Fort Worth — In the same way that Bela Bartók absorbed the rich rhythms and melodic patterns of central European folk life, creating one of the greatest bodies of music from the 20th century, Gabriela Lena Frank captures and transforms an even broader array of non-classical and classical idioms. A sample of her extraordinarily rich, brilliantly appealing output came to light Saturday afternoon when The Cliburn presented a lecture-concert devoted solely to her music at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Frank is definitely no ivory tower composer. As part of the program, she joined locally based pianist Shields Collins Bray, principal keyboard for the Fort Worth Symphony, onstage for friendly raconteur explaining the music and her unique philosophical approach, at the same time demonstrating a lively, outgoing humor and geniality.
Although her output extends to a broad array of orchestral, vocal, and chamber music, piano is Frank’s first instrument. And the piano figured prominently in the program, beginning the Sonata Serrana No. 1 for four hands, a demanding work performed with style and polish by Bray and another locally based pianist, Evan Mitchell. Ever since the piano was invented, composers from Beethoven to Chopin to Bartók to Cage have been exploring and finding new sonorities and digging deeper into the possibilities of the instrument; Frank has enthusiastically joined that throng. She has also managed the very neat trick of giving the audience assertive, evocative titles (movements of this sonata bore titles such as “Sun Allegro” and “Adagio for Dusk”) while delivering music that goes far beyond mere pictorialism.
Four members of the Fort Worth Symphony string section (violinists Swang Lin and Ordabek Duissen, violist Sorin Guttman, and cellist Allan Steele) performed three quick sketches for string quartet drawn from a larger multi-movement work Leyendas (“Legends”) further demonstrating Frank’s extraordinary command of timbre and structure—here in a miniature form—as well as her philosophy of mestizaje. Derived from the term mestizo, which implies the rich mixture of cultures in Latin America, mestizaje as practiced by Frank seeks to unify and evoke without exploitation or domination by any of the contributing cultures. Born in Los Angeles with parents of mixed Jewish, Lithuanian, Chinese, and Peruvian origin, Frank (who studied composition at Rice University, and is therefore at least partly Texan) is particularly well-suited to understand and promote this concept.
Another work for string quartet, Milagres (“Miracles”) continued this evocative journey, creating, in Tingo Maria, what Frank described as the “chaotic” aura of a regional folk music, and, in Adios a Churin, the ghostly mood of a dying city in Peru; here the three other instruments weaving spooky noises around a flowing, elegiac cello melody.
For the final work, Bray joined the quartet for the quintet Tres Homenajes: Compandrazgo (Three Tributes: Camaraderie), yet another example of Frank’s nearly miraculous ability to marry traditional classical genres to a vivid exploration of traditional non-classical music. Fierce tremolos, shifts from shimmering light to chilly darkness, and quick hints and reminders of Bartok, Ginastera, and Chavez, enthralled in a work that, ultimately, was unmistakably imprinted with one of the most significant voices in the music world today.