Handel & Haydn Society: Pre-Concert Conversation

>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington DC.>>Anne McLean: Good
evening, I’m Anne McLean, from the library’s music
division and it is my pleasure to welcome composer Gabriela
Lena Frank to the Library of Congress tonight and
also Harry Christophers, who is the artistic
director of the Haydn and — Handel and Haydn Society. Very, very excited to
have you both with us. Thank you for coming. This a very special concert
tonight, featuring the famous Handel and Haydn Society and also a new
work co-commissioned by the Society and the Library of Congress. We’ve been looking forward
to this for quite a while. The work was co-commissioned
by these two institutions to mark our milestone anniversaries, it’s our 90th as a concert
presenter since 1925. And H&H, the nations oldest
continuously performing arts organization, is celebrating
its bicentennial. This is the Washington
premier and it was heard for the very first time
last June in Boston by a very chorus centric audience
at the Chorus America conference. What was that evening like for you?>>Harry Christophers:
It was brilliant. I mean, H&H, we hosted Chorus
American in Boston and performed in Symphony Hall, a program, a
very mixed program of some Handel, I think we did part- we
did some Messiah, I believe and Gabriela has a wonderful piece
and we also did [inaudible 1:41]. It was a mixture particularly
devised for Chorus America and all the delegates and choral
conductors and singers there.>>You know, we were looking,
I was showing them just now, we have a book, we have a
complete run of all the books of pieces collected by the society,
and it began in 1815, right?>>Harry Christophers: Yes, the
society gave its first concert on Christmas Day 1815 in
Kings Chapel in Boston, in which there were pieces by
Handel and Haydn, of course. And why it was called that was because Handel was the
old and Haydn was the new. Haydn died a few years. So it was very simple. But what’s interesting
about these pieces and — do we talk about this volume? That what people don’t know is
that H&H was a publishing company. And in 1825, 1827, 1830, they
published various things, and one of these is called
the Old Colony Collection. And I was fascinated
by it because I had with my group I founded
nearly 16 years ago, we recorded the complete Eaton Choir
Book, which dates from, of course, 1490, a few years before. But this, you know,
for a young country, this is quite a publication. And it contains choruses from, a
lot of Handel choruses from Messiah, Israel and Egypt, Judas
[inaudible], Joshua. But then, a whole lot of what
I can term sort of late sort of Chapel Royal verse anthems by very well known composers
called Kent and Chapel. Does anybody know them? No. Well, not does
anybody in England either. But what was amazing is that these
people were clearly they were the best, the Howells of the
choral world in 1780, between about 1780 and 1800. And there’s a piece by Kent
we’re performing this evening, Hear my Prayer, that was actually
very, very popular at that time. Nobody possesses it
today in England. There’s no cathedral choir
that has it in their library. But it was last published in a
collection for Durham Cathedral in about 1843, but not performed. But here they are preserved in
the Old Colony Collection here. So you’ll witness one
or two of those pieces. And also, you’ll recognize,
there’s a piece by a person called Mozart two sacred
words, and no prizes, I’m afraid, for guessing where the tune comes
from, but you’ll hear it tonight.>>Anne McLean: You know, you’ll
have to go backstage in a moment, so we will start with you and
ask you a couple of questions. With your own ensemble,
the 16, which Harry founded and has an extraordinary
reputation around the world, you achieved such an
expressive simplicity. And I saw a statement from
you somewhere where you said, “We shape the phrases according
to the architecture of the time, allowing the music to have
the freedom that it did then.” Supplied so beautifully that
this program, all the programs, you’re doing new work, old work.>>Harry Christophers: Well, I
mean, so much of the work I do in England is [inaudible] music,
and of course, that’s sacred music that the composers of the day
wrote the music with the buildings in mind just the same as
the building, builders, of those wonderful cathedrals
all throughout Europe built the cathedrals with the music in mind, there were definite
ratios that were going on. And so, you know, to
fit that is lovely. And when we talk about architecture,
I mean, architecture music, the whole idea of the arch phrase,
goes right through from [inaudible] through Baroque right
through to early classical, and really I suppose
and with Beethoven, etcetera, things began to change. But really we can use that
idea of architecture and shape of phrases right through certainly
into early Mozart and Haydn.>>Anne McLean: It’s wonderful to have Gabriela’s
piece on this program. We are pleased to have been working
with [inaudible] and with the Handel and Haydn Society for two years in the past years to
make this possible. And have had a number, of
course, discussions about it. It’s string quintet and
full chorus of 26, right? And tell us about the text. We were talking about this earlier. Ralph Waldo Emerson.>>Harry Christophers: Well,
it was interesting, wasn’t it? Because having a commission
bicentennial, we really pondered a lot about
what to do with the text. And I said, it’s got to be something
that was really relative to Boston. And somebody said, well, there’s this amazing thing
called the Boston Hymn. I’d never heard it, but it’s
incredibly long, isn’t it? I mean, it’s by Emerson. What, it’s about three pages long.>>Gabriela Lena Frank:
Something like that. And I remember in our
initial discussion, that I led a very good team on
board, very first [inaudible]. I was pulling it up on the
Internet in that conversation we had over the phone, there were
several of us sharing that. And I remember looking and going,
oh my god, and they only want this to be 15, 18 minutes,
and I said this is — plus you know, possible
instrumental interlude. We were already tossing out
our wish list of attributes that could to go into the music. So I remember thinking, okay, you
know, I’m an editor’s daughter, so I should be able to get
into this text and be able to pull out salient elements. But doing just a simple
surgical exerting wasn’t going to really do well because the text,
if you know it, is very linear. So if you have to just
remove a verse, it suddenly doesn’t make sense. So what you need to do is go
to each one and distill it down a little bit more, and
then it actually makes sense. If you get rid of some of
the details that trip you up and just get it down
to the bare-bones. And then it’s also
a bit of a sermon. Now, sermons don’t
necessarily lend themselves well to song, but lyrics do. So was there a type of lyricized
sermon that I can make so I preserve that sense of foretelling the future
when you get away from tyranny. I mean, it was very, very important
to keep that sense of grandeur and that sense of awareness
of the past that Emerson had, but also the optimism that
he had for the future. So we worked out something where I
was able to distill the text down. And then to give a
very prominent role, you’ll see, to the instrumentalists. They tell the story I
think equal to the singers.>>Harry Christophers: Yes, and actually what Gabriela’s
done is achieved a wonderfully — to say it’s an archaic sound
with the singers isn’t quite — it sounds very colonial, it really
does capture, I just feel, you know, as soon as the singers come in,
it captures something about 18, the early 1800s and it’s amazing. [inaudible] there are no kings and
that sort of stuff, which is good.>>Anne McLean: About the text
itself, it’s very compelling. It doesn’t refer, it
refers to slavery and that of course is a very important issue
of the day of his, Emerson’s day. What, what were the
phrases, I want to ask you about the recitative-like quality. Somebody had noticed that there
were certain moments that have that quality and the
diction is incredible. I heard the recording
of the premiere. Well, that’s what you’re known for,
that’s what, among other things, that’s what the Society
is known for, is carrying the word so beautifully. Are you thinking of recording
it, perhaps, at some point?>>Harry Christophers: I don’t
know, we’ll, we’ll have to see. We’ll have to see if
it’s in the future. I think it’s — something you
mentioned, just about the words, I mean, the fact that this text,
of course, is so, is so powerful and so powerful to America. And, one of the things
of this concert is just after Gabriela’s piece we
have pieces by William Byrd, which of course, are
incredibly powerful to, you know, it’s from the, you know, era of the
of, of post-Reformation in England when Catholics lived
in fear of their life. And you’ll see that actually
what I, there’s a modest elegy to Thomas Tallis by William Byrd. But then I’ve also, for the
[inaudible] you’ll notice I, I’ve just had, I will have
four singers, just at the side of the stage, singing this in a
very intimate way because they — and Byrd wrote those
masses for private use. They weren’t for singing, well,
they weren’t allowed to be sung in the bigger theaters because
they were in Latin, of course. But they would have been sung
in, in a private house, Rectors and Catholics, getting
together, worshiping in private and if Thomas Cromwell
had knocked at the door, their heads would have been cut off. I mean it’s, it’s, it’s, you
know, this was powerful stuff. So just in the same
way that your piece in the Boston Hymn is very
powerful, we know we can reflect that way back 400 years
to, to England.>>Gabriela Lena Frank: I remember, what I wanted to convey
too was a real fine line. I wanted to celebrate and to be
glorious when we get to that moment. But to also count, to hint that the
tyranny that he is referring to. So there is some rather dark
writing and dark harmonies, and you have to go there as
a player, you can’t eschew that in the drama as
much higher as a result. It may not be that obvious
when you look at the sermon. And it was when I distilled
it that I saw the jewels and these lines that
were coming out. And I was like, this is really
high, it’s almost operatic. It’s just high drama. But he had that kind of feeling. So that raised the
bar when I saw that, that there’s a lot
of levels to this. So can I come up with music that
likewise has those kinds of levels.>>Anne McLean: I was thinking, you
mentioned earlier that the writing for the voices at some point I saw
something referenced to low voices and high voices, would you
expand on that a little bit.>>Gabriela Lena Frank: Well,
for me a choir is an orchestra. It’s not just voices and
it’s not just [inaudible]. There’s the color blend. We talk about sopranos
and we talk about altos, and yes there’s a slight
[inaudible], different color, that’s
very important. And of course, a woman
can sing a note that a man sings the exact
same note at the same octave and it’s a completely
different color, one that’s instantly
recognizable by anyone. So the interplay of low and high
is an easy way to separate verses. You can just assign now girls,
now boys, now boys, now girls. But then you can also blend. So there’s an innate kind of
drama of teaming up and separating that can be very effective. And Emerson has that too, there’s
certain lines that are higher drama, other lines that are almost like a
Greek chorus, that are commenting, some lines advance the plot, others make the metaphorical
elusion to something in nature. It’s expensive when you
make an elution to nature to make the lyrics pretty,
but if they can also double up and advance the plot at the
same time, for me that’s almost like combining high and low voices. So you can see how he’s
orchestrating with colors and intentions at the same time. So I like, you know, symphonically
when I write for the choir, and some people say I write
vocally for the symphony, so I think you find
that common ground.>>Harry Christophers:
It’s interesting because actually also
you’re cast writing, the string writing is very,
very different, is it? And it’s very — I mean, there’s
kind of the sort of folk elements that come into it, which
where did they come from?>>Gabriela Lena Frank: Yes. And if you’ve read anything in
my bio, you’ll know that I’m not from Boston, and I have a
Jewish Lithuanian forebears, Chinese forebears, and
Peruvian forebears. And then I was born in Berkeley
in 1972, and hit Berkeley, you know, hippie hay day. So I am very I represent a lot
of Americans in my generation. And in my life as I have studied
musica Indian, Indian music, of Bolivia, Equador, Peru, and
looking at the colonial music too that has come over, I’ve also made
a study casually, very casually, of folk music of the
world, of other cultures. And there’s certain
gestures that just seem to be of the people that come up. There’s a kind of lift, there’s
a kind of grace note phrasing that seem to lend themselves
well to flutes. And we have flutes everywhere. And I mean, this is a
very general observation, and even people listening to
music of mine that is not Indian, this is not an Indian work,
they still see the things that I like to do in my ostensibly
Indian influence works. So one of the things I
noticed the folkloric groups, there a lot of solos. There’s something about the intimacy of the three other players backing
off and one player coming forward. And have that in this
kind of writing. There’s something vocal
about the line. And you have a lot of that
in the string writing, where one player just
starts going off and just got this very
expressive feeling. For me that is of the people,
it’s something very much of the populace mindset,
expressing yourself that way. The harmonies, sort of,
sort of, open harmonies. Dismisses are usually
inflected folkloric music. A lot of people think the
harmonies are very simple, if you only look the primary
notes of the melodies. But if you look at
all the little notes, they do getting into the main notes. Instead of going [note sounds],
they might go [note sounds]. All the little notes
that are characteristic of one region over another. They’re often not that consonant,
and that’s what enriches the music. Actually, for me, it’s a bit
like seeing a very nice sweater and it comes with that tag,
and saying that, you know, the variations in the
fabric are not blemishes, it’s what makes it interesting. Yet it’s still a sweater. But the so-called blemishes I think
are the most interesting aspects of folkloric music. And there’s plenty of that. I write it out, I don’t leave it
for the player at their discretion to inflect as you would
with folkloric music. I mean, I’m a bit of
a control freak, so I just make sure
everything is in there. But you also want to
bulletproof the music. If you don’t have such skilled
players as the H&H musicians, you really need musicians
that need everything spelled out so then they can emote
and feel comfortable. That’s another reason why, if you’re
making folkloric allusions, you try and use the notational
vocabulary of classical music.>>Anne McLean: Was this
your first work for chorus?>>Gabriela Lena Frank This one? Oh, no, oh, no. This one I only earned because
I wrote about a dozen or so. I mean, you work your way up. And in fact, your former
director heard me speak on a panel at a previous Chorus America
conference and then followed-up, she sounds very interesting. Follow-up and listen
to choral music. This was a very careful
considered search on their part for something
like this. And I have more choral
music in my future. I have a requiem that
I will be writing for, the Houston Symphony
and their large choir. And I only have one requiem
in me, so I really have to do well with this one. I have an opera coming up, and
the opera will also have a chorus. So it’s interesting, the
choir is very portable. You can taken it into many
different kinds of environment. It can be a capella, the Kings
Singers, so that’s one kind. [inaudible] children’s
choirs, very, very different than if they are steeped in
tradition, as you guys are, but still looking to the future, completely different
animal from the opera. Or a symphony’s own choir is not
the same as an opera’s own choir. I went to school with singers, so I understand these very strange
creatures that we call singers. I understand their
culture, and I love it. I really I love art song too. And sometimes I try to write choral
music that sounds like art song in the tradition of Schubert or
Shuman, when you have one singer and one piano and that’s
it for the evening. There’s something very beautiful
about that, and I try to bring that into choral writing as well.>>Anne McLean: I remember that one of your interviews said your piano
teacher used to play art songs for you when you were a child,
which is sort of unusual to be introduced to them that early. But that inculcates a
lot of your writing. And I was thinking too about
your comments about the opera. I was curious about, well, I
was thinking about this work, this Emerson text and the
work that you’ve just written, which is almost like a sacred work. And thinking about the fact that H&H
was formed to perform sacred music. But it has this strong
element in it. And I was just thinking about
the society too, and your plans. Do you ever have mixed evenings as
you used to do in the early part of the history, when you would have
a Beethoven symphony alongside a piano concerto, and you know?>>Harry Christophers:
Oh, yes, we do. I mean, the thing is, now
it’s a period orchestra. So when Chris [inaudible]
was made assistant director in the early ’80s, and Chris
turned a brave move, I mean, a very brave move that time to
sort of complete transition. Change the orchestra
into paired orchestra, and which has grown
and grown and grown. And it’s a very interesting
subject because, of course, it’s changed the so-called
mission statement of bringing of being old and new. But in my book, actually, by
having paired instruments, what we’re doing is quite
simply making the music of the past sound new. I mean, it’s fascinating hearing
a pair of orchestras play Bach, play Haydn, play Beethoven. You hear things you’ve
never ever heard before, especially baroque music, you
hear tone colors of instruments that just don’t exist
today, and that I think is so wonderfully beautiful. And I’m afraid today and I can’t
hear a modern orchestra play baroque music, I really can’t. It’s just so it’s just not
— we’ve learned so much. I mean, the thing is, when the
paired music movement started, Chris [inaudible] formed
his own group in England, Academy of Ancient Music, all those
years ago in the very early ’70s. I remember because actually I sang
at Westminster, after I left Oxford, I sang at Westminster Abbey for
six years, I sang professionally for six years before I gave
up, I didn’t sing anymore. But I sang in Chris
Hawkwood’s very first creation. And I remember, oh my goodness, the orchestra playing was
well, it was not brilliant. Because these people were, you know,
these players were sort of learning on the job, they were learning all
about these wonderful instruments. They were trying to get sounds
out of an oboe, an early clarinet, and you know, the horns
were — it was [inaudible]. But bit by bit, these
players now understand it, at the Juilliard Movement,
the Juilliard program in New York, it’s staggering. We’re getting fantastic players
coming through that are really good in their own right, and it’s very
exciting, it’s very exciting times. And I think the result is that paired music it’s
really coming alive. And if ever you get the chance to
come to Boston and hear H&H live in the symphony hall,
it’s an experience. The vitality and physicality that’s
being produced by the music-making. And not only that,
it’s the communication. These players and singers,
they love what they do. They know so much about
their instruments and what they’re singing
about and the text. And I’m very text-ive
and I’m not interested in a choir making a beautiful
sound and doing the breaths and singing perfectly in tune and
the words are sort of a compliment, sort of syllables are an
appendage to the notes on the page. It’s not about that, it’s about, you
know, anybody writes for the voice, you’re writing text, text, text
all the time, the text has to live. And in my book, I mean, they get
very bored by me saying, look, you just go back to [inaudible],
he said, sing as you speak, and that’s the dictum that
you can use for everything. And the musical will come
alive and it won’t be false. That’s what I think, anyway.>>Anne McLean: Such a rich history. And it’s so exciting to see how
you do this very old music you’re speaking about with
new composers too, and that’s pretty amazing
for us to contemplate. I was reading about you the society
tried to commission Beethoven, and that was kind of fascinating. And I looked up a bit
here and there about it, but he wasn’t able to accept it. But just the fact that you
went after him, as they say.>>Harry Christophers:
It’s amazing, isn’t it? I mean, in society, you
look back over the history, that H&H premiered not only
Messiah, Haydn’s creation, Bach’s Matthew Passion, [inaudible]. Don’t worry, I’m not going
to do that, don’t worry, I’m not going to play that here. But anyway, it’s an immense legacy to this country, and
it’s fascinating. And what was the lovely
thing in the bicentennial is that we were revisiting pieces
that we hadn’t done for years. I did a performance
of Handel’s Jephtha, which H&H last performed I
think in 1858 or something. It was amazing.>>Anne McLean: Now that you’ve come through this extraordinary
celebration period, do you have a new trajectory
for the next few years? Because you’ve really guided
this whole bicentennial.>>Harry Christophers: Yes. I mean, in many ways
it’s more of the same. My great love is Handel, so
every season we will close with a Handel oratorio. This year we’re closing
with Handel’s Saul, his first oratorio,
which is immense. It’s a phenomenal piece. Next year we’ll do [inaudible],
the two secular, the two oratorios that were a disaster in his
lifetime because god forbid, you couldn’t have, you know, the
word oratorio had to be sacred. And the profanity of something like
a story of sex and lust as a simile, you know, it’s not for the
audiences of those days, but it’s a brilliant piece. And we’ll carry on to do I’m
planning to do Theodora and Susanna. Wonderful music. Handel, he just has this
incredible insight into characters, and all those amazing
Old Testament stories which he just brings to life. And we see we now see so
many of them being done on the operatic stage,
which I think is brilliant. We need to look back to Theodora and
Peter Sellars as amazing production that sort of set Handel
alight really. So yes, I mean, it’s sort
of continuing the same. We have big acts on
Haydn’s symphonies. Haydn for me is just a
phenomenal symphonic writer. I can’t remember which, I think it
was [inaudible] or somebody said, somebody asked him why do you never,
why do you never perform Haydn? He said it’s too difficult
for the modern orchestras. It is difficult, and you
know, and he has this sort of, you look him up in a textbook
and he has this adage, the grandfather of the symphony. And it sort of makes people think,
oh, he must be a bit boring. But he’s not. He’s full of wit, emotion,
drama, charm and I just say to the players every time, you
know, Haydn every day he could, he went for a walk and he took
a notebook with him and he wrote down in that notebook things
about the colors of the leaves, what animals he saw, what he
was feeling like, what the color of the sky was, and had all
his symphonies, his creation, everything, everything he
wrote, it’s all pictorial. And you just have to
have imagery behind you and think up ideas the whole time.>>Anne McLean: I didn’t know about
these notebooks, that’s fascinating. It’s like [inaudible]
album leaves, you know? And, yeah, so say a
bit more about those.>>Harry Christophers:
Well, I mean it’s, I mean, it’s amanchor [phonetic], of
course, did a lot of research and amanchor’s, of course, recordings of Haydn are
just second to none. They are wonderful, what he
gets out of the composer. I think what it, what it
just gives us an insight into what Haydn was
thinking the whole time. And, you know, we don’t —
there’s a tendency, well, there’s been a tendency
with period music and the whole historic [inaudible]
performance to get bogged down in academia and that to sort of rather overload
our performance of it. And, so that, that’s why when I’m
rehearsing Haydn I invent ideas and just imagery. It may not be what Haydn was
thinking but it might have been. But I’m sure Haydn would be pleased
that actually we’re doing that and we’re thinking about, you know, how to interpret this particular
phrase and everything’s important, just some things are more
important than others. And, we go into a lot of detail and hopefully then it will
come to life on stage.>>Anne McLean: It’s
fascinating what you say about the natural world being
such an influence on him. Does this also play
a role in your work? And also, I wanted to ask you
too about, I read somewhere that you have a practice of waking
up and warming up as a composer.>>Gabriela Lena Frank: Yeah,
actually, I’m also a pianist, although I didn’t get any
degrees as a pianist in school. I was lucky enough to
attract the attention of very, very good teachers and
I played a lot and one of my old schoolmates here,
Wendy Olson’s, in the audience, is somebody I accompanied
her in playing all the works of Bartok [inaudible], from
violin and piano for her recital. So, I was very active in
that way and, in doing so, I picked up some really
good habits as a pianist that also work for composing. So, performers do exercises. They do scales, they do arpeggios, but they don’t perform those
scales and arpeggios for you. You wouldn’t pay money
[inaudible] to listen to them go up and down on those. But, the scales and arpeggios,
the ideas that they’re embedded in everything they do and even to
practice, it’s not just technical and musicalizing your scales, making
them very musical, your arpeggios, is a very good one for performers. In most compositional
training programs, we don’t come up with
the analogy of this. And I started doing this really on
my own, coming up with exercises that I can do as a composer. So for instance, something
that’s embedded in every piece are transitions. And transitions are
notoriously difficult for especially younger inexperienced
composers to master, how do you get from something that’s really
high drama and then clunk, you’re in the soft
section and clunk, it’s just high drama all over again. And some composers are difficult because they don’t give you much
transition time, maybe two measures to try smooth everything out. You can see the performers
putting the brakes on. It’s a bit like a plane
trying to take off with only a little bit
of land to run from. And if the composer is very
distinguished, they just accept it. So you can practice transitions. And something I do often
is I will take something like perhaps eight bars
of the Handel Messiah, and then I will take eight bars of
Muller Six, and I have to join them. And it is great fun
because you’re working with fabulous material,
first of all. And you’re getting in there, and
you really understand something about Handel when you see
he could have done this, but he went here instead. You’re inside the forest rather
than just looking from the outside, and you’re touching the trees
and you’re getting in there. Or you could do something
like Shostakovich, and take a string quartet and
go to Bartok, another quartet. So now the instrumentation
is the same, you have to get into it in a different way. It’s not just bleeding in
the instruments smoothly, it’s actually understanding
what makes this Russian, what makes this Hungarian, what
makes this two different gentlemen. So because that situation, the
Handel to Muller, the Shostakovich to Bartok, it’s going to come up
in my own music, the parallel. And when it does, I’m ready. In fact, I’m filled with ideas. So often I’m asked, how long did
it take you to write something? And that’s a hard question for me
to answer because when I sit down and I assemble all the transitions
I played around with over the years, because I keep everything
in my binders, in my studio. And I have maybe 40, 50
binders of just material that has surfaced over the years. Are inflammable, and
creativity went into that. So it doesn’t take me long to
take something and get started. And they took time. So assembling everything together,
writing new music, hiding my tracks so you wouldn’t be able to connect
it to the notes, and really coming out with something that
doesn’t sound like Frankenstein, may only take a month to
six weeks, but doesn’t take into account all the time I put
into each and every little bit that winds up in the binder. So the exercises are a really
good way to keep you in shape. I can’t imagine a performer not
staying in shape and trying to learn from ground zero each
and every work.>>Anne McLean: Like your
long tones and your scales.>>Gabriela Lena Frank: Yeah.>>Anne McLean: And all the things. You said that composers are
storytellers, and this, of course, applies to all the composers
that you were performing with, the society and all composers today. And you talked about — I
love this phrase, you said, composers are storytellers
uniting a lot of different things, coating it in music in order to
give our impressions of the world. I’m just thinking, there’s so much
to be said, I want the audience to have a chance to ask
you both some questions. We talked — I want to mention
one or two other things. One was that the society
commissioned Amy Beach. And we own 300 of her works here, so
that’s an interesting thing for us. And that she was only 22
when she wrote the mass that the society premiered. And it was very seldom
done after that. But she also had a
symphony performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. So I wanted to just ask you to touch
on the issue, this reminded me, to touch on the issue of
diversity and inclusion of composers broadening
the canon of composers. And by this gesture,
this is a wonderful thing to have this commission
out in the world for a major choral
society like this. What is your thinking today on
how to mentor this and how also for you how to open this up,
how do you open this dialogue?>>Gabriela Lena Frank: We could
talk about this in a seminar over a week, how to adjust and the
issue of diversity in the arts. I have thought of myself
primarily as a one-woman show. As a freelancer, I don’t have
a nonprofit organization. I haven’t worked in the public
schools where we are bereft of our arts programs in a
way that we weren’t before. In many ways I’m kind of a plug-in,
like going and I do what I can. And when I get invited like to work
with you, that is one statement. If I’m invited to work with the
Sphinx Organization, the founder, Aaron Dworkin, won the
MacArthur Genius Grant. He was actually a schoolmate
of mine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He was a young multiracial
African-American violinists, already going after repertoire
by African-American composers. I remember myself looking at the repertoire thinking there
wasn’t enough that reflected my kind of history, and I had to
do something about it. So I set the bar high. I started to see myself in a way
that really put me, you know, as needed by the world but
needed in a high-quality way. I really have to pay my dues. I have to be great at what I did,
I couldn’t just be a messenger. So now I have found a lot of, as I’m
getting older, I turn 44 this year, I am old enough when
I go into the colleges that I could be their parent,
and they look me as a role model. And I can see their eyes get big. I just left DePaul University, a
week there, and the women composers and actually the men composers too,
they can welcome diversity as well. This is something that’s
an issue for all of us. So it just means I can’t walk
away, I have to keep going. There aren’t very many women
composers yet, it’s much better. This is a similar issue for
women conductors as well. I actually think they are a little
bit behind the composing maybe because it’s more public. You know, most composers were away,
and then for events like this, we come out of the closet and we
actually have there’s a face to us. But it comes about through
the efforts singular as well as an aggregate of what
we can do collectively. I mean, you guys heard me
on a panel, and I was kind of an out-of-the-box selection for this great honor,
this great commission. But it takes — an endorsement like this is very powerful,
is very powerful.>>Harry Christophers: Yes, I think
it’s very interesting because I — one of the reasons Gabriela
came out of that box because actually we found
your music challenging, which I certainly felt
the vocal music. You know, I find — I’ve got
a bit bold statement here, but I find a lot of choral music
that’s written today is just not challenging enough. People are falling into this
sort of mold of what is something that is beautiful sustained is
going to be they can meditate to or, you know, it’s going to be a fail. To me it’s wallpaper music, and I
want something that’s challenging. I’m not going to name
any of those composers. But you know, for me, I mean, in
England there’s a Scottish composer who I have immense respect
for, James MacMillan. He wrote a big Luke Passion that
was co-premiered, co-commissioned between the Boston
Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. You know, his music’s
challenging and it’s rewarding. We need to only look
back to Britain, Tippett [inaudible],
people like that. You know, you know, the music
was challenging but it, you know, there’s something rewarding
about it. And one can slip into a very
[inaudible] in particular can slip into something that is
just easy or, you know, just makes a pleasant sound. And it’s sort of, in a sense,
it’s the way that I think many, many choirs operate, you know,
they’re intent on being beautifully in tune, beautifully together, the
breaths have no part of the music and it’s just, it’s what
I call pastel shades. You see, I want, I want
a vibrant oil painting. I don’t want any pastel shades. And, that’s what you, you know, [inaudible] because that’s
what you’ve given us, you’ve given us something that’s
vibrant, that we have to work at. And the reward is great in the end. I mean, it’s interesting about
a composer, I mean, we have a, in England we have a lot of, a
lot of very fine female composers, who are writing in all
repertoires, I mean, like you know, think of Judith Weir, Sally Beamer, straight off who are writing
for all sorts of genres. And it’s brilliant
and, yeah, more of it.>>Gabriela Lena Frank: More of it.>>Anne McLean: Have you
both here at the same time, I wasn’t sure we’d have
the pleasure of having you. But this is great. And I want to ask if there’s anybody who has questions before
Harry has to go backstage. Questions, anybody? No. I have a question.>>I’m just wondering, I’d like
to know more about the opera that you’re writing and when it’s
going to be premiered and where?>>Gabriela Lena Frank:
Well, the last couple — now I can start talking
more publicly about it. You know, opera is a
very hard come-about, this has been in the works for about
nine years, when I really think about the first, you know,
murmurs of something happening. There’s a consortium of several
opera companies so that a lot of planets have to be in alignment. They work out who gets to premiere,
what singers, their own singers, are they going to share
the production design. For the composer [inaudible] team, we are the smallest
part of the equation. Maybe, you know, for posterity,
our name is on the score. But wow. So my writer is Nilo Cruz. He has the distinction of being
the first Latino to win a Pulitzer for his play in 2002,
Anna in the Tropics. And I believe that was the
first off-Broadway play to be awarded this. And he’s a wonderful, fantastic
writer, great imagination. And like me, he has a penchant for imagining a what-if
for his characters. He may take actual events
and they may be the backdrop, but then he paints
a different story. So even though he talks a lot
about political topics in Cuba, he’s Cuban-American, that’s not
what the story is really about. And I sometimes feel
like I do the same thing where there is the influence
of my mother’s culture, but it’s not per se I’m not trying
to make a string quartet sound like a band of some
poignant panpipes. I’m trying to infuse the essence
and take it into my own way. So our story is we will be
revisiting Flee that Diego Rivera. But there is an existing opera that
tells the arc of her story already. And it’s a difficult dramatic
arc to make work theatrically. She dies inconveniently
and things aren’t resolved. So we decided we want to be able
to do more and there are sounds that we wanted to go
after, fantastical sounds, and we need to make
this story fantastical. So we’re welding it with the
El Dia de los Muertos festival, the day of the dead. So we know that Freda died
three years after Diego. What a lot of people don’t know is that Diego accepted Catholicism
right at the end of his life. And he was a communist, but
he accepted it fearful that, you know, his time was up. And he was calling for Freda. There’s a little letter
where he says this. And we said, that’s it, so
Frida’s a spirit in the underworld and she comes back to reminisce. So this way we can have spirits, we
can have the villagers that come in, but we have a third pivotal
character and that is Catrina. She’s the Centinela, or
the keeper of the spirits. She is a trickster and a prankster. She gets to decide which of
the spirits go back every year. So maybe Antonio, this year, you
know, the diabetic, you can go back and here’s some candy for you. Or this Salatino, the
old man, you know, who broke his neck,
here’s your cane. And so and there’s
between Frida and Catrina. Two strong women, you know, the
past, that is hinted at Catrina, how did she get to
be in this position, you know, what is going on here. So she watches as Freda
and Diego reminisce, and it is absolutely
wonderful, really glorious. So we are looking at
the 18, 19 season. And I’ve been on my phone a lot,
yes, no, yes, no, with contracts and working out the
details of instrumentation. We believe that Catrina
will be a high soprano. We think that Frida will
possibly be a mezzo. And we want to high baritone for
Diego because he is avuncular, so he’s got to have some of the
lows and that sort of gravitas. But he also is heroic, but
can’t just make him a tenor. So we need a high baritone. That’s what the opera is about.>>Is it going to be in English
or Spanish or Spanglish or both?>>Gabriela Lena Frank: It will
be Spanish with the possibility of an English version later. But, you know, English is my first
language and Spanish is my second. And I believe that there was a place
of imagination I can go to when I go into the Spanish, because
it’s different. I have to have to leap for it. And I cut my teeth on
very lyrical Spanish too. Even when I start speaking Spanish,
I started getting very musical in the way I speak it as well. And so we always knew we
wanted to go into Spanish. The challenge for us is trying to
get to a Mexican Spanish that’s from their time, as opposed to
Mexican Spanish that we hear today. I went to school in Houston, so I know [inaudible] Spanish
very well, is different. And Nilo is Cuban and I’m Peruvian
and my mom has still street slang that she uses that people
look at me when I bring up, and they have no idea
what I’m saying. So we are interested. It’s a challenge, you’re right. The element of challenge is
very important for artists. And so this kind of challenge, especially even the
subtle challenge, rather than a really obvious one,
are the most difficult to get. Like the high money
note, okay, you know, I’ll just practice and I’ll get it. But something like,
what’s the difference between Mexican period Spanish
from their time as opposed to what I hear today, as
opposed to what I know. So we’ll be in Spanish.>>I wonder how much
of a role you have in defining the dramatic
content of this, and how do you divide the labor of the storytelling
with your [inaudible]?>>Gabriela Lena Frank:
That’s a very good question. So it’s different for every
composer [inaudible] team and it holds true not
just for operas but anytime you have a new text. So Nilo’s contributing some
of my text for the requiem that I mentioned, but not all of it. I love Britain, so for
that particular piece, I’m modeling of the war requiem where he has Owen Phillips plus
traditional liturgical text. Owen Phillips being a
contemporary poet commenting on World War I, I believe
it is, yeah.>>Harry Christophers:
[inaudible] That’s right.>>Gabriela Lena Frank:
Yeah, sorry, that’s right. Thank you, thank you. So I’m doing something
similar with the requiem, and Nilo was okay with that. Sometimes writers want to do all
the words, so then you honor that. So that’s another level of their
ownership of the storytelling. If you have a good relationship,
I can go to Nilo and say, well, you know what, I would really love
some sort of text that allows me to do something very
musical and nerdy, something a writer wants
to do with a choir. I want to do something
where I peel away one voice, I replace it with the clarinet, and I’m left with just
the highest soprano that drops down to [inaudible]. I said, so what could
that be, so, okay, well, that will be when the spirits are
becoming the villagers, you know, and Frida passes the note
to Diego who feels her pain. So then I’m part of it, but
I understand where, you know, the landscape that he painted. Other times, he’s been
very generous. He says, Gabby, what do you think? Would she be angry here? What is your reaction? Would she, you know, be submissive? Or I’m thinking about
making Catrina even sharper, and so then I get to participate. So we began to work out the
first act in such a way. And we actually had a
residency at a small school in Southern California,
Whittier College. And they just paid for us to come
there to work with their students and speak in some classes. And we had two weeks which we did
nothing but breathe and sleep. I have a wonderful video of the
two of us talking, on my iPhone. And Nilo’s on my floor in my
little kitchenette in my room, and he has down glasses
and he turned upside down water glasses,
just normal glasses. He put a napkin on each one,
and those were the villagers with the white outfits,
the campesinos. And [inaudible] nothing
to side with the spirits, because you can see
right through them. And an upside down teacup was Diego. And then for Frida, he had a
little soy sauce bottle [inaudible] with the red hat and is curvy,
like this, and that was Frida. And we were talking through
the characters, you know, and he was moving them
around and brainstorming. Then he went away and
he came back and came up with something marvelous. So I’m in there but it’s
Nilo, Nilo’s genius.>>Anne McLean: Oh,
maybe just one more and then we have to let them go.>>The question is
for Mr. Christophers. Knowing that you are a
specialist in many, many things, but baroque music, early
music, [inaudible]. I cannot find the right question. I’m very interested in the music
from Latino American composers like [inaudible], even
the first composer who composed the first opera
in America, [inaudible]. Have you been interested in
that repertory, first of all, that’s my first question. And the second one, do you think — I’m a conductor also and a choral
conductor, orchestra conductor. Do you think the performance
should focus on the repertory of our country? For instance, [inaudible] recorded
an amazing amount of Spanish music. And [inaudible] focus on
Handel, those composers, and we should focus
on our repertoire.>>Harry Christophers:
Because you’re close to it. I think that’s — I mean, I
hear folks obviously a lot on the English Renaissance
because we have access to all those part books
and everything. But I did years ago, actually I did
a discourse of music by Padilla, who was early Spanish
went to Mexico. But I also remember some years
ago, during a tour of Brazil, of basically first-generation
Brazilian composers [inaudible]. This was a requiem, which
was amazing, actually. It was a little bit
poor man’s Mozart, but actually it was
still worthy of doing. But actually having since doing,
and this was about 15 years ago, I did that, but since then,
there’s been so much more research. And actually I’ve been approached
by somebody in Brazil to look at some what looks
really good music. So I’d love to. But, you know, the thing is,
there’s so much music about and we forget how much music is in
the libraries of Southern America. The stacks there just waiting
to be researched and looked at. And above all, the problem so
often with it is that a lot of people start doing research
where the auditions are bad and you have to sort of go back. I remember years ago, in Portugal, the wonderful [inaudible]
foundation. They used to produce these fantastic
volumes of Portuguese music by [inaudible] all sorts of people. And I performed a lot of
it, but we actually have to have it all re-edited. The volumes looked beautiful,
but there were so many errors, the pictures were wrong, etcetera. And now, I was over in Portugal
recently, and I go back and said, we’re now getting all these
wonderful old additions by people coming but we’ve got
no money to publish them now. So I’ve watched it
all the way around. But yes. But I think since you’re on
the spot, you know, you were here, you know, to get research and
get an identity, is fantastic. So yeah, let’s hear
it on CD as well.>>Anne McLean: Thank
you for your question. Thank you so much, Harry
Christophers, Gabriela Lena Frank. We’re looking forward
to the premier. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at LOC.gov.

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