Gabriela Lena Frank took a roundabout path to becoming a composer. Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., Frank played the piano fluently, well enough to play Gershwin tunes alongside her grandmother. Though she’d never been taught to read music, she had good musical memory and perfect pitch. Yet music was always something to be done on the side.
That changed the summer before Frank’s senior year of high school. It was the late 1980s, the era of Perestroika, and she was getting ready to go to college in Russian studies. On a whim, she took a composing course at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
“And when I went into that building,” she says now, “really, that day everything changed. I saw this world open up. I saw this building with a piano in every room.” A grand piano, no less, not the “crappy upright” her family owned.
She noticed something else. “Within a day or two, I realized, in our little group of composing students, I was standing out. I had this ability.” She was also, she admits, “pretty ignorant,” barely able to notate the music she could create on the piano.
Frank, 40, is now a sought-after composer whose music is being heard in a growing number of contexts. Two of her works will be heard in the Boston area this weekend. Friday brings a performance by the Chiara String Quartet of “Milagros” (2010), the second piece she has composed for that group. On Sunday, the Claremont Trio gives the premiere of “Four Folk Songs,” the third work commissioned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for Calderwood Hall.
Frank’s achievement is especially impressive in view of the fact that she was born with congenital hearing loss and has used hearing aids since the age of 5. She says, though, that “it’s never really had a huge impact on my life.” Listening to her talk about getting her first hearing aid, she seems almost to turn it into a positive.
“I remember that first day — it was like the air just came to life.” She makes a dramatic whooshing sound. “Suddenly there’s another physical sense — like your life felt full already, and then there’s more!”
Much of Frank’s music is rooted, so to speak, in her family roots. Her mother is partly of Peruvian descent, and Frank has incorporated that country’s folk music into her own works. Frank is clear that, as the daughter of an immigrant, she approaches non-Western music from one degree of remove. She recalls a friend laughing over an Amazon review of a CD of Frank’s music that complained that it didn’t sound authentically Peruvian.
“What I try to explain, nicely and with a great deal of understanding, is that I’m not Peruvian-born and I didn’t start traveling in Peru until I was almost 30 years old,” she explains. “I grew up listening to Andean music, but in the West, when Peruvian music, Bolivian music, was beginning to get popular internationally and was traveling beyond the borders.
“Every time I travel in Peru I still feel like an outsider, and then there are moments that I feel like an insider, where I suddenly connect,” she continues. “There’s something that just happens when you inherit a culture, even across generations and continents.”
It was her composing mentor, William Bolcom — with whom she worked as a graduate student at the University of Michigan — who urged her to travel to South America and incorporate its music into her compositions. Bolcom had set his own example with his use of early jazz; so had Bartok, whom Frank calls “my hero,” with his integration of Eastern European folk music.
“These two gentlemen,” Frank says, “have a gradation of the influence in their music. Some of the music that Bolcom writes could be straight-up rags, straight-up turn-of-the-century songs. You listen to some of Bartok’s music, it could be straight-up Gypsy music.”
The piece in which this approach really reached fruition is “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout” (2001), her first string quartet and probably her most played piece. It is a travelogue, a six-movement suite of impressions from journeys in Peru, real and imagined, reinvented in a musical language that’s both sophisticated and approachable.
“Leyendas” was written for the Chiara, whose members she has known since her undergraduate days at Rice University. “Milagros” is another travelogue, though written in a language that’s tougher and more dissonant than that of “Leyendas.” Writing it made Frank nervous because it forced her to walk “that beautiful line of having a voice, and yet I surprise them. It’s me, but it’s something else.”
As for the new piano trio, Frank says that working with the Claremont is “like being among old friends,” since she was recommended to them by the members of the Chiara. It’s less like a travelogue, she says, than “a series of snapshots of Andean life.”
Nova on the horizon
A new orchestra makes its debut this weekend. Symphony Nova bills itself as Boston’s first professional training orchestra and aims to give experience to musicians who have recently graduated from college or conservatory. The 65 paid members will play eight concerts a year (two performances each of four programs). The group was formerly the Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra, whose founder, Lawrence Isaacson, will lead Symphony Nova.
The ensemble will play a program with music of Dvorak, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn at Boston’s Old South Church on Friday and Wrentham’s King Philip Regional High School on Sunday. The piano solo in Mendelssohn’s Capriccio Brilliant and the cello solo in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations will both be played by 16-year-old Sarina Zhang.
CHIARA STRING QUARTET
Music of Mozart, Frank, and Mendelssohn
At: Paine Hall,
Friday, 8 p.m.
Free, tickets required
Music of Mozart, Frank, and Mendelssohn
At: Calderwood Hall, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Sunday, 1:30 p.m.