Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Gabriela Lena Frank returns to Indianapolis for an enthralling showcase of her compositions

A great example of cross-cultural interaction brought Gabriela Lena Frank to town in 2009 for the premiere of an extended piece, "Peregrinos," commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. It was the culmination of a two-year residency that was documented by PBS, and interaction with the Indianapolis Latino community was crucial to the work's creation.

A more modest occasion, but significant for the insights it gave into the intimacy and expressive range of Frank's music, was the climax of her residency at the University of Indianapolis Monday night. The concert at the Christen DeHaan Fine Arts Center focused on works for one to three players.
Composer Gabriela Lena Frank

Frank's greatest achievement is to personalize her deep-seated connections to ethnic musical traditions, particularly those of Latin America, through a sophisticated command of resources associated with classical music. This was especially notable in the one solo piece of hers presented Monday night: "Sonata Adina," performed by UIndy faculty pianist Minju Choi.

Its four movements are much more than picturesque in obvious ways; a better clue is her statement: "There's usually a story line behind my music — a scenario or character." The scenario here is the Andean folk music whose family legacy for the composer comes through her grandmother Griselda Cam.

Frank seems to go deep within the generating scenarios (described in program notes for each of the movements) to the musical fundamentals. The sounds of the instruments — guitars, marimba,  drums and flutes or pipes — are channeled through the piano. The textures are dense and rhythmically impelled. Choi's performance was dazzling, requiring an extraordinary expenditure of energy nicely regulated to suggest the exuberant virtuosity of native ensembles playing music close to the performers' hearts.

Choi was joined by the composer in a movement from a sonata for piano, four hands: "Sonata Serrana" No. 1. This "Adagio for Dusk" used repeated-note patterns in a reflective way, as if to stitch together an aria for keyboard out of figuration.  Ringing sounds and tremolos predominated. Near the end, both tempo and dynamic level diminished as if in a slow dissolve toward silence.

Four out of seven "Suenos de Chambi: Snapshots for an Andean Album" indicated that a more literal basis for the roots of Frank's music can also produce an original response. It's not necessary to know the work of Amerindian photographer Martin Chambi (1891-1973) in order to connect to the impressions presented with so much evident rapport by flutist Anne Reynolds and pianist Sylvia Patterson-Scott.

Competitive wit and companionable tension are embraced in "P'asna Marcha," inspired by a picture of Peruvian women dancing for each other while balancing large poles on their hands. The piano solo that followed, "Adoracion para Angelitos," memorializes the kind of photography that used to be known in this country as well — a flowery portrait of a dead child. As performed by Patterson-Scott, Frank displays a fresh elegiac language in this piece. I was also impressed by the nimble articulation of Reynolds' flute, enmeshed in a wealth of propulsive piano with thundering bass notes, in the finale, "Marinera." Named after a popular Peruvian dance, the movement ended in a variegated spectrum of tremolos.

Frank's inspiration from out-of-the-mainstream culture is not confined to folk music of the Americas. To conclude the concert, "Seven Armenian Songs" was spotlessly performed by violinist Robert Simonds, percussionist Bonnie Whiting, and UIndy guest soprano Tony Arnold. The singer displayed the same fearless engagement with language and Frank's unconventional idiom that she had in  unaccompanied music of intricate pointillism performed before intermission: two of Georges Aperghis' "Recitations."

The seven 16th-century poems set by Frank range widely over a woman's fantasizing about love, religion and nature. The composer has achieved a rich chamber-ensemble parity among violin, percussion and voice. While the text awakens the governing spirit of each poem setting, the instruments never seem confined to dutiful support of the singer.

In the percussion department, for example, marimba, triangles, cymbals and bass drum are given an independent character just as significant as the soprano's. The music sounded difficult enough without ever verging into the sort of spectacular display that would end up obscuring the intimate lyric poetry.

Frank serves the sources of her inspiration without being either irritatingly demure or wanly folkloric. In this concert, her music laid claim to superior stature and personality. And it did this to a degree that must be the envy of many of her contemporaries wandering in the vastness of postmodernism.