Third Angle review: Gabriela Lena Frank, a composer who rules her roots

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Third Angle pianist Susan Smith

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Third Angle pianist Susan Smith

by JEFF WINSLOW

Publicity that plays up a composer’s (multi)ethnic background, or mentions difficulties they’ve overcome, reminds me of a spectacular view from a restaurant, which experienced diners know usually covers for a ho-hum kitchen. So I rolled my eyes at the press release for last month’s Third Angle New Music concerts, which were devoted entirely to Gabriela Lena Frank’s music. Unfamiliar with her work, I was only partly reassured by examples on YouTube, which, while deftly constructed, ran heavily to thinly disguised ethnic dances.

So I am happy to say, after attending Third Angle’s October 17 performance in Lincoln Hall, PSU, that my skepticism was unjustified. There is nothing ho-hum about her. Whatever human interest stories may lurk in Frank’s background, such as her near deafness, as a composer she is as able as they come. Even better, her music demonstrates well-balanced concerns with immediate attractiveness and lasting interest.

The rhythmically driving curtain raiser, “Danza de los Saqsampillos” for two marimbas, nonetheless remained comfortably within the familiar ethnic dance vein. Not until the next work, “Adagio para Amantani,” inspired by a harsh yet inhabited landscape – an island in South America’s vast Lake Titicaca – did I feel I was entering a wider, more emotionally charged and complex world. Cellist Marilyn de Oliveira held us spellbound with passionate soliloquy, building to an anguished, defiant climax, while pianist Susan DeWitt Smith energized her with rich, atmospheric harmonies and flourishes, highlighting snatches of melody with a curiously plaintive one-note strumming technique. Frank’s lingering over complex chords apparently purely for expressive effect without any compulsion to justify them as manifestations of a universal system – a heady breath of 21st century air – also drew us in and kept us engaged.

We were brought gently back to ourselves by Frank’s informal commentary between works. Her easygoing stage presence, polished without being at all slick, nonetheless seemed always focused on the audience’s enjoyment, a model for composers talking about their own music.

The streams of the first two works combined and erupted in the sometimes fierce and always highly colorful piano duet “Sonata Serrana No. 1,” which revealed that Frank is a first-class pianist as well. She and Smith may have appeared a bit of an odd couple on the piano bench – one fair-haired and deceptively slight, the other curvy with masses of dark curls – but they made a strong and well-matched keyboard team. As if to emphasize the point, they traded places for the last two movements without any shift in focus or balance.

And such a team was needed: Frank the composer delighted in musical gestures that passed back and forth from one musician to the other, often with pianistic fireworks erupting all around. The two executed these and other tightly coordinated passages with precision and flair. Overall the work made brilliant use of four-hand resources on the full piano keyboard without filling it to that overstuffed condition all too familiar in piano duets.

“Sueños de Chambi: Snapshots for an Andean Album,” in a version for violin and piano, had a lighter feel, though no less inventive or colorful. It was inspired by the work of pioneering Amerindian photographer Martín Chambi, and the photos that inspired each of the seven movements were projected in turn at the rear of the stage as they were played. Some movements were dark, some were soulful, some evoked an expansive landscape, and the last one danced itself into a frenzy. Particularly notable was the penultimate “Harawi de Chambi,” an aching violin aria that somewhat resembled the earlier “Adagio para Amantani,” but with a kind of glow, as if the composer, inspired by the photographer’s self-portrait, were writing a love letter to him. Third Angle artistic director and violinist Ron Blessinger gave an impassioned performance, sensitively supported by Smith on piano. In introducing the composer near the beginning of the concert, Blessinger warmly expressed the enjoyment the whole group had gotten out of working with her, and his committed playing gave ample evidence through the entire set.

The final work, “Milagros” for string quartet, is a set of Frank’s own internal snapshots, as it were – eight particularly vivid impressions from her travels in her maternal homeland of Peru. Chock full of variety, like the previous work, but recently composed, like the duet sonata, it gave us a generous helping of string fireworks to go with the earlier keyboard incendiaries. Frank has a special gift for writing in close harmony, and we were treated to several delicious passages. It taxed the musicians to their utmost, though! A particularly wicked movement alternates pizzicati (plucked strings) between instruments, where they would be too fast or tiring on just one. The quartet didn’t quite have the knack, but they carried the day in other movements, and Blessinger again got to shine in the outer ones: short, pensive solo arabesques inspired by roadside shrines to accident victims.

I came away with an impression of a composer with a sure command of a rich variety of sonic resources, equally at home pleasing or challenging an audience (and able to turn from one to the other on a dime), and always mindful of her ethnic background, particularly her Amerindian side, without ever letting it turn her music into mere exotica.

Does this remind you of anybody? In the “Snapshots,” Frank admitted alluding to one of Bela Bartók’s works, and it was eminently appropriate. There were sophisticated echoes of the great Hungarian composer / musicologist in the slow movement of the duet sonata and the violin solos of “Milagros” as well. Frank’s background doesn’t include Magyar – at least, not that she’s been able to discover yet – and her sound is quite different from Bartók’s. Yet I think she can count herself a kindred spirit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the ghost of the older composer were to tip his hat in recognition of abilities not far removed from his own.

If all this whets your appetite for the music of other women composers, I can’t resist pointing out that a perfect opportunity is just around the corner. Crazy Jane, a group of Portland metro area women, is giving a concert entirely of their works at the same venue, Room 75 in Lincoln Hall at PSU, Friday November 15th at 7:30PM. The theme of the concert is “Crazy Jane Misbehaves,” so I wouldn’t dream of trying to guess how well-composed the women are, but I trust that their music, at least, will merit the adjective.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and a board member for Cascadia Composers, which has the honor of being the umbrella group for Crazy Jane.

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