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David Frisina; Longtime L.A. Philharmonic Concertmaster

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was a violin virtuoso.

When he touched bow to strings of the Earl of Plymouth Stradivarius, a critic wrote, “the instrument simply made it easier for him to exploit his own contributions.”

He could solo on the tough stuff written for Jascha Heifetz. His name was not as well known, but he didn’t care. He was not a globe-trotting soloist, merely a workaday first-chair violinist and concertmaster.

“I am very happy where I am,” he told The Times in 1966, decades into his career.

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David Frisina, the long-reigning concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an always-in-demand Hollywood studio violinist, has died. He was 86.

Frisina died Nov. 1 in Sherman Oaks of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his son, Tom, of San Jose.

Hired in 1937 by conductor Otto Klemperer, Frisina moved up to concertmaster six years later under Alfred Wallenstein. At 28, the violinist was the youngest concertmaster in the United States and the first in Los Angeles born on U.S. soil.

Frisina recorded regularly with Hollywood orchestras and took three years out in the late 1940s to work exclusively on motion picture soundtracks. Long after retiring from the Philharmonic, he continued playing--until 1996--with studio orchestras, contributing over his long career to 277 movie soundtracks, 440 records with such singers as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, and 300 television shows. He also played for 24 years with the Academy Awards Orchestra.

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But his core career was the Philharmonic, from its concerts in the now-razed Philharmonic Auditorium at Pershing Square to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County. He stepped down as concertmaster--the musician who, as the least of his duties, signals the orchestra to rise when the conductor strides to the podium--in 1973 and retired from the Philharmonic at the end of its Hollywood Bowl season in 1978.

His colleagues revered him, presenting him a rare hand-carved wooden music stand at his retirement. His conductors did too. As Frisina ended his long concertmaster tenure, then-conductor Zubin Mehta praised him as “one of my closest colleagues, not only musically, but also in building this orchestra to its current standard of excellence.”

Frisina developed a reputation in his rare Philharmonic solos for choosing nonstandard pieces, commenting: “I think it is my job as concertmaster to play the things the guests avoid.”

One of those was the Saint-Saens’ Third Violin Concerto, which he played under guest conductor Charles Munch in 1966 on the Earl of Plymouth Stradivarius.

“Frisina certainly displayed to best advantage the lustrous silken tone characteristic of the finest Strads,” the Times critic said. "[But] the instrument had nothing to do with the fastidious elegance of style he brought to an unjustly neglected work, a French style of elegance one does not hear often anymore and that was eminently appropriate to the aristocratic music. It was beautifully polished playing in every respect.”

For another solo, Frisina chose William Walton’s concerto. He was only the second violinist to perform the piece, after Heifetz, to whom it was dedicated.

“Composers don’t write trifles for Heifetz, and it takes stout-hearted courage to follow in his footsteps,” wrote the Times critic. “But Mr. Frisina . . . took the gamble and won. The piece bristles with hazards but not one of them took the soloist’s measure. He was always on top of the formidable array of double stops, harmonics, speedy passage work and all the other obstacles the composer could devise, and they came out cleanly and incisively, with no huffing and puffing.”

Another Frisina favorite was the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor by Jean Sibelius. A 1947 Times critic noted that Frisina got the greatest applause of the evening, adding: “His singular earnestness and feeling, plus the fact that he essayed a difficult composition with energy and efficiency, entitled him to the prolonged demonstration of approval.”

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If each solo was greeted with such praise, Times music editor and critic Martin Bernheimer once asked Frisina, had he ever wanted to be a full-time concert soloist?

“I never gave it any thought at all,” he replied. “That kind of a decision is usually made by a teacher, not the student himself. In my case, I had always aimed for a spot with an orchestra.”

Frisina, born in Morristown, Pa., began studying violin at age 6 and by 10 was working with Emanuel Zeitlin, the first teacher to put him on the orchestra track. At 16 he went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, studying with Alexander Hilsberg, who also pointed him toward the orchestra. The young Frisina got some experience as concertmaster with the Curtis Symphony, where he found that “orchestra playing seemed like the most stimulating thing in the world.”

Newly graduated, Frisina followed Hilsberg to California to continue his lessons. Waiting for a promised position with the Minneapolis Symphony, he took a job as a clerk in a Hollywood music store, where he spent most of the day practicing his violin behind the counter. Bronislaw Gimpel, then concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, happened to hear him and started talking about an audition with Klemperer.

Frisina was hired, and stepped up to Gimpel’s job when the concertmaster was drafted during World War II.

Frisina’s wife of 57 years, Corinne, died in 1998. In addition to Tom, he is survived by a second son, Tim of Los Angeles, and three grandsons.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be sent to the John Douglas French Foundation, which funds research and treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.


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