Friday, April 5, 2019

Composer Profile: Gabriela Lena Frank in Conversation with Christian Baldini

In preparation for our performance of her Elegía andina in Sacramento with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra, I had the pleasure of asking composer Gabriela Lena Frank a few questions about her music. Below are the answers:

Christian Baldini: Thank you very much for agreeing to answer some questions! In your program notes to the Elegía, you note that you "continue to thrive on multiculturalism", and I find this fascinating, especially considering what a rich cultural background you possess as the daughter of a Lithuanian-Jewish father and a Chinese-Peruvian-Spanish mother. Can you tell us more about how this influenced your upbringing, and your music in particular?
Gabriela Lena Frank: Well, my first exposure to music from my mother’s homeland came through Berkeley’s La Peña when it was in its original location at the Julia Morgan Theater on College Avenue.  In the 70s and 80s, there was so much turmoil in Latin America that many refugees were fleeing to the US, bringing their cuisine and music.  At these concerts, I could see Peruvians that looked like my Mom, playing instruments that she had described to me, and I was transported, mentally and emotionally, to a mystical place that beckoned a cultural homecoming.  I loved the music and would come home, trying to make my piano sound like what I had heard in the concerts.  Now, I do this for a living!  

CB: You are an extremely successful artist, nowadays Composer-in-Residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra, previously with the Detroit Symphony, and you were included in the Washington Post's list of the 35 most significant women composers in history (August, 2017). We are performing your Elegía andina, which is your very first orchestral piece, written in 2000 for the Albany Symphony and dedicated to your older brother. Did you imagine that you would have such a phenomenal ride when you started composing? 
GLF: No. Way.  I thought that the lack of representation for women and especially women of color was symptomatic of an industry that would never fully welcome me, but I was determined to explore my nerdy ideas, anyway, with as much joy and fervor as I could muster.  That I’ve been able to overcome quite a few hurdles for many years to slowly make my way to this point is pretty astonishing to me.  I’m delighted to see that my emerging colleagues are generally benefiting from the progress that folks my generation were able to make, and I hope they can go even farther than me.  

CB: You have done so much to help young musicians, especially composers, through your "Creative Academy of Music". Could you tell us how this incredible project started? How did you come up with such an idea? 
GLF: My husband and I took a cross-country trip during the final months of the 2016 presidential election, which was a truly dispiriting affair.  During that trip, we drove through areas that were culturally desolate and economically impoverished, and I could see for my own eyes why certain violent messages of division and hatred were appealing.  All the ideas that had been fomenting in me over many years regarding art and arts citizenship really came to fore, and I felt that I simply had to do something.  So, GLFCAM was born, and we try to give a richly diverse array of voices a potent boost, artistically and professionally.  Their voices need to be heard.  

CB: Who are some important figures that have inspired you in your education and training? Are there any people that you think you will will always be grateful to, and why?
GLF: I’ll always be grateful to certain private teachers — Piano teachers Jeanne Kierman Fischer and Logan Skelton, and composers Sam Jones, William Bolcom, and Leslie Bassett.  They saw what I could be, and are in every word of advice that I now speak to my mentees.  

CB: In your opinion, what is the role of art in society nowadays? 
GLF: To reveal connections in startling new ways; to build character through the art of story-telling; to inspire people to create rather than to make war; to bring people together in the same space to really see one another.  

CB: Sometimes we read or hear depressing comments that classical music audiences are aging. Do you believe in this, and if so, what should or could be done to reverse this trend and invigorate our audiences?
GLF: I’ve heard this since I was a teenager and I think we’ve been mistaking seismic shifts for the very death of our industry.  Change is not death.  Change is how an art form continues to live even if it’s unrecognizable from before.  That said, efforts to retool’s people’s instant reaction to the words “classical” are needed.  That will only happen when it is no longer elitist but available for everyone.  

CB: What do you seek to achieve with every new piece that you write? What is your main motivation for writing music?
GLF: I write to tell stories, and stories exist to enlarge our reality so that we can really be human, not merely a reactive organism.  Sometimes the stories are clumsy or new to me — Elegia Andina, as you note, was my first orchestra work, and I was sweating bullets the entire time I was putting notes to the page.  Yet, even then, my motivation was the same — To touch people and remind them how large this beautiful world is.  I humbly ask to be that messenger.  

CB: Thank you very much for your time and for answering these questions in such a candid manner. We very much look forward to sharing your beautiful music with our audiences here in Sacramento!
GLF: You are very welcome.  I wish I could be there to join you!

Included in the Washington Post's list of the 35 most significant women composers in history (August, 2017), identity has always been at the center of composer/pianist Gabriela Lena Frank's music. Born in Berkeley, California (September, 1972), to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank explores her multicultural heritage most ardently through her compositions. Inspired by the works of Bela Bartók and Alberto Ginastera, Frank is something of a musical anthropologist. She has traveled extensively throughout South America and her pieces often reflect and refract her studies of Latin American folklore, incorporating poetry, mythology, and native musical styles into a western classical framework that is uniquely her own.

Moreover, she writes, "There's usually a story line behind my music; a scenario or character." While the enjoyment of her works can be obtained solely from her music, the composer's program notes enhance the listener's experience, for they describe how a piano part mimics a marimba or pan-pipes, or how a movement is based on a particular type of folk song, where the singer is mockingly crying. Even a brief glance at her titles evokes specific imagery: Leyendas (Legends): An Andean Walkabout; Cuentos Errantes (Wandering Songs); and La Llorona (The Crying Woman): Tone Poem for Viola and Orchestra. Frank’s compositions also reflect her virtuosity as a pianist — when not composing, she is a sought-after performer, specializing in contemporary repertoire.

Winner of a Latin Grammy and nominated for Grammys as both composer and pianist, Gabriela also holds a Guggenheim Fellowship and a USA Artist Fellowship given each year to fifty of the country’s finest artists. Her work has been described as “crafted with unself-conscious mastery” (Washington Post), “brilliantly effective” (New York Times), “a knockout” (Chicago Tribune) and “glorious” (Los Angeles Times). Gabriela Lena Frank is regularly commissioned by luminaries such as cellist Yo Yo Ma, soprano Dawn Upshaw, the King’s Singers, and the Kronos Quartet, as well as by the talents of the next generation such as conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin of the New York Metropolitan Opera and Philadelphia Orchestra. She has received orchestral commissions and performances from leading American orchestras including the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony. In 2017, she completed her four-year tenure as composer-in-residence with the Detroit Symphony under maestro Leonard Slatkin, composing Walkabout: Concerto for Orchestra, as well as a second residency with the Houston Symphony under Andrés Orozco-Estrada for whom she composed the Conquest Requiem, a large-scale choral/orchestral work in Spanish, Latin, and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Frank’s most recent premiere is Apu: Tone Poem for Orchestra commissioned by Carnegie Hall and premiered by the National Youth Orchestra of the United States under the baton of conductor Marin Alsop. In the season of 2019-20, Fort Worth Opera will premiere Frank’s first opera, The Last Dream of Frida (with a subsequent performance by co-commissioner San Diego Opera) utilizing words by her frequent collaborator Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Nilo Cruz. 

Gabriela Lena Frank is the subject of several scholarly books including the W.W. Norton Anthology: The Musics of Latin America; Women of Influence in Contemporary Music: Nine American Composers (Scarecrow Press); and In her Own Words(University of Illinois Press). She is also the subject of several PBS documentaries including Compadre Huashayo regarding her work in Ecuador composing for the Orquestra de Instrumentos Andinos comprised of native highland instruments; and Música Mestiza, regarding a workshop she led at the University of Michigan composing for a virtuoso septet of a classical string quartet plus a trio of Andean panpipe players. Música Mestiza, created by filmmaker Aric Hartvig, received an Emmy Nomination for best Documentary Feature in 2015. 

Civic outreach is an essential part of Frank’s work. She has volunteered extensively in hospitals and prisons, with a recent project working with deaf African-American high school students in Detroit who rap in sign language. In 2017, Frank founded the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, a non-profit training institution that offers emerging composers short-term retreats at Gabriela’s two farms in Mendocino County, CA. Over two visits, participants receive artistic and professional mentorship from Gabriela as well as readings of works in progress by guest faculty master performers in advance of the works' public world premieres at the academy. In support of arts citizenship, the Academy also pairs participant composers and faculty performers with underrepresented rural communities in a variety of projects such as working with students at the Anderson Valley Junior/Senior High enrolled in basic music composition class.  

During the 2018-2019 season, Frank leads four composer residencies across the US, including performances of her recent works as well as large-scale commissions: composer-in-residence with Philadelphia Orchestra through 2021, visiting artist-in-residence with Vanderbilt University, a composer residency with the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, and is the featured composer for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Music in Color concert series. In 2017, Frank founded the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music in Boonville, CA which provides mentorship, readings-to-premieres residencies, and commissions for emerging composers from diverse backgrounds in addition to fostering public school programs in low-arts rural public schools.

Frank attended Rice University in Houston, Texas, where she earned a B.A. (1994) and M.A. (1996). She studied composition with Sam Jones, and piano with Jeanne Kierman Fischer. At the University of Michigan, where she received a D.M.A. in composition in 2001, Gabriela studied with William Albright, William Bolcom, Leslie Bassett, and Michael Daugherty, and piano with Logan Skelton. She currently resides in Boonville, a small rural town in the Anderson Valley of northern California, with her husband Jeremy on their mountain farm, has a second home in her native Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area, and travels frequently in South America.  

Gabriela Lena Frank's music is published exclusively by G. Schirmer, Inc. 

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