certainly helps to have a concept of the music before I play; it helps my sightreading too. Sometimes I get tied in knots, and I end up in the wrong position, but not very often. Visualizing a concept as I play is a big step towards actualizing the sound, a technique also used by athletes.”
In 1958 she founded Mercer Island Little Symphony (just east of Seattle), which became Olympic Youth Symphony in 1964, the same year she began the Issaquah School District string program (30 miles east of Seattle), where she taught for eight years. In 1964 she also founded Olympic Music Camp, a highly successful summer camp dedicated to chamber music and to orchestral playing for teenagers. “I’d seen a music camp and I knew that it could be a wonderful thing, particularly with a stress on ensemble playing. I was just discovering the joy of chamber music myself, so I made sure that the camp emphasized it. If kids are exposed to chamber music early they will love it for life! Yes, kids love to rock ‘n roll, but they can play chamber music as well.” The camp went on for an incredible 26 years.
In 1972 she co-founded Philharmonia Northwest, which she conducted for 15 years, and in which she now plays. “Some excellent players from the Thalia Symphony, another local community group, wanted to play in an orchestra where there was no doubling of winds, and where they could explore the smaller scale literature for chamber orchestra, the avant garde, and other Early literature. In fact, Philharmonia Northwest was the first chamber orchestra in the Seattle area.”
With Mikael Scheremetiew, she also set up what is now a huge music library, which has been fed by many generous donors. “It’s supposedly the largest private sheet music collection in the western United States, having a replacement value of almost $190,000. If only people would return things after they borrow them!”
A few years ago, she started The Debut Tour, a tour of rural communities of Washington State by the winners of the five-State Ladies Musical Club competition. “At first I baked cookies for events, which was my way of thanking the remarkable Ladies Musical Club for their 100 plus years of encouraging music and musicians. Then I got the idea of adding the tour as part of the award for winning the competition. I had seen something similar in Norway years before and I thought it might work here too. But you know how it is when you have a good idea; all of a sudden I was the one driving the musicians all over the state and organizing the concerts! Now the tour goes to 22 cities, performing in churches, libraries, parks, and schools. Not only is it a great springboard for the young professionals, it is also spreading the message to communities that may not have had much exposure to classical music.”
Though not religious in the traditional sense, she considers playing music to be a very spiritual experience. “Music nurtures my spiritual connection with life. Growing up, my parents exposed us to different religions. We were not locked into a specific system of thought. Broadly, God was love.
“Music creates a strong bond between people, a sense that goes beyond our other senses. The communication between rehearsing and performing musicians cannot truly be explained, but it is well understood — we have all experienced that unspoken, viable communication. I feel it in small ensemble playing too. I remember experiencing this clearly when I was conducting the Sibelius Violin Concerto in Norway, when the soloist skipped a repeat and landed 20 bars later. Remarkably, the orchestra went right there with her. It isn’t anything that can be explained logically.”
She believes that music and the other arts could really help with the world’s larger issues. “I find it fascinating that we humans are so involved in computers, and yet we haven’t really looked into the computers of our own minds. It is there waiting to be discovered. I used to call it ‘The Force’ with the kids in the 80’s. Imagine the great things that could happen if we help kids discover their souls. I’m not talking about religion necessarily, I’m talking about helping them find a way to seeks thrills through their own love of life and the nurturing of their own spirit, rather than through self-destruction. Music is a great way to discover this inner creative life.”
She enjoys the exploration and creativity of music making. “With music I’m dealing with the creativity of giants who have walked the earth before me. I have the privilege of being a tool in the recreative process, where I try to understand and listen to what they have crafted, and to imagine their intent. I love that I am allowed to change my mind as I learn. Music certainly is a wonderful testament to God, in whatever form he/she takes. Perhaps my approach is too simplistic, but I believe in it.”
Though humble about her own playing, she continues to be a visionary. “Performing musicians need to have an unusual confidence in themselves. I don’t have that. But I do think that I have a gut deep courage in knowing what I think is right, and in knowing that talent is a God given commodity that has to be encouraged and nurtured. I also know that music has a life force of its own that needs to be shared.”
She continues to be generous with recognition of her colleagues. “When all is said, there remains a debt of gratitude to four master musicians who, each in their own way, set the stage for the coming of age in our local musical scene. Supreme thanks go to two master teachers and performers, Eva Heinitz, cellist and gambist, Emanuel Zetlin, violinist, and to two conductors, Dr. Stanley Chapple, whose musical gifts and impact at the University of Washington are legend, and to Mikael Scheremetiew, whose community teaching and conducting brought appreciation of excellence and quality music to students, young and old. They sparked ‘the golden years’ in the Seattle area.” Frances has certainly done her part in continuing their efforts.
Finally, after founding a music camp, starting two orchestras, conducting three, starting a school string program, organizing a sheet music collection, and running the Debut Tour, she grew tired and needed a rest. “I had pneumonia three years in a row. My body was telling me that I needed to slow down. Some kept saying, ‘One more year! One more year!’ but I just couldn’t do it.”
She eventually stripped away her commitments as much as she could, though she still runs the Debut Tour. “The thing I am most proud of is that, not only are most of the things I started still going, they are stronger than ever, which means they must have some value.”
She now dedicates herself to chamber music, playing cello in three different groups. “Right now I’m playing with a young, medium, and an old quartet. I would say the older players are the most adventuresome while the young ones are the most conservative. I think I may enjoy the medium one the most, though I get the least amount of time with them.”
She also continues to play in Philharmonia Northwest, passionate as always. “I’m toying with quitting, but damn it, they’re doing Brahms Second next year!”