Chicago Chamber Musicians give Gabriela Frank’s edgy music commanding advocacy

Wed Jan 19, 2011 at 10:53 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gabriela Lena Frank’s music was spotlighted in the Chicago Chamber Musicians’ concert Tuesday night at Ganz Hall.

One of the finest ongoing initiatives on the local music scene is the Composer Perspectives series presented by Chicago Chamber Musicians. For a decade, these concerts have brought composers to Chicago to curate a program of their music and others who have influenced them, working closely with the CCM members for the performances.

Tuesday night at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall, it was the turn of Gabriela Lena Frank. Born in California, the 38-year old composer is the product of a heterogenous background with a mother of Peruvian-Chinese descent and a Lithuanian-Jewish father. That diverse lineage is reflected in music that draws on a welter of international influences, as reflected in the two works heard Tuesday night.

As noted by an audience member in the pre-concert discussion, Frank’s varied heritage and inspiration from Latin and other ethnic elements is outwardly akin to the Argentinian composer, Osvaldo Golijov. But if Golijov’s music sometimes seems a bit calculated and eclectic for its own sake, Frank’s style is tougher, more astringent and closely wrought and less concerned with playing to the galleries.

The evening led off with Frank’s Sueños de Chambi: Snapshots for an Andean Album. Born into a Peruvian Indian family, Martin Chambi (1891-1973) was a pioneering photographer and Sueños de Chambi draws its inspiration from seven of Chambi’s extraordinary photographs of unromanticized Peruvian life.

Originally written for violin and piano, Tuesday night’s performance presented Frank’s alternate flute transcription with Mary Stolper taking the flute part and the composer at the piano.

Frank said Tuesday that Bartok is her “personal hero,” and her music clearly reflects that both in his thorny writing as well as her fascination with researching folkish musicological esoterica. The opening movement is a plaintive solo for alto flute with an unmistakable Latin-American contour, painting a portrait of activist Miguel Quispo. The first section segues directly into a hard-driving movement inspired by a dancer in a devil’s costume and reflected in black-note clusters and diablerie for both players. The third section is a pastoral flute solo while the lively fourth is inspired by Peruvian dance steps and native folk instruments

A piano solo in movement five evokes a photo of a deceased child in a casket while the solemn sixth movement–a self-portrait of Chambi— has an air of solemn dignity. Sueños de Chambi closes with a rollicking marinera dance and a throwaway Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini coda.

Sueños de Chambi is an undeniably well crafted work, but a bit long and unwieldy and would likely prove more effective in somewhat shorter form. Also while Frank’s writing is polished and imaginative, I’m not sure a strong individual voice is palpable beneath the Bartokian elements and the numerous iterations of folk styles and various native instruments. Stolper and Frank gave the work fizzing and bravura advocacy.

More convincing was Frank’s Quijotadas for string quartet. Like Richard Strauss, Massenet and others, Frank takes her inspiration here from Cervantes’ celebrated tale of the knight errant Don Quixote (the title means “extravagant quixotic delusions”) with five sections painting various scenes from Cervantes’ novel.

Frank’s edgy, densely argued style is here more distinctive in a tighter, more cohesive work. The Don’s disordered delusions are immediately manifest in the fragmented writing of the first movement. The ensuing Sequidilla rapidly alternates pizzicato and bowed passages with a poignant line for second violin, the section ending in a hushed coda. In the third movement Don Quixote’s mind becomes unhinged as he reads fables of chivalry, the dislocation painted in unsettled high harmonics of the two violins, and leading to yearning solos, first presented by the viola.

The fourth movement is the heart of the piece, an introspective melody with a sense of gradual disorientation as the Don ruminates about the hero Montesinos with an evocative solo for viola. The frantic finale is a portrait of Quixote’s beating by the muleteers and gradually coming to the realization that his delusional drams are all fantasy, the music seguing from violent pizzicatos to a quiet, melancholy coda.

Quijotades is a resourceful and effective work and was given a commanding performance by the CCM players that put across the evoccatve sections as surely as the blazing virtuosity. Kudos to violinists Joseph Genualdi and Karina Canellakis, violist Rami Solomonow and cellist Clancy Newman.

Bartok is clearly Frank’s hero with echoes of the Hungarian composer palpable in her own work, and her selection of Bartok’s clarinet trio Contrasts as the program’s centerpiece made sense.

Larry Combs was particularly inspired, his rich febrile playing fully conveying the pungent folk flavor of Bartok’s music. Violinist Genualdi delivered equally high-voltage violin playing with bullet-like pizzicatos. As in her own music, the composer showed herself no mean pianist with vividly projected keyboard playing that matched the hard-driving concentration of her colleagues.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chicago Chamber Musicians give Gabriela Frank’s edgy music commanding advocacy”

  1. Posted Jan 19, 2011 at 5:07 pm by Bob Knight

    Thrilled at the concert, but wish I’d seen your review beforehand – makes me wish to hear this concert a second time!

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