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James Manheim, December 2011

The opening work here, Hilos, was composed in 2010 and makes a good introduction… Each movement is clearly organized tonally and convincingly linked to the others, with a driving finale based on the Peruvian karnavalito rhythm, but along the way there’s tremendous diversity in rhythm and melodic shape. The Danza de los Saqsampillos for two marimbas is a rhythmically entrancing short piece and one that every percussionist should get to know, while the Adagio para Amantaní, for cello and piano, depicts a remote and barren Andean mountain lake and its nearby inhabitants; the work makes a striking contrast with the Danza. The final Quijotadas for string quartet…is full of humor. This is recommended Western-hemisphere chamber music that will bring life to any concert or listening program. © 2011 Read complete review

MusicWeb International, November 2011

In this fine programme of premiere recordings there are two major works by Frank and two smaller ones, written for a variety of chamber forces all supplied by ALIAS members with or without Frank herself at the piano. Individual performances are all very creditable, and some—Matt Walker’s cello, Frank and Lee Carroll Levine’s clarinet—are quite outstanding. The ALIAS Ensemble, whose members are drawn from regional orchestras, deserve further kudos for their not-for-profit ethos.

Frank’s music may be characterised…as fundamentally listener-friendly, with plenty of melodic passages and tonal harmony blended with understated dissonances or atonal snatches. It’s all lighthandedly and imaginatively scored, and a nice mixture of catchy upbeat rhythms, emotive introspection and humour.

The timing of the disc is fairly generous, though it is hard to fathom Naxos’s reasons for making two three-minute pieces by Frank, Adoración para Angelitos and The Armadillo’s Charango, only available for online streaming or download.

Sound quality is superb. The CD booklet is pretty good too, with detailed notes on the music, written by Frank, and biographies and photos of all the soloists. Finally there is a colour photo of Lena near Machu Picchu—looking more like a montage than a mountain!

A superior disc in every regard.

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, September 2011

Gabriela Lena Frank is a pianist-composer with fascinating ethnic roots, and she explores that heritage in much of her music. Her parents are from Peru and Lithuania and she’s of Jewish descent. The mixture makes for a unique blend, of which the single biggest component is Peru’s native folk-musical styles and rhythms. The centerpiece of the CD is a half-hour chamber work, Hilos (Threads), the threads of which are (one imagines) the four instruments, which appear together and in nearly every available combination of two.

Hilos…is all richly evocative of Peruvian folk-dance, with stamping rhythms and impressive virtuosity…The musical language has impressive internal logic. And a lot of this is pure pleasure, too…

The Danza de los Saqsampillos…a very catchy dance that really realizes the sound potential of the instruments.

The Adagio para Amantaní is a much more withdrawn, introspective work, and though it’s scored for cello and piano they take turns in their laments; if they play together at all it is only for a few seconds. I should note that, according to Gabriela Lena Frank’s wonderful booklet note, Amantaní is an island: “Situated in the middle of Lake Titicaca between Perú and Bolivia, the island is both beautiful and frighteningly barren, and its inhabitants depend on one another deeply in order to survive the cold and arid climate.”

The disc then concludes with Quijotadas, a suite for string quartet based on the Don Quixote: there’s a tripping, lively seguidilla at the beginning (adventures at the inn?), a portrait of the Don’s descent into madness, and another descent portrait, of his entry into the cave, a movement which has a suitably ghostly and mysterious conclusion. The best parts of the quartet—including that outstanding seguidilla—are really terrific…

This is wonderful music…Gabriela Lena Frank has a distinctive, interesting voice, and she writes extremely well-crafted music that’s a great pleasure to hear. Her piano contributions here are very good, the ALIAS Chamber Ensemble is up to all of Frank’s technical demands and complex rhythms—listen to the exquisite pizzicatos in the seguidilla—and the recorded sound is exemplary. What more can I say? This is a release to be excited about.

When this CD is loaded into a computer, the Gracenote database identifies its genre as “rock.” I’d object but, hey, Danza de los Saqsampillos rocks.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2011

What utterly fascinating music this is! Gabriela Lena Frank, a composer of mixed Peruvian-Chinese-Jewish-Lithuanian descent, has been inspired by the music of Bartók, Ginastera, and Chou Wen Chung. She has traveled extensively through South America studying poetry, mythology, folklore, and native music, and incorporates all of this into her pieces. The result is not only a combination of her models but a strong identity of her own. She is remarkable for absorbing so many different styles and reformulating them in a way that is both abstract and, at times, melodic.

Hilos is an eight-movement chamber work written for the same combination of instruments as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, but the way she mixes and matches the instruments is completely different. Sometimes the piano and/or cello play ostinato figures; sometimes they are in the foreground. Like Messiaen, she also alternates the solo line depending on the movement. The sixth movement, “Juegos” or “Games,” is the most playful and rhythmic, while many of the others are haunting. In the second movement, “Zapatos de Chincha,” she uses the cello in the manner of the cajón, a wooden box that percussionists sit on and strike with their hands and feet. The most striking feature of all her music is its use of space. There are many pauses in her music, and the pauses say as much as the notes. The seventh movement, “Yaravillosa,” employs a great deal of glissandos, tremolos, and other effects in order to mimic Peruvian vocal practices.

Danza de los Saqsampillos is an arrangement for two marimbas of a solo piano piece. Frank describes it as being influenced by Peruvian jungle dwellers. I’m not sure what this piece would sound like played on a piano, but the deep range in which the marimbas play it certainly conjures up a sweltering jungle scene. Amantaní was written to capture the feelings of an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, which she describes as being “both beautiful and frighteningly barren.” The music here is edgy in a quiet way.

The final piece, a five-movement string quartet, was inspired by Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. The first movement imitates the music played by the chifro, a small high-pitched wooden panpipe; the second, a freely interpreted Seguidilla in which the violins emulate a six-string guitar and the bandurria of Renaissance Spain. The third, “Moto Perpetuo,” depicts Don Quixote at home reading his novels of chivalry, which make him dizzy and eventually go mad. The fourth depicts a scene in the novel where Quixote fantasizes about the legendary hero Montesinos, held prisoner in a highland cave by enchantment, and uses as its basis a traditional mountain song, while the last is the “Dance of the Muleteers.” In this entire piece, Frank mixes modern composition styles with Latin rhythms to make an attractive work that can function without the descriptive titles or literary allusions. Curiously, what lingers most in the mind when the music is finished are not so much the brief, angular melodies but her beautiful and original use of harmony. Always delicately balanced, pulling one back to a tonal center even in the most bitonal or atonal moments, Frank’s use of harmony, like her use of space, is a constant feature of her style. It keeps one centered and exudes a feeling of calm even in the most excited moments.

I cannot praise this CD too highly. This is a composer, like Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Nancy van de Vate, who deserves universal and not just regional exposure. Get it!

Patrick Hanudel
American Record Guide, July 2011

As part of the American Classics Series, Naxos presents four world premiere recordings from the oeuvre of San Francisco composer-pianist Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972), courtesy of the ALIAS Chamber Ensemble in Nashville, Tennessee. Born in Berkeley, California to a Peruvian-Chinese mother and a Lithuanian-Jewish father, Frank often draws on her multicultural heritage. Three of these works meditate on Peruvian history and geography, and the string quartet is based on a Spanish literary classic. Founded in 2002 by Nashville Symphony violinist Zeneba Bowers, the ALIAS Chamber Ensemble borrows musicians from the Nashville Symphony and Belmont University. For this concert, Frank joins them at the keyboard.

The program begins with Hilos (Threads, 2010) for clarinet and piano trio, an eight-movement suite written for ALIAS that captures the splendor of Peruvian textiles. Next, Belmont University percussion professors Christopher Norton and Todd Kemp perform Danza de los Saqsampillos (2006) for two marimbas, a portrait of a mythical Peruvian warrior devil that lives in the jungle. Nashville Symphony cellist Matt Walker teams up with Frank for her Adagio para Amantani (2007), a musical sketch of an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca between Peru and Bolivia.

Last but not least, Bowers and Walker join their symphony colleagues Alison Gooding and Chris Farrell for Quijotadas (2007) a five-movement string quartet after the famous Cervantes novel Don Quixote.

Much as romantic composers cast folk material into their refined yet highly expressive language, Frank weaves an earthy idiom into her abstract postmodern neo-tonality. The music is more reflective than programmatic, offering poetic musings rather than telling a story or building a climax. Nevertheless, her textures sparkle with guitar inflections, otherworldly glissandos, aggressive pizzicatos, pungent dissonance, and catchy dance rhythms, and she takes advantage of the unique color pairings in a larger ensemble.

The opening Hilos is a substantial contribution to the repertoire for clarinet and piano trio; at 27 minutes, it almost takes up half a concert. It does not have the drama of the Hindemith, the profundity of the Messiaen, or the excitement of the Schickele; but its ethnic flavor and dream-like sequences carve out a niche all its own. Danza de los Saqsampillos is a nice marimba duet driven by 6/8 cross rhythms, but is low-key for its title. Adagio para Amantani retreats to the post-romanticism of a century earlier, calling to mind Scriabin and Schoenberg; but the emotional depth is palpable, and the dialog between the cello and piano is at once contemplative and chilling. The closing Quijotadas is once again a refraction of folk elements in postmodernist declamations, some immediate, some intangible. Frank and the ALIAS Ensemble give effective performances that should invite serious discussion about how this music fits on concert programs.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2011

If you are born in the United States with a parental mix of Peruvian, Chinese, Lithuanian and Jewish backgrounds, you would understand Gabriela Frank’s self-confessed identity crisis that is often expressed in her music. Composed in 2010, the eight sections of Hilos (Threads) was inspired by Peruvian textiles and the images they bring to her mind. That extends from a child’s spinning top, in Zumbayllu, to a Devil Dance. The small group of clarinet, violin, cello and piano is most inventively used as it explores the solo sonorities and interrelated sounds. It ends with the picture we often see of the Peruvian mountain women in their bowler hats, the music happy and bubbly. You can never conventionally describe Frank as being a tonal or atonal composer, as her ideas come in the instinctive use of sounds to reach her intended objective. The Danza de los Saqsampillos is a reworking of piano music to form a score completed in 2006 for two marimbas. It must be delightful to play, though it also displays the performer’s technique. A score for cello and piano conjures up a picture of an island, Amantani, in the middle of a lake, and moves from peace to an exciting vista. We finally move to Spain for the string quartet in five movements, Quijotadas, completed four years ago. Mixing dance rhythms with moments of pungent animation in an atonal world, there is the story of Don Quixote as the backdrop. Often technically very challenging for the performers, this is a very intense and outstanding score. The disc is played by members of ALIAS, a group largely formed from members of the Nashville Symphony whose objective is to perform new works. They certainly sound a highly talented group with Frank added as the pianist. Very good sound.

Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi
Chamber Musician Today, April 2011

A self-described musical anthropologist, Frank seeks new ways of combining sounds and rhythm patterns to evoke indigenous life. Three of the four works on this disc are inspired by Frank’s own culture—Peruvian—while the fourth reflects the Spanish influence and its lasting imprint on Peru.

Hilos (Threads, 2010) is the most recent work in this program and was written specifically for the Nashville based Alias Chamber Ensemble. Scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, the eight short movements mix and match the players as if weaving together threads that reflect Peruvian textiles and culture. Each movement is a snapshot of everyday life. So vivid are the melodies and rhythms, skillfully performed here by the Alias Chamber Ensemble, that the spirited Afro-Peruvian dance—in a jaunty movement entitled “Zapatos de Chincha”—teases and exhilarates. In another snapshot, “Bombines”, the Bowler hats worn by mountain women are depicted as the “karnavalito” or South American dance rhythm, punctuates the movement. Swirling melodies of clarinet and piano intertwine to depict the “Zumbaliyu,” a children’s spinning toy. A gifted and dexterous pianist, Gabriela Lena Frank joins Alias violinist Zeneba Bowers, clarinetist Lee Levine and cellist Matt Walker for this riveting performance.

The second work featured on this disc, Danza de los Saqsampillos (Dance of the Saqsampillos, 2006, 2000) for marimba duo offers a dazzling display of virtuosity by percussionists Christopher Norton and Todd Kemp. The marimba instrument is popular all through Latin America and figures prominently in much of the popular music and folklore. This dance is inspired by the Peruvian “saqsampillo,” a rambunctious jungle-dweller. Surprising shifts in meter, common to many styles of Latin American music, infuse this work with playful energy.

Frank’s one movement Adagio para Amantani for cello and piano (2007) was written in homage to the island of Amantani. Situated in the middle of Lake Titicaca between Peru and Bolivia, the island is both beautiful and desolate. Frank and Walker perform this poignant meditation with sensitivity and pathos. The cello lingers on sustained plaintive cries—often bursting into dissonant pleas— while the piano articulates repeated tremolo rhythms and flowing, arpeggiated chords; the result is an atmospheric and hauntingly beautiful work recalling the isolation and loneliness of the Amantani inhabitants.

Quijotadas (2007) for string quartet comprises five movements which take their inspiration from Cervantes’ tale of Don Quixote. The four intrepid players—Bowers, Walker, violinist Alison Gooding and violist Chris Farrell—join forces to perform this texturally varied and rhythmically pulsating score with all the quirkiness and gusto it demands. The music featured on this disc is a wonderful display of richly imaginative and innovative style by one of America’s most original and prolific composers.

David Hurwitz, March 2011

Gabriela Lena Frank is the real deal: a modern composer with a personal style, one that manages to integrate a wide range of sounds and performing techniques into a cohesive language that unapologetically includes melody and tonal harmony without ever sounding anachronistic. She clearly manages to remain true to herself, but she doesn’t have to write down to her listeners in order to share her thoughts and feelings. This is just good music.

Hilos is a quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano inspired by Peruvian weaving. The music is colorful, vibrant, and consistently inventive; the Latin element is pervasive, but not cheap, and not overwhelming. Danza de los Saqsampillos is an arrangement for two marimbas of an earlier piano piece, and it sounds like a blast to play; Adagio para Amantaní (for cello and piano) is a soulful meditation inspired by an island landscape in the middle of Lake Titicaca. Quijotadas is a string quartet based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Its second movement, Sequidilla para la Mancha, has to be one of the most charming pieces of its kind since the scherzo of Ravel’s Quartet, which it resembles in some ways (lots of pizzicato).

The performances, with the composer’s participation where the piano joins in, and presumably her supervision where it does not, are uniformly excellent, and so are the sonics. A wonderful disc of inventive, fresh, characterful music, plain and simple., March 2011

There are significant multicultural elements…in the music of Gabriela Lena Frank (born 1972). Her mother had Peruvian/Chinese ancestry; her father was descended from Lithuanian Jews. This certainly gives Frank very considerable musical influences on which to draw—but the works on the new Naxos CD of her music, all of which receive their first recordings here, all have a focus on South America….they feature movement titles in Spanish and many inflections reminiscent of Latin music, although interpreted by Frank very differently…Hilos (Threads), written in 2010 for the ensemble that performs it here, is for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, and includes eight short movements (the last being the most extended) that seek to interpret Peruvian textiles and everyday life in the country. Danza de los Saqsampillos (2000/2006), for two marimbas, is bright and lively, while Adagio para Amantaní (2007), for cello and piano, is mysterious and emotional—intended to refer to the beautiful but barren island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. And the mood is multifaceted in Quijotadas (2007), a work for string quartet that, as its name implies, was inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quijote—and that nicely captures some of the many moods of the novel, including a central movement that portrays the title character’s madness through a well-constructed Moto Perpetuo.

John Pitcher
Nashville Scene, March 2011

The Alias Chamber Ensemble is arguably the most venturesome classical music group in Nashville. Since its founding in 2002, this outstanding virtuoso ensemble has presented nearly a dozen world-premiere performances. Its wide-ranging programs, moreover, feature everything from little-known Renaissance-era pieces to contemporary works that seemingly owe more to rap than to Rachmaninoff.

Just about the only place Alias hasn’t ventured with its music is the recording studio. At least, that was the case until last month, when Alias released its first album, a CD on the Naxos label devoted to the music of Gabriela Lena Frank.

A California-based composer and pianist, Frank, 38, finds inspiration for her music in her multicultural background. Her mother is a Peruvian of Chinese descent and her father is an American of Lithuanian-Jewish heritage. Not surprisingly, Frank drew on Peru’s rich musical culture to compose three of the four works on Alias’ new CD. The fourth piece pays homage to Cervantes’ 17th century Spanish novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.

Without question, the most ambitious piece on the disc is Hilos, a work for clarinet, violin, cello and piano composed specifically for Alias last year. The title means “Threads” and alludes to the kaleidoscopic beauty of Peruvian textiles. Frank has even referred to it as a kind of Peruvian Pictures at an Exhibition.

Like Mussorgsky’s Pictures, Hilos is an episodic work, consisting of eight short movements with descriptive titles such as “Charanguista Viejo” (Old Charango Player) and “Danza de los Diablos” (Devil Dance). The music is remarkable for its shimmering, transparent textures. It’s also full of vivid sonic images, such as the violin scratch tones in “Charanguista” that suggest an old man singing.

A gifted pianist, Frank joined Alias violinist Zeneba Bowers, clarinetist Lee Levine and cellist Matt Walker to give Hilos a riveting rendition. Frank performs the work’s bold tremolos and quicksilver glissandi with power and sparkle. Bowers, Levine and Walker respond with playing that is both passionate and spontaneous.

Frank’s Danza de los Saqsampillos for two marimbas (2006) is surely the most charming work on the CD. The piece is actually an arrangement of music from an earlier work, the Sonata Andina (2000) for solo piano. The title refers to the dance of a rambunctious jungle dweller.

Alias percussionists Christopher Norton and Todd Kemp bring this glistening music to life. They are equal to the work’s challenges, expertly navigating a minefield of changing meters while maintaining a tight ensemble. And they interpret the score’s Andean and tropical motifs exactly right, playing with a sense of pure joy.

Frank’s one-movement Adagio para Amantani for cello and piano (2007) is basically a sonic postcard. Frank wrote it after visiting the island of Amantani, located in the middle of Lake Titicaca between Peru and Bolivia. The island is beautiful yet barren, and it inspired Frank to write the CD’s most intense music. Indeed, she drenches the Adagio’s repeated piano notes with lots of sustaining pedal, suggesting a kind of cold, languid landscape. The cello’s long-breathed melodies capture the island’s aching loneliness. Frank and Walker perform the piece with heartrending emotion.

Quijotadas for string quartet (2007) features some of Frank’s most imaginative instrumentation. The work’s five movements depict scenes from Cervantes’ novel.
In the second movement, “Seguidilla para la Mancha,” the players—Bowers, Walker, violinist Alison Gooding and violist Chris Farrell—pluck and strum their instruments, mimicking the sound of a Spanish guitar. The vertiginous string notes in the third movement, “Moto Perpetuo: La Locura de Quijote,” readily call to mind Don Quixote’s descent into madness.

As of last week, the entire first run of the album was sold out, and Naxos ordered a second run. It also broke into the Top 100 on Billboard’s classical chart, at No. 93.

Mark Swed
Los Angeles Times, March 2011

Part Peruvian/Chinese, part Lithuanian/Jewish, born in Berkeley in 1972, Frank has selected a Latina identity, but with many obvious qualifications.

All the works on this disc are from the past 10 years and inspired by Latin America and Spain. Bartók is her model for using folk material.

But Frank’s colorful use of instruments and her melodic style are beginning to sound all her beguiling own.

Dave Pomeroy
The Nashville Musician, January 2011

The ALIAS Chamber Ensemble’s new release Hilos on Naxos American Classics features works by composer Gabriela Lena Frank, whose multicultural heritage is reflected in the diversity of her musical influences.

ALIAS was founded in 2002 by Local 257 member violinist Zeneba Bowers. Cellist Matt Walker currently serves as executive director, and the collective’s musicians on this project include clarinetist Lee Levine, violist Chris Farrell, violinist Alison Gooding, and percussionists Todd Kemp and Christopher Norton. Frank’s four compositions feature different combinations of these players and the results take the listener on a most rewarding musical journey.

“Hilos (Threads),” which begins the album, is a new work written especially for Alias, and immediately sets the tone for the whole project with its dramatic opening sequence which features seamless interplay between Bowers, Levine, and Walker, along with the composer’s aggressive, startling piano work. Frank’s inspiration in writing this piece is the colorful textiles of Peru. Its eight movements run the gamut of human emotion, and the players all rise to the occasion. The interweaving textures alternately soothe and sparkle, and each player has the spotlight on occasion. Levine’s nimble clarinet, in particular, handles some very demanding parts with aplomb.

The duet for two marimbas, “Danza de los Saqsampillos,” conjures up exotic South American street scenes and Andean mountain jungles. The melodic and rhythmic execution of this demanding material by percussionists Todd and Norton is excellent throughout. Walker is featured with Frank on the cello/piano duo “Adagio para Amantani,” and his performance is a tour de force of the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of the cello. It starts with a languid feel, and gradually builds to an intense peak before dissolving into a peaceful ending. The final piece “Quijotadas,” is a five movement string quartet piece inspired by Cervantes’ immortal character Don Quixote. It has the most traditional instrumentation on the album but the challenging music and varied textures once again show the wide emotional range that is possible when a composer’s concept and the musicians’ interpretation become one. The impeccable sound of the album, recorded at Blair School of Music’s Turner concert hall and engineered by Gary Hedden, only serves to enhance the dynamics of the ALIAS Ensemble. This album is a fantastic example of the diversity, talent and vision of Nashville’s classical music community, and congratulations go to all concerned for a world-class effort.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group