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Artist Interview: Composer Gabriela Lena Frank

sphinx virtuosi
The Sphinx Virtosi, who’ll perform with composer Gabriela Lena Frank on September 27, 2015. Photo by Kevin Kennedy. 

The Sphinx Virtuosi, led by the Catalyst Quartet, is one of the nation’s most dynamic professional chamber orchestras. Comprised of 18 of the nation’s top Black and Latino classical soloists, these alumni of the internationally renowned Sphinx Competition come together each fall as cultural ambassadors. When they perform in Ann Arbor on September 27, their program, entitled “Inspiring Women,” will focus the spotlight on female composers and works inspired by great women.

Composer, pianist, and U-M alumna Gabriela Lena Frank will perform the world premiere of her new concerto with the ensemble, co-commissioned by UMS, the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation, and Linda and Stuart Nelson, among others.

Composer and UMS Lobby contributor Garrett Schumann recently chatted with Gabriela Lena Frank about the new concerto, working with Sphinx, and returning to Detroit area for the first time after completing her graduate degree at the University of Michigan over a decade ago.

Garrett Schumann: What can you tell us about the piece that you will be performing with the Sphinx Virtuosi?

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank.

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Gabriela Lena Frank: This will be the premiere, a UMS co-commissioned work for piano and string ensemble. Although technically the commissioned piece is a piano concerto, I don’t see it that way. The piano does have a central role, but I always wanted it to be something that would be believable as, say, a piano quintet. To that end, the strings are important as the piece has that chamber music kind of feel to it. So, that’s the first thing.

The second thing is that like a lot of my work, this piece draws inspiration from Latin American folk idioms. The name of the piece is Cuentos Errantes, which means “wandering stories.” It is inspired by the utopian concept of mestizaje as envisioned by the Peruvian writer, José María Arguedas (1911-1969) in which cultures can co-exist without one subjugating another. As a mixed race American-born mestiza, I’ve long been enamored with the poetry, music, and cuisine of my mother’s beautiful homeland of Perú, and explore these in my compositions, and Cuentos is the newest of these efforts.

GS: The other half of the title of this new piece is “Four New Folk Songs,” which leads me to believe that you don’t quote existing folk songs. Is it more modeling or do you actually reproduce songs?

GLF: No quotes. But there are hallmarks and characteristics of what you might find in folk music. It’s very liberally reinterpreted.

GS: I think I saw in a different interview that you’re “coming out of retirement” to play in this performance, as a pianist?

GLF: [Laughs] Oh my goodness.

G: Can you talk about that a little bit? I know you were nominated for a Grammy as a pianist, so that means you’ve got chops.

GLF: You know, at the time I was nominated, I happened to be playing with great musicians. Really! I was stuck to them. We did the CD, and I played on a couple of pieces, so it wasn’t that I was nominated, I was nominated alongside them.

But it is true. I would say composing is maybe 90% of my life and the other 10% is playing. When I was younger and studying at University of Michigan, and shortly after, I played quite a bit. And I was beginning to get some gigs professionally, and then the composing just took its own trajectory.

I always thought I had more to offer as a composer. You know, the University of Michigan is turning out these pianists that can play new music, as well as Beethoven and Mozart. My Mozart and Beethoven might be interesting to a few. [Laughs] But, although I love listening and have great appreciation for people who play the standard repertoire, my contribution is really in the other less common repertoire that I can play, and I can compose a lot more repertoire than I can play.

GS: How about your relationship with Sphinx. Your received the Sphinx Medal of Excellence in 2013, and in 2014 you were a part of a panel about race and composition with Sphinx founder Aaron Dworkin and others at the Sphinx Con, an annual conference focusing on ethnic and racial as well stylistic diversity in classical music. How long have you known about the Sphinx Organization and how long have you been working together?

GLF: I knew the founders before they founded Sphinx when we were students at the University of Michigan together. I saw the beginnings of these ideas, what it means to have some sort of diverse background going into classical music. For Aaron Dworkin that came in the form of expanding his string playing to education and and advocacy. So that’s when he founded the Sphinx Organization.

The award was an incredible honor, and the UMS performance will be the first time I work with the organization creatively, a full concert with rehearsing, creating a body of work, and so forth.

GS: I’ve known you for a long time, and I think it’s not just your heritage and how it comes across in your music that sets you apart, but also in the other things that you do as a composer. Your participating in panels and demonstrations, for example. Some composers feel they should only express themselves and their music, not necessarily give presentations or do that sort of work that I think you do very well. Where does that come from? What drives you to be a communicator for diversity as well as a composer?

GLF: Well, you know, everyone is more or less comfortable with public speaking. I didn’t plan on that, it was an accident. I happened to discover other ways in which I could enjoy music with people. For example, just talking about it. I think I discovered this in grad school, so it was rather a late discovery.

I also always wanted to make sure that this doesn’t come at the expense of the music itself, too. There are musicians who consider themselves advocates more than players or artists. And that’s great. I’m inclined to first make sure that I’m the best composer I can possibly be. I think I’ll provide more benefit to the music community if I keep my head on straight.

But engagement of this type enhances what we composers can offer. I’m very happy when I see the next generation be so proactive, in terms of making even more connections beyond the stage. I don’t know, it might be a little bit of my Berkeley hippie upbringing. [Laughs]

GS: Let’s talk about your connection to Southeast Michigan. You went to Michigan for your doctorate, but now you’re the composer-in-residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. What do you feel your connection to the area is, and how has it changed since you’ve re-rooted here?

GLF: That’s a great question. I think you touched on it. There is a difference from when I was in school. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of students in Ann Arbor don’t necessarily get to know Detroit. It’s a drive, so there can be transportation reasons. Most people don’t go there to hang out; they go for an event. You get in and get out. I went to a few DSO concerts when I was at Michigan for my doctorate. And that was about it.

In the years that have passed since I graduated, I have also been composing for other orchestras. It’s amazing when you get to a city and you start to get to know the place and the people. Your world gets larger, and you start composing music. You talk to civilians. You know, people who are not musicians. [Laughs]

When the DSO came to me, I thought, now it’s my turn to be in one of our great cities that’s fallen on hard times. Maybe also with my connection to the area and Ann Arbor, in some sense I wanted to rectify how I had neglected Detroit in the past. What I’ve learned as the composer in residence with different orchestras now is a sense of humility. I’m not going to be able to change a lot of things, but I can give what I can give.

It has been amazing to witness how Detroit is changing. Every time I go back I see another part of the city that has developed. A community garden has sprung up. Or, a building has been bought and is being renovated. The changes are tremendous. Artists are coming in. Musicians, writers, visual artists are buying warehouses and setting up. Being there when the new mayor was voted in, seeing long lines of people getting ready to vote, when sometimes people don’t vote across the country. The sense of community is incredible.

GS: I have one more question. I can’t help myself because I’m doing this for UMS. I’m curious; did you go to a lot of UMS concerts when you were a student here? And is this your first time having your music as part of a UMS performance?

GLF: Not the first time for my music, but I wasn’t at the concerts when my music was performed at UMS before. So, from my perspective, this will feel like the first time.

But, yes, I did all the student rush things every year when I was a student. We’d stand in a long line. [Laughs]

GS: Oh yeah! That’s how I saw Einstein on the Beach.

GLF: I remember one time, the very first year I was a student, we stood in the rain for hours, oh man. I can’t wait to come back! UMS was one of the earliest supporters of Sphinx. Sphinx has its roots here in the Ann Arbor and Detroit area, so the Sphinx concert is going to be a very special one.

Interested in more? Explore the archive of Garrett’s interviews with UMS visiting artists.