Composer Gabriela Lena Frank bursting with ideas

Gabriela Lena Frank at Macchu Picchu, the ancient Inca site high atop the Andes Mountains of Peru. Outside of Frank's California upbringing, Peru seems to bethe composer's primary identity.
Gabriela Lena Frank at Macchu Picchu, the ancient Inca site high atop the Andes Mountains of Peru. Outside of Frank's California upbringing, Peru seems to bethe composer's primary identity.
Posted: October 25, 2012

Gabriela Lena Frank isn't the best known of the three composers commissioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra's first season with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, but she's the one audiences can be sure to hear on schedule.

The 40-year-old composer from Oakland, Calif., has been bubbling over with music since her childhood, so much that her new Concertino Cusqueño, which the orchestra will premiere Thursday at the Kimmel Center, is loaded with ideas that didn't fit in past pieces and promise to lead to a dozen others.

"It's like playing pool where you set up your cue shot for the next one," she says, leafing through the score one recent morning in a park in Media, where she's visiting her brother. "If this stuff works, I'll be stealing these gems as jumping-off points for future pieces."

The other composers writing new pieces for the orchestra, Oliver Knussen and Osvaldo Golijov, are both notorious for missing deadlines but are usually worth the wait. But just because Frank is creatively punctual in this first commission for a Big Five orchestra doesn't mean she's an uncomplicated personality.

"It's like cooking a meal you've never cooked before but you don't get to taste it until dinner. I'm frightened," she said. "But I'm excited to hear it."

Jewish angst. Latin exuberance. A Lithuanian sense of song. It's all in her creative DNA - plus some Asian genes from her Chinese/Peruvian mother and an urgency that comes from years convalescing from an autoimmune disorder that stopped her from composing and destroyed some of her eyesight. The genes, the trauma, the everything can't help but be funneled into the opening moments of Concertino Cusqueño: High piccolo and deep bass clarinet frame a dreamy celesta and ominous tympany.

Knowing what's behind Frank's music is hardly a key to appreciating it. Susan Feder, previously vice president of the prestigious G. Schirmer publishers, knew little about Frank's colorful ethnic background but simply found her music to be "extraordinarily life-affirming."

Peruvian ties

"Only later," said Feder in an e-mail, "did I learn of her intensive explorations into her cultural heritage, and discover how they've been inventively incorporated into her keenly colored compositions."

Peru seems to be her primary identity outside of her California upbringing. Frank has spent much time there and even reads Quechua, an indigenous Andean language. In her Concertino Cusqueño score, she points to a tune she picked up in Cusco and explains in detail how strange it is. "That's one reason it grabbed me," she says. "But I depart from it very quickly. By the third note, I'm off. I'm almost misremembering it."

Few composers analyze their work so readily and easily. Frank is her own archaeologist (another of her side interests), but because she's about art and not science, her history accommodates fabrication. In the new piece, she's fantasizing about taking the late British composer Benjamin Britten to Peru, which is what she does musically, seizing upon ideas from his Violin Concerto and making them hers.

Visiting a Lima museum prompted another such inner dialogue, this time with an ancient sculpture of an Incan flutist. "What would he think of my music? Would he laugh? Would he think it's bizarre?" she mused.

Comic books

What does her mother think? In a street-corner conversation in Media, Sabina Frank resorts to food imagery: "It's like getting all the ingredients that grow in Peru and making dishes you've never tasted."

Her parents can't help being used to their daughter's music: At the age of 5, Gabriela propped up comic books on the family piano and composed music that they inspired. "I thought she was just making it up each time," said Michael Frank, her father. "But if you said, 'Play the cowboy song,' you got the cowboy song."

The surprise is how readily the music industry came to her - and stuck close during tough times. As a student (she has degrees from Rice University and the University of Michigan), she was noticed by high-up music-industry types. Oddly, Frank failed to follow up on their invitations to send musical examples. When G. Schirmer all but threw a net over her a decade ago, Frank, then 30, was clueless about the workings of the music world.

"But, boom, I got it. Once I understood, I said: 'My life is about to change,' " she recalls. But not in ways she anticipated.

Though hearing-impaired since childhood, Frank noticed she was unable to read lips during her celebratory luncheon. Months later, she was diagnosed with Graves' disease that was attacking her eye functions. The next five years were a succession of surgeries. Only because she was approved for insurance just before the diagnosis - and had built up a nest egg - did she have money to live. Her parents were nearby in Berkeley, and did what they could, whether fixing meals or making her a more fashionable tiger-striped eye patch.

Frank seems remarkably unscarred by such trauma, discussing her illness as dispassionately as a physician. Yet she feels that she's on borrowed time: "I'm aware of each day. I'm aware of what I'm trading in my time for. How many pieces do I have left in me?

As a result, she's interested in writing in durable, traditional forms and making them her own - one reason Frank was so pleased to work, in years past, with Philadelphia's Astral Artists, which is dedicated to renewing tradition. "I love trendy instrumentation, like writing for six violas," she says, "but those are sacrificial lambs. You may learn a lot, but pieces like that won't take you as far as a string quartet."

Frank wants fewer but bigger projects. She aspires to write 30 piano sonatas. Most intriguing is a medium that seems to be awaiting her theatrical sensibility: opera. She's planning one with playwright Nilo Cruz that taps into the gifts both have for imaginary conversations with remarkable people: Painter Frida Kahlo returns from the dead to visit muralIst Diego Rivera.

Risks don't get bigger for a composer than opera, but Frank's borrowed-time viewpoint insists that projects not be delayed. "Everything I do is now public," she said. "But you don't go into this unless you can deal with those kinds of stakes."


Contact David Patrick Stearns

at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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