A conversation with faculty members and performing musicians Roger and Michele Frisch.
Interview by Jenny Collins ’05 and Nina Engen
There’s an old joke about a tourist asking directions of a native New Yorker. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” the visitor inquires. The legendary response: “Practice, practice, practice!” In reality, the recipe for success in the classical music field requires more than a dash of musical talent and some practice time. Add to that decades of intense musical study, extraordinary discipline and ability, and perseverance in a fiercely competitive field.
For Northwestern faculty members Roger and Michele Frisch, success is marked by far more than their proven careers as performing musicians, but by their love for each other and deep faith in the Lord. Read the conversation below about being musicians, being married and being Italian.
Pilot: Roger, you recently were the featured soloist for the ‘John Williams and Beyond’ concert for the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sounds of Cinema series. Your performance of Corigliano’s “Chaconne” from The Red Violin was spectacular and it was incredible to hear Schindler’s List, Dances with Wolves, and even Pirates of the Caribbean... performed live. What was the response of performing popular film scores in Orchestra Hall?
Roger: It’s certainly separate from what we normally do. Is it Beethoven or Brahms? Well, I don’t know. But there is a lot of great music written for movies that is very worthy to be played in a concert hall. We packed just about every one of those performances. And you got to eat popcorn in Orchestra Hall! Walking out to play a solo in Orchestra Hall and smelling popcorn was a very bizarre experience!
Michele: He also has many [of these scores] on his iPod, just so you know.
RF: Yes, they should’ve entitled the Sounds of Cinema event, “What’s on Roger’s iPod.” I love this stuff.
Michele, you’ve referred to the blending of faith with musical performance as “the constant reconciling of performing with the inner life.” Explain more about that.
MF: That’s been a topic of discussion between Roger and me for many years—what it means to be a classical musician and a Christian. What comes up a lot is your life as a performer and your life as a Christian and bringing them together to glorify God. In the entertainment industry you have a certain persona on stage that you’re trying to communicate to people and it’s in your best interest as an accomplished performer to make that persona as accurate and perfect as you can.
RF: The problem is, the ego always comes into play. But I think it’s okay after you walk off stage to say, “Hey, that was really good! I’m not always on, but that one hit it!” I can’t think of any better way to give honor and praise to the Lord than to reach that high level of excellence. We both feel we need to continue to promote amongst our Christian colleagues—especially in the arts—the same level of artistic excellence as is true in the secular world. What better way to give praise to the Lord? It’s the gift God has given us and we should be able to display that at the highest level.
MF: It’s a tricky balance. We’ve had to learn ways to deal with trying to be the finest musician we can and fully acknowledging that anything we do well is by God’s grace.
It must also be a constant challenge to find that balance between excellence and perfection.
RF: It’s the nature of our profession that we want to attain perfection, and of course we can never attain that. That’s the trap because there’s no happiness in that. And I think for Michele and I, without being grounded in our faith, it would be a very unhappy life. We’ve known many, many of our colleagues who have had a rough life in this profession—the divorce rate is very high.
Knowing that, how do you strengthen your marriage?
MF: We talk all the time about everything. My family was large and chaotic and filled with this wonderful jumble of love and dysfunction. And we’re all quite verbal. Roger and I complement each other in so many ways and I have seen that as God’s gift because I have felt that, left to my own devices, I would have found a way to upset the apple cart here. Roger is very even-keeled, emotionally strong and spiritually strong. We’re both half-Italian, but my Italian half is much more on the surface.
RF: I disowned my Italian half.
MF: And mine bubbles up to the surface constantly. God made us that way and He made us to complement each other. God being the center of our marriage has saved us from letting ambition get out of control.
In what other ways do you sharpen each other—both personally and professionally?
RF: We’ve gotten pretty honest with each other over the years, and it took a while. I don’t trust anyone else to give me an honest opinion of how I play, other than Michele. It takes many years to develop a relationship where you can truly trust each other and are able to say, “You really were not very well in tune in this passage,” and know that this person isn’t going to be totally shattered by that comment.
MF: He’s so right that it has taken a long time. We finally reached that point some years ago. A lot of it sprang from our Ukraine concert ministry.
Tell us about your Ukraine ministry.
MF: We went for five years [1995-99] and it was part of the Minnesota Baptist’s Conference (MBC).
RF: The executive pastor at the MBC asked us, “How would you like to go to Ukraine? You’ll give concerts every night, except that you won’t get paid for it, you’ll have to pay for it. The conditions will be harsh and you’ll be riding on these rickety buses.” And we said no. We just weren’t ready to do it. But he was persistent and the next year we felt led to go. It was the beginning of the biggest growth in our lives. We had no idea what we were getting into.
MF: That first week in Ukraine, Roger and I cried a lot. Because the Holy Spirit was just opening us up and saying, “Look what we can do when the ground is fertile and there are willing workers.” It was just right in that zone of God’s activity and we were almost like unintentional visitors. We thought we were going to play concerts and here we are in this Holy Spirit hurricane that is going on in Ukraine and we’re sort of carried along just doing what we do and giving testimony from the stage and God does the rest.
What was your mission, besides playing classical music concerts?
RF: Our mission was to bring the highest caliber, professional, Christian musician to Ukraine. To show that, yes, you can be at the top of your game as a professional musician and be a believer. We’d do a concert in a different city every night. We would come out, not say a word, and play our music first, and that opened the doors. Then gradually through the concert, we would speak more openly about our faith. Then towards the end we would just let it loose and there was no mistaking why we were there and what we believed. It sometimes took us two hours, before we got out of the hall because people were lined up. Many wanted to talk about our faith. And it wasn’t until years later that we’ve started to hear stories about this whole ripple effect.
Roger, you were part of a similar ministry in China last summer, except you weren’t allowed to speak openly about your faith. What happened there?
Roger: I played with one of their orchestras over there. I would play my recital—I was playing for mostly university kids—and just sort of stick in a tiny mention about my faith and then open it up to Q&A afterwards, counting on [the fact] that university students are rebellious all over the world. They took the bait and there were quite a few questions about my faith. I said to them, “I realize I’m not supposed to be speaking about my Christian faith, but it would be awfully rude of me not to answer your questions.” So I took it from there.
You experience so much of life together as husband and wife, performers, parents, grandparents—what’s your secret?
RF: The practicality of this relationship is that I tend to be the doer and she tends to be the thinker, and I think we can really boil it down to that. It is a real balancing act that we’ve established over the years. We make up for each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
MF: I make his life interesting, he makes my life stable. We joke a lot that I’d be in an institution and he’d be a hermit in a cabin somewhere if not for each other. There is something quite unique about a marriage where God is central.
You have an interesting professional dynamic, too, that I know you share.
Michele: Yes, what we do is classical music, but yet it’s different—it’s opera and symphony orchestra. He plays every week all season long; I have five operas a year and they each go in spurts of three very intense weeks and then some time off. So it’s that kind of life. Roger has a routine that supports our family and mine is more just sort of up-and-down. It’s just one other way I think that we’d go crazy if we did the exact same thing. It’s a comfort to be in the same field and to share things, but it’s also nice not to do exactly the same thing.
Roger (joking): She’s really saying it’s good she doesn’t have to see me all the time.
Well, to convey your true thoughts, Michele, describe Roger in three words.
MF: I wrote a poem to Roger and these are in it—kindness, integrity and strength. Roger has the kind of strength that matters to me.
And Roger, your three words about Michele?
RF: My best friend.
Roger Frisch’s career as a violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra began in 1974, where he is now associate concertmaster. A sought-after teacher, coach and recitalist, Roger made his Carnegie Hall solo debut in 1992 and has performed extensively throughout the United States as well as internationally. Last August, Roger shared his musical expertise in China, where he performed as orchestra soloist and found a way to speak to university students about his faith.
Michele Frisch has been principal flute of the Minnesota Opera since 1984. Her dynamic musical career has included performances with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, as well as touring internationally with the Kairos Trio. Michele recently celebrated the release of her second CD recorded with harpist Kathy Kienzle, titled La Belle Vie.