Flights of music from a barrel room

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank and the musicians of Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival create an album in the J. Christopher cellars

On a bone-chilling March day in 2018, Gabriela Lena Frank flew in from her Northern California farm to rehearse with Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival members. Bundled up in fleece and flannel, the group descended into the barrel room at J. Christopher Wines in Newberg, Oregon, a place they’d inhabited in summer 2017 with Frank as composer-in-residence and the string players bringing her music to life. The weather  was warmer then.

This time they planned to record two of Frank’s major chamber compositions, “Milagros” (“Miracles”) and “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout.” The cellar’s temperature hovered around the mid-50s, “tough for the fingers to move fast enough,” said cellist and WVCMF co-founder Leo Eguchi

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Photo: Mariah Tauger

 Named by the Washington Post  in 2017 as one of the Top 35 Women Composers in Classical Music and called “an exciting and necessary voice” by the Los Angeles Times, Frank was not worried about this chamber group taking her work into the recording world.

“Their music did not sound green, it sounded seasoned,” she said this summer in a WVCMF concert interview with Eguchi and co-founder/artistic director Sasha Callahan. A recording, Frank said, would “jump out of the speakers — have a personality.”

As it turned out, Her Own Wings, released by Bright Shiny Things in early August this year, was born, if with intense labor, in the barrel room. The title takes its inspiration from Oregon’s state motto, Alis Volat Propriis (“she flies with her own wings”) and from Frank’s part-South American heritage that emphasizes her immigrant Peruvian-Chinese mother. Frank grew up in Berkeley, California, runs her non-profit composition workshop, Gabriela Frank Creative Academy in Boonville, California, and calls herself a “gringa-latina,” forever fascinated with her maternal roots.

The CD is WVCMF’s first, though the group of string players (and sometimes a flutist) has played for five seasons in Willamette Valley  and Yamhill wine country.  (See my WVCMF  Oregon Arts Watch story.) The festival went virtual this season and continues for three consecutive August Saturdays through Aug. 22. This summer Frank was back again as guest composer for the first weekend, Aug. 8, though virtually. The group played her 24-minute six-movement “Leyendas.” She finished the piece in 2001, her last year at University of Michigan, where she earned a Doctor of Musical Arts. She arranged the composition for string orchestra in 2003. It has been widely praised for its unique instrumentation, emotional cohesiveness, folkloric interludes, Western framework and compelling storytelling.

“It’s still as fresh to me as the day I wrote it,” Frank, whose list of awards, compositions and residencies runs long, said this summer.

The new release. Cover art: Marian C. Holmes

Her music recently has broken into orchestra and opera. This year, she is working on adapting a song cycle, “Las Cinco Lunas de Lorca” (“The Five Moons of Lorca”) with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz for the Los Angelos’ Opera’s upcoming online season. Philadelphia Orchestra, where she has been a composer in-residence this year, will premiere an orchestral work of hers in 2021. Even with her success on various musical platforms from tone poems to major orchestral works, Frank says that “chamber music is my jam.  …  I cut my teeth on it.”

Frank is an admirer  of Hungarian Bela Bartok, American William Bolcom, Russian Sofia Gubaidulina and Peruvian Susan Baca, and the CD hints at these composers’ work, yet thoroughly sings in its own voice. Carved from the Andean landscape, the music reveals Frank as a cultural anthropologist, imagist, mythologist, poet and storyteller. The CD’s works push the bounds of dissonance, but remain — if in very high registers — tuneful  in many parts.

 In “Leyendas,” you’ll hear the sounds of Andean pan pipes, tarka (a heavy  wooden duct flute), charango (a high-pitched relative of the guitar) and the voice of a professional crying woman, called La Llorona. The musicians make those Andean-instrument and voice  sounds on their strings. The recording group includes violinists Callahan (a onetime Oregonian) and Megumi Stohs Lewis; violist Bradley Ottesen; and cellist Eguchi. Greg Ewer plays violin on “Milagros,” and Stohs Lewis on “Leyendas.”

Frank premiered the 22-minute “Milagros” in New York in 2010 with the Chiara String Quartet, and Third Angle played it in Portland in 2013. But the CD marks its first recording. A series of eight short movements, the piece was inspired by her mother’s homeland, Peru. “It has been a remarkable, often difficult, yet always joyous experience for me to visit, again and again, this small Andean nation that is home to not only foggy desert coasts but also to Amazonian wetlands,” Frank explains. “Usually a religious and marvelous occurrence, milagro (miracle) here refers to the sights and sounds of Peru’s daily life, both past and present, which I’ve stumbled upon in my travels. While probably ordinary to others, to me, as gringa-latina, they are quietly miraculous.”

The music team, after recording  “Milagros” in  J. Christopher Wines barrel room, from left: Greg Ewer, Bradley Ottesen, composer Gabriela Lena Frank, Sasha Callahan, Leo Eguchi. Photo: Jesse Lewis

Part of the success of the closely collaborated composer-musicians CD is due to the mellow yet bright acoustics. “The alchemy of what makes acoustics work is so complex,” said Eguchi, “and none of us were experts in the field … definitely the wide arched shapes of the room, plus the warmth of all those oak barrels with the cool reflective concrete came together just right.”

Callahan makes an educated guess that the CD is the first recorded in a barrel room. Hard to prove, but the acoustics ensure that it won’t be the last.

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Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published photographer and poet, and on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America. Her website in angelaallenwrites.com.

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