Exploring the Work of Composer Gabriela Lena Frank

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank and the University Symphony Orchestra performing
Composer Gabriela Lena Frank and the University Symphony Orchestra

The School of Music is honored to share an upcoming collaboration with distinguished contemporary composer Gabriela Lena Frank. The University Symphony Orchestra (USO) will perform her work Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout for String Orchestra on March 25 at 7:30 pm. Additionally, we will welcome Frank as our virtual guest on April 30, where she will give a lecture entitled “Forging a Composer’s Path in 2021 and Beyond.” Frank's lecture is part of the Office of the President's Voice, Art, and Community: A UMN Series, a lecture series that features diverse voices through the arts and humanities.  

Frank was born in Berkeley California in 1972, to a Peruvian and Chinese mother as well as a Lithuanian and Jewish father. Her multicultural background is the biggest inspiration for her work, where she explores her heritage through music. Her compositions incorporate Latin American cultures, including poetry, mythology, and native music styles in the Western framework. Frank was born with moderate to profound hearing loss and has a fascination with the progression of Beethoven’s hearing loss in his own music. 

University Symphony Orchestra students had a unique opportunity to perform one of her pieces, Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout for String Orchestra, which will be aired on March 25 at 7:30 pm. Joshua Peterson, principal violist in the USO performance and an undergraduate performance major, reflects on his experience learning and performing Frank’s piece. 

SOM: What draws you to Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout for String Orchestra?

JP: Leyendas draws in both listeners and players alike. As a classical musician, this style of music is new and fascinating to play. The music itself doesn’t adhere to the “standard rules” of western musical writing (we’re not playing in sonata form, rondo form, etc.). Each movement is representative of a character or idea that’s native to the Peruvian culture, and while listening or playing, the piece takes you on a journey through these different ideas or characters.

SOM: Are there any special challenges in performing this composition?

JP: As stated before, this is not your stereotypical western classical music, but a combination of Andean folk music and western classical music. This poses challenges that classically trained musicians do not see often in our studies. From arpeggios to bow strokes, there is always something new happening throughout the piece. In the fifth movement's viola solo, you can hear that there are many double stops (two notes played at once) that are no more than a whole step away from each other. You can also hear the sound change into an “icy” bow stroke - the classical term is ponticello, where a string player pulls the bow closer to the bridge of the instrument. 

SOM: Did you learn any history or background information on the piece which affected the way you understood or performed it?

JP: After the first rehearsal, I felt a little lost about what was happening in the music. Each piece of music has a message, emotion, or feeling that it is attempting to convey. After doing a little research on the piece and the different movements, I was able to understand more about the overall feeling of the music. In my own head, I pictured a traveler walking through a small village in the Andes, where each movement is a different person or idea that the traveler is experiencing for the first time. 

SOM: What do you hope the listeners will take away from listening to this piece?

JP: I challenge listeners to forget everything they think they know about classical music, and simply enjoy the musical journey that Frank has outlined for us. This work is a marvelous example of combining two different styles of music from two separate points on the globe. At the end of the day, music is a collaboration of ideas, and I think this piece is a prime example of that collaboration. 

Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout for String Orchestra”will be performed as part of the upcoming University Wind Ensemble and University Symphony Orchestra virtual performance on March 25 at 7:30 pm. The recording will be live streamed on the School of Music’s Facebook and YouTube pages. Frank will present her lecture on April 30. For email updates on the UWE/USO Virtual Performance, please visit: http://bit.ly/3bzyllF. To register for the Gabriela Lena Frank lecture on April 30, please visit z.umn.edu/FrankLecture.

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