“This has been an eventful last few years, definitely,” says Gabriela Lena Frank.
She’s referring to the larger world — Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, political winds — but could just as easily be talking about her own career: Frank arrives as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new composer-in-residence riding a wave of awards and high-profile commissions. And no sooner does she take up her prestigious Philadelphia post than COVID knocks the city’s arts sector for a loop.
In fact, the outside and interior worlds of Frank are hard to separate. The eventfulness of our time bleeds into the composer’s thinking and the work she oversees from her sprawling homestead in rural Boonville, Calif., about an hour from Mendocino National Forest.
Case in point: Selections from Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout are on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s digital stage concert streaming this week. The piece was the last one she wrote as a student at the University of Michigan nearly two decades ago, and yet it seems tailor-made for the moment. It draws inspiration from Peruvian literary figure José María Arguedas and the idea that two cultures can coexist side by side without one conquering the other.
“You don’t know when you write something whether you are tapping into a vein, a cultural landscape that is pumping blood. I think that is what I did with that piece,” she says.
Leyendas is also enjoying a new life right now for a more prosaic reason. Scored for strings alone, it is perfect for brief, socially distanced performances.
Had it not been for the pandemic, Frank, 48, might be here in Philadelphia more frequently to define her residency with the orchestra. She was just beginning to work with Mural Arts Philadelphia and students of the KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School on a collaborative process to culminate in a major score by her. And then COVID hit.
“Even not dealing with a backdrop that is historic [the pandemic], the definition of composer-in-residence is fluid anyway. It’s whatever the composer and the orchestra define it to be," she says. “The pandemic interrupted the momentum. We had begun meeting with potential community partners in Philadelphia and I love that process, even if you don’t end up working with everyone.”
The plan was to have worked with Mural Arts and KIPP students on written-word and visual art “that would have inspired Gabriela’s composition and vice versa,” said Jeremy Rothman, orchestra artistic planning vice president. “This project was on such a great track, it was very exciting.”
Mural Arts and KIPP remain as partners, but now the project will have to be revised, Rothman says.
The work is now in what Frank calls “the scribbling stage,” but Picaflor (Spanish for hummingbird) is shaping up to tell the story of a hummingbird that rips the celestial sky, falls below to an unfriendly and dark land, and finds its way back again.
“Along the way over a great expanse of land, the hummingbird has adventures that spawn different races and civilizations. Pre-pandemic and pre-Black Lives Matter, I thought the question of origins could lead to the question of what constitutes a ‘real American,’ especially in the era of Trump and MAGA,” she says.
It has been slated for a premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra in spring 2022.
Influenced by Bartok, the daughter of a Peruvian-Chinese mother and a Lithuanian-Jewish father, Frank favors a musical style that uses dissonance, but judiciously so and for specific emotional effect. Her music tends to be tightly constructed, she has a keen ear for instrumental color, and she likes a good driving rhythm — as in Apu: Tone Poem for Orchestra, commissioned by Carnegie Hall.
“She’s from such an interesting kind of mix of cultures, and to me that really epitomizes the ideals of America," says conductor Marin Alsop, who has led Frank’s works in Philadelphia and elsewhere. "She is open to all kinds of music, all kinds of influences, all kinds of reflection. And she has this quality as a composer, this gift of narrative. Her pieces tell stories and that is really important.
“Whether it’s a political message or a message about the environment or trying to reconnect us with lost cultures or lost traditions, I think these are all very important threads through her work.”
Much of Frank’s contact with the outside world happens now, as it does for many, via Zoom, as she and her husband continue to fortify their property and buildings against wildfires that have come close — thinning trees, burning brush, adding tanks of water.
She’s been working on her piano skills (by way of Bach) and turning her attention to opera. The Last Dream of Frida and Diego (El Ultimo Sueño de Frida y Diego) is a Spanish-language opera about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera she is writing in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz. COVID willing, it is scheduled for fall 2021 at San Diego Opera.
Cruz is a frequent partner. He supplied the text for an upcoming digital short Frank wrote for Los Angeles Opera called Las cinco lunas de Lorca, scored for chorus, countertenor and piano; as well as the Conquest Requiem, premiered in 2017 by the Houston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
Frank is also busy running her institute for young composers, the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy, which has hosted and mentored more than 70 composers in various genres. Two alumni of the program had works commissioned and recently performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra: Jessica Hunt (Climb) and Carlos Simon (Fate Now Conquers).
What are the traits, musical and otherwise, she senses from composers emerging now?
“Since I was a student, what I was hearing was that my era was eclectic, anything goes,” she says. “I think one thing today is that they seem to be much more supportive of each other. I am seeing more openness to people coming in who are rooted in a non-Western style. Jazz and improvisation are big.”
Audiences, too, are changing — or at least, the way audiences are perceiving music, she says.
“Part of it is we’re looking at a lot of things we did before this year and how easy it was, whether it was shopping or going to a concert. To listen to music when you’re trying to not get sick and die seems utopian. Everybody is messed up right now. Things are not normal.
“I think people are definitely listening to music differently and I don’t think it’s just escapism,” says Frank. "It’s solace.”