Backstage at the 2024 Gina Bachauer International Artists Competition: Commissioned work Gabriela Lena Frank’s Two Andean Portraits to receive unique world premiere in semifinal round

For only the third time in the 48-year history of the Gina Bachauer International Artists Piano Competition and the first time since 1982, all 12 of the pianists in the semifinals will play a new commissioned solo work. It will be Two Andean Portraits by Gabriela Lena Frank, one of America’s foremost composers who also is currently the composer-in-residence with The Philadelphia Orchestra.

It is a unique world premiere, with 12 pianists who individually will put their own interpretative mark on Frank’s work, which will help determine who eventually will move into one of the three slots for finalists. Furthermore, the competition winner will also feature Two Andean Portraits in a future Carnegie Hall recital in New York City, which is part of the prize package.

Bachauer’s first commission for the competition came in 1980 with Masks, by Robert Muczynski, followed two years later with Ittocseram, by André-François Marescotti. In an interview with The Utah Review, Frank said that this is a significant development, with Bachauer demonstrating a strong commitment to building a vibrant repertoire for future pianists while sustaining the reverence for great piano masterpieces in competitions while highlighting emerging creative voices.

Gabriela Lena Frank.

The road to Frank’s commission started when Logan Skelton, an internationally acclaimed pianist, composer and master of pedagogy at the University of Michigan, responded to the Bachauer call by Douglas Humpherys, artistic director. Skelton recommended Frank, who studied with him when she was a doctoral student in Ann Arbor during the 1990s. “He made a tremendous impact on my own life as a pianist and composer and mentored me to write my own concerto which won a competition at Michigan.” 

Frank was born in Berkeley, California to a mother of Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent. Among the composers whom she considered enlightening to her creative objectives in incorporating Peruvian and Andean folk music into her distinct classical musical language were Bela Bartók and Alberto Ginastera.

In approaching the process to compose the commission, Frank said that she aimed to be strategic in focusing not only on techniques that define the music of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, which are commonplace in international piano competitions, but also in technical skills that demand the performer to showcase more subtle abilities to tell stories musically through the imagistic characteristics conveyed in the score.

Gabriela Lena Frank.

The first portrait, Introducción: Zampoñas, is not virtuosic as what one might hear in a Chopin or Rachmaninoff composition but it is “technically tricky in a different way,” Frank explained. Simple in form,  the movement requires the piano to emulate the sounds of the Indigenous panpipe, an instrument quintessential to the music of the Peruvian Andes in South America. While the pianist controls the smooth, streamlined melody of parallel fifths in the right hand, the left hand tackles a progression of denser chords which are inflected with clusters of grace notes. The pianist roams back and forth across the keyboard, but in order to keep the movement’s texture as light and playful as possible, the performer must internalize a mature sense of control in technique.

In contrast, the second portrait, Adagio del Altiplano, visualizes musically the landscape of the Andean highlands, which evokes mysticism, cosmology and ancient spirituality. Frank said this is intended to magnify the pianist’s skills at conveying stories through music, notably in their pedal work and their mastery of fleet fingers in faster paced passages. To emulate the portrait’s fantastical and mysterious tone, Frank used less directed notation, a distinctive component in many contemporary compositions, to give the pianist some liberty in managing the natural ebb and flow of the music, to their own discretion of musical taste. Yet, they still should stay within the parameters she has set in the score. 

Frank has been visible on the Utah music scene in recent years. This includes a fruitful collaboration with the Fry Street Quartet, which has been in residence in Utah State University’s music school and Caine College of the Arts and the NOVA Chamber Music Series. Utah State University also sponsored a residency for the composer in Logan.

Last fall, Fry Street Quartet premiered Frank’s string quartet A Psalm of Disquiet in performances in Logan at the USU campus and at a NOVA Chamber Music Series concert in Salt Lake City. The Fry Street Quartet members have been major artistic ambassadors for Frank as a composer and for her leadership in the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, where composers are playing with ideas in a unique creative factory setting, at her two farms in Boonville, California. One of her latest works, the opera El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego), about two of the last century’s most familiar and celebrated artists, received its premiere in 2022 in San Diego and has been produced at the San Francisco Opera. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross praised the work, which he described as “a magic-realist meditation on the lives and love of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera,” adding that the work “reveals a significant music-theatre talent.” He noted, “Frank, a Berkeley native, has mastered the intricacies of operatic construction on her first attempt, producing a confident, richly imagined score that is free of lapses and longueurs. Let’s hope that more opera commissions come her way.” 

A musical anthropologist in the fullest sense of the term, she is in her last year as composer-in-residence for Philadelphia, where she is working on a major work for the orchestra and is in the process of writing her second opera.

For more information about competition events and performances, see the Bachauer website.

1 thought on “Backstage at the 2024 Gina Bachauer International Artists Competition: Commissioned work Gabriela Lena Frank’s Two Andean Portraits to receive unique world premiere in semifinal round”

  1. What a wonderful example of how multiple-cultural backgrounds and musical styles can enrich our culture!!!


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