This week’s world premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank new string quartet A Psalm of Disquiet at Utah State University and then on Nov. 5 at NOVA Chamber Music Series in Salt Lake City, is yet another milestone in the flourishing relationship which the composer and Fry Street Quartet have developed over many years.
“I have known for several years that this piece was on deck,” Frank said in a phone interview from the university’s Logan campus, after completing a day of student and composer workshops. At the invitation of the Fry Street Quartet and the university’s Caine College of the Arts, this week’s events culminate a four-year residency in the music department. Today, Frank gives a convocation address on the theme of Composer as Cultural Witness and tomorrow (Nov. 2), audience members will hear the world premiere of A Psalm of Disquiet in a program of music by Frank, in the Russell/Wanlass Performance Hall in Logan.
The Fry Street Quartet members are 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 last fall 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.” On Nov. 3, at USU, Frank will lead a discussion about the making of the opera (Russell/Wanlass Performance Hall, 10:30 a.m.), followed by a composition master class (noon).
While Frank said that the project of writing the opera consumed a great deal of her time, she had already gathered concepts and themes as options for the composition that USU, Fry Street Quartet and NOVA Chamber Music Series [where the quartet members have served collectively as music directors] commissioned.
“At first, I was thinking about a traditional treatise on Latin American rhythms and my own personal heritage, which seemed like a good plan at the time and aligned with a lot of other works,” she said. “But, then so many things had shifted in the world: the accelerating signs of the climate crisis, the spread of divisive politics and now we are in the middle of two horrific wars as well as conflicts with other global powers.” As noted in a feature published earlier this year at The Utah Review: A musical anthropologist in the fullest sense of the term, Gabriela Lena Frank was born in Berkeley, California to a mother of Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent.
For Frank, the workshopping process clarified what the new string quartet became. “I started to write from a sort of prayer interrupted by disquiet, with measures of anxiety mixed with unsettled feelings but yet still feeling optimistic of keeping my positive self at heart,” she explained. “It became the least pictorial but also the most psychologically rich and most personal music I have written.”
The composition is structured as one continuous movement and she added that had this work been commissioned by a group other than the Fry Street Quartet she would not have written such a piece. “This work has a certain dignity because I respect these four artists for many things, such as the regalness of their sound as well as the times when they can be funny and even goofy.” Likewise, Fry Street Quartet shares with Frank an identical landscape of profound expressions of social conscience.
Brad Ottesen, Fry Street Quartet violist who has been a long-time friend of the composer, said that Frank’s USU residency has been productive in enduring ways not only for him and his colleagues but also for students, fellow music faculty and the broader Logan community. Furthermore, in recent years, audiences for the NOVA Chamber Music Series have become familiar with her works, as well as those of composers who have participated in the creative academy she leads. Last spring, Fry Street premiered Lek by Nicolás Lell Benavides, a prominent recent example. Next spring, NOVA will feature two new commissioned works, courtesy of the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music’s Composing Earth cohort: Akshaya Avril Tucker, scored for the Fry Street Quartet and tenor Thomas Glenn, who is on the Utah State University faculty, and Aida Shirazi, scored for the quartet and mezzo-soprano Jin-Xiang Yu. Both works are timed for the month’s celebrations of Earth Day and the intensified focus on changes in the climate and environmental impacts.
“This newest score already has given so much back to us in many ways,” Ottesen added. “She has a gift for writing music where the human elements of drama come alive on stage.”
Fry Street’s first violinist Robert Waters said that the newest work shows “Gabi [Frank] in new territory exploring different emotional landscapes. The language of the music we have come to know from her is still there but it also leads to great discoveries with different ends, as she mines the emotional landscape in this piece.”
As for the Utah audiences who will be hearing the world premiere of A Psalm of Disquiet, Frank recommended that listeners heed the direction indicated in the work’s title. “There are two polar ends in the music that go back and forth — psalm and disquiet — and listeners can identify for themselves what these mean to them personally,” she explained. “There is a fair amount of theater ongoing in how the melody moves around and the accompaniment. It is like the familiar call-and-response.”
When the work is performed at NOVA on Nov. 5 at 3 p.m.,in the Libby Gardner Hall at The University of a Utah, Waters said that Frank’s new string quartet will comprise the emotional core of the concert. It is a bold statement, given that the program also features a Brahms’ chamber work that the late Romantic composer considered his personal favorite for its optimistic, healing and restorative character: Brahms’ String Quintet in F Major, Op. 88 (1882).
The concert also will feature a lovely companion piece from 1912, Joaquin Turina’s Escena Andaluza, op. 7, which will be performed by the Fry Street Quartet, along with violist Brant Bayless. Turina wrote the work, during the time he was studying with French composer Vincent d’Indy while he was trying to replicate the music of the Impressionistic school and soundscapes by composers such as César Franck. But, then Turina was redirected by Spanish composers Isaac Albeniz and Manuel de Falla, who were living in Paris at the same time. Hence, Turina followed suit, capturing the romantic textures of the music one would hear on an evening in Andalusia. Bayless will also perform in the Brahms’ work.
Frank’s residency at USU was supported by the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation—Russell Family, the Tanner Trust for Universities, differential tuition provided by students of the college and other generous donors. For tickets and more information about the Salt Lake City premiere of Frank’s new work, see the NOVA Chamber Music Series website.