Andean concertino debuts at DSO

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

The Peruvian city of Cuzco provides the inspiration for composer Gabriela Lena Frank's "Concertino Cusqueño," which will have its local debut tonight at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Music director Leonard Slatkin will conduct.

The composition was inspired in part by Frank's affection for Cuzco — a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The one-time Inca capital was dismantled in the 1500s by the conquistadors and rebuilt, stone by stone, in Spanish colonial fashion.

"Cuzco is a beautiful city with its own visual style and way of dress," Frank says. "I imagine bringing one of my heroes, English composer Benjamin Britten, to Cuzco," she says, "and fantasize about what I'd show him if I could."

Failing that, Frank's borrowed elements from Britten's Violin Concerto and worked them into her concertino. It's an interesting homage — English classical music paired with Andean motifs.

"Britten uses the timpani in his concerto as a soloist," Frank says. "I love that, so took a bit of that and stitched it into a Cuzco religious melody."

She doesn't use Andean instruments, "but I invoke rhythms common to Andean music all over the place. There's a lot of strumming, touching on the guitar tradition."

She promises that the 11-minute concertino, originally commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and first played in 2012, will not be any dreary technical exercise. "I wanted a beautiful-sounding piece of music that would be fun for the players," she says. "I wanted to leave people with a 'Wow!' "

The 42 year old comes honestly by her enthusiasm for Peruvian music. "My mother is Peruvian and Chinese," she says, "and my dad's a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx." As a result, her musical inheritance runs from Andean melodies to the sophistication of George Gershwin.

Frank, who lives in Oakland, California, started as the DSO's composer-in-residence in the 2013-2014 season and will serve through 2015-2016. The culmination of the three-year appointment will be the performance in May 2016 of an original symphonic work she's working on.

"It will be a multi-movement, large-scale symphony," she says. "There will be a lot of percussion. I love percussion — and harps."

Frank's residency was funded by Music Alive, created by the League of American Orchestras and New Music USA to provide grants for residencies in orchestras nationwide.

Part of Frank's responsibility as composer-in-residence has been to take part in the DSO's community outreach.

"We've worked with senior citizens," she says, "as well as some remarkable music therapists at Children's Hospital. That's probably been the most moving part of this residency."

Frank, who got her doctorate in 2001 at the University of Michigan, has been commuting between Oakland and Detroit for a couple years now and is enthralled by Motor City.

"I notice differences every time I come back," she says. "Detroit's getting trendy!"

Gabriela Lena Frank at DSO

Frank "Concertino Cusqueño," Sibelius Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Mahler Symphony No. 1

Soloist: Paul Huang, violin

7:30 p.m. tonight, 10:45 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday

6:30 p.m. tonight & 7 p.m. Saturday — composer Frank will discuss her concertino

Tickets: $15 - $100

(313) 576-5111