Looming Beauty: Alias Chamber Ensemble and composer Gabriela Lena Frank weave a unique musical tapestry

Looming Beauty: Alias Chamber Ensemble and composer Gabriela Lena Frank weave a unique musical tapestry


So a Peruvian-American, a violinist, a cellist, a sociologist and a philosopher walk into a bar. Stop me if you've heard this one.

No? Well that's not surprising, since it's not actually a joke. The Peruvian-American is up-and-coming classical composer, Guggenheim Fellow and Latin Grammy winner Gabriela Lena Frank, who's written commissioned works for many high-profile performers, including Dawn Upshaw and Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. Violinist Zeneba Bowers is the founder and artistic director of music cooperative Alias Chamber Ensemble, and cellist Matt Walker is the group's executive director. The sociologist and philosopher are Jennifer Lena and Jonathan Neufeld, co-leaders of Vanderbilt's "Music, Community and Authority" project.

This motley crew wound up sipping craft beer at Bosco's on a hot August evening because they're taking a dinner break after a long day's work on an ambitious and inventive project: Alias, the city's most daring chamber music group, has enlisted support from Vanderbilt and the storied Schubert Club of St. Paul, Minn., to commission, perform and record an exciting new work by Frank for clarinet, violin, cello and piano called Hilos. (They also recorded it for a Naxos CD.) Not only is the news sure to boost national awareness of Nashville's classical music scene, but the commission process also fosters unique opportunities for community involvement. Hilos debuts Oct. 1 at the Blair School of Music.

But how does an all-volunteer nonprofit chamber music group manage to commission music from a rising star like Frank? Why is Minnesota's venerable Schubert Club involved with the Nashville project? And where the heck do Lena and Neufeld fit into the picture?

To answer that, you'll have to go back to spring 2007, when Alias first performed Frank's music to coincide loosely with a performance of her Manchay Tiempo by the Nashville Symphony. "We hit it off right away," says Bowers. Frank was impressed by Alias' musicianship and community-centered ethos, and the two were soon brainstorming about a commission project.

But commissions require dollars, and Alias forks over all its concert proceeds to local charities. The new piece's sponsorship stalled until Bowers had the bright idea of mentioning it to Neufeld — a friend from her high school years who joined Vanderbilt's faculty in 2005 and specializes in the philosophy of music.

It was Neufeld who suggested that an academic grant might fund the new music and involve Frank in related interdisciplinary activities. He and Lena, a Vanderbilt sociologist whose research also centers on music, tag-teamed the deal, developing a proposal that ingeniously bundled the commission with research, publications and public events.

That Vanderbilt-Alias partnership had instant magnetism, and it wasn't long before the Metro Nashville and Tennessee Arts commissions and the National Endowment for the Arts ponied up. And attracting The Schubert Club as co-commissioner was a real coup, because performing there translates into a high-profile gig at a high-profile venue, one that's always sought out emerging talents as well as established stars. The club has not only hosted recitals by countless luminaries including Vladimir Horowitz and Isaac Stern during its nearly 130-year history, but it has a stellar reputation for sponsoring new works, counting two Pulitzer Prize-winning works among its approximately 25 commissions since 1975.

Schubert Club artistic and executive director Kathleen van Bergen is unequivocal in her enthusiasm about the project. "When the combination of a creative ensemble like Alias and an exciting composer like Ms. Frank was proposed, we jumped at the opportunity to collaborate," she says.

The Spanish word for "threads," Hilos alludes to the image of Andean weaving as a unifying metaphor for the work, but it might well also refer to the many-stranded nature of the project itself. The multiple sponsors have supported not only the commission, concerts and recording, but also a significant community outreach initiative: "Mestiza Music in Music City," which coincides with National Hispanic Heritage Month, will feature several performances at area schools and a family-oriented concert at 4 p.m. Oct. 3 at Antioch High School.

High numbers of English language learners make Cole and Paragon Mills elementary schools ideal sites for a two-week curriculum developed as part of the project's outreach strand, according to clarinetist Lee Levine, who handled much of the project's grant-writing and will perform in Hilos. St. Paul's Adams Spanish Immersion School will also use these teaching materials to prepare students for Alias' Minnesota visit to perform Hilos at The Schubert Club. (The Nov. 16 concert will be recorded for NPR's nationally broadcast Performance Today.) The chamber ensemble will also perform at the W.O. Smith community music school, which provides music instruction to children from low-income families for a nominal fee of 50 cents per lesson.

These performances dovetail with the mission of Lena and Neufeld's "Music, Authority and Community" program at Vanderbilt, which aims to find new listening audiences by presenting Frank's work in nontraditional venues, and by connecting Frank to Vanderbilt liberal arts students who would typically have no involvement with a musical artist-in-residence.

"When my new works are played, I often only get to be around long enough to attend a few rehearsals and then take my bows at the premiere," says Frank. But she and Bowers envisioned a more sustained connection, culminating with a new work that provided an opportunity for real community participation. Similar motives drove the Berkeley-based composer's recent commission with the Indianapolis Symphony — her engagement with that city's Latino neighborhoods was documented in the Emmy-nominated television special Peregrinos: Pilgrims, a Musical Journey.

Frank's knack for such bridge-building was obvious at an informal public concert/lecture last April in Scarritt-Bennett Center's Wightman Chapel, where she and Walker performed her Adagio para Amantaní, which will also appear on the Naxos CD. Frank also played and discussed a wonderful atmospheric movement from her early Sonata Andina and music from a song cycle in-progress, giving the audience a detailed but jargon-free glimpse into her compositional process. The same visit found her speaking at a Vanderbilt-sponsored conference on "Politics, Criticism and the Arts."

"Very few composers speak to all ages as engagingly as Gabi," Levine explains. "[Our school outreach] gives us an opportunity to show kids a composer whose background is as diverse as their own." In fact, calling Frank "Peruvian-American" is a gross oversimplification (and yes, we know it's also technically redundant). A Peruvian-Chinese mother and Jewish-Lithuanian father make Frank a microcosmic melting pot on her own, though her music reflects particularly deep exploration of her Andean roots.

If that conjures notions of precious 19th century parlor folk song settings or some glib New Age mishmash, rest assured that Frank's approach is far from either of these poles. The more apt comparison is to Bartók — like the pioneering Hungarian composer, Frank has studied folkloric music over years of travel, and her compositions reflect an engagement of her western classical training with styles that have seeped into her intuition through her field research.

"Frank's works force us to hear multiple forms of music and culture anew, without collapsing one into the other," said Neufeld at a conference last spring. Actually, the whole program for Alias' Oct. 1 concert reflects a meeting of chamber music and various vernacular styles, including a piece by D.J. Sparr for violin and electric guitar.

Back at Bosco's, Frank, Bowers, Walker, Neufeld and Lena linger over dinner, taking a hard-earned breather and talking excitedly about their recording session earlier that day for the Naxos CD, which will feature Hilos and premiere recordings of four of Frank's older works.

An intuitive rapport had been obvious at the session, where the players' comments between takes often precisely echoed the composer's out-of-earshot reactions in the control room. Over dinner, a beaming Frank lauds Alias' rich understanding of her style — the group has performed four of her works in past seasons. The resulting trust allows a two-way flow of ideas that Bowers says "feels like a real collaboration."

Frank gives an example. Her music sometimes calls for a sudden pronounced swell at the end of a note — an effect classical players spend years learning to avoid, but which mimics the quick exhalation of an Andean panpipe player ending a phrase. Bowers noted a few spots where she felt the composer had missed opportunities to use this idiom, and Frank agreed, exclaiming: "Zen is becoming a Peruvian!" (Zen is Bowers' nickname.)

The composer also knows her players well — she gave Walker and Bowers some tough plucked passages she knew they could pull off. The sense of collaboration is deep enough that Frank asked the musicians to help prepare definitive new editions of sheet music for the older pieces on the CD project.

As for the commission project, Frank says, "We'd like it to be a model. I hope that the piece will be a cultural artifact, emerging from a process that includes others besides myself."

That might sound mysterious, but it's really not. These "others" include first of all the Alias musicians themselves, but also the diverse audiences the project aims to reach. The music must hold up in the concert hall while being accessible for elementary school presentation, and the project's unusual academic aspect creates yet another context for the work.

Alias itself is a productive model of symbiotic musical community. The Nashville Symphony and strong area university music programs create a rich pool of performers, and the community-minded Blair School of Music freely provides performance space. Add the tenacity and vision of Bowers and her colleagues, not to mention Alias' strong musical track record, and it seems likely that this fall's exciting premiere may portend even greater things to come.


• Sept. 16 – 19: Nashville Symphony with Pianist André Watts

Long-established standout pianist André Watts is the soloist for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor"). Giancarlo Guerrero also leads Tchaikovsky's ever-popular Romeo and Juliet and Bernstein's Symphonic Dances From West Side Story. 7 p.m. Sept. 16, 8 p.m. Sept. 17-18 and 2 p.m. Sept. 19, Lipscomb University's Collins Auditorium.

• Oct. 4: Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

This acclaimed ensemble was founded in 1988, drawing members from the wind section of the venerable Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Ingram Hall has ideal acoustics for this free concert. 8 p.m, Blair School of Music's Ingram Hall.

• Oct. 7, 9: Nashville Opera presents Andrea Chénier

This is Nashville Opera's debut of Umberto Giordano's love story, billed as "The best Puccini opera Puccini never wrote" and set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Acclaimed New York set designer Kris Stone, who worked on the company's well-received 2008 production of Don Giovanni, is creating the set. Sung in Italian with projected English translations. 7 p.m Oct. 7, 8 p.m. Oct. 9 at TPAC's Jackson Hall.

• Oct. 10: Music City Baroque

Nashville's own original-instrument ensemble features guest trumpeter Brian Shaw on Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, and artistic director Murray Somerville takes the solo part in Handel's Organ Concerto No. 13. St. George's excellent choir also chimes in on music by Purcell and Handel. 3 p.m., St. George's Episcopal Church.

• Oct. 21: Violist Kathryn Plummer plays Bach and Kurtag

Plummer's full-bodied tone is always welcome, and this time she's interweaving movements from Bach's unaccompanied suites with music by contemporary composer György Kurtag. Composer Stan Link leads off the inventive program with a half-hour lecture. 8 p.m., Blair School of Music's Turner Hall.

• Oct. 22: Blair String Quartet

The seasoned Nashville group plays three mainstays of the quartet literature — Bartók's String Quartet No. 4, Schubert's Death and the Maiden, and Haydn's String Quartet Op. 54, No. 1. 8 p.m., Blair School of Music's Ingram Hall.

• Nov 5 – 7: Nashville Opera presents Hansel and Gretel

Part of Nashville Opera's Education & Outreach program, this English-language chamber orchestra version of the classic opera by Engelbert Humperdinck (not that Engelbert Humperdinck, you philistine!) is tailored especially for children. It clocks in at two hours including intermission, and features some of the country's best young opera talent. It's the first main-stage production at the new Noah Liff Opera Center in Sylvan Heights. 6 p.m. Nov. 5-6, 1 p.m. Nov. 7 at Noah Liff Opera Center.

• Nov. 4 – 6: Nashville Symphony Plays Stravinsky's Rite of Spring

How could you pass up a chance to hear Stravinsky's visceral landmark masterwork live? Also featured are two works by contemporary American composer Richard Danielpour. 7 p.m. Nov. 4, 8 p.m. Nov. 5-6, TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall.

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