A contemporary classic

School of Music brings works of renowned composer to Columbia

Rachel Calloway, a mezzo-soprano and voice instructor at the University of South Carolina School of Music, has a special appreciation for the music of composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Calloway performed Frank’s music with the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Series, her first high-profile professional engagement.

“When I sang that concert, I was so taken with the expressivity of her music and the power of it. And I was equally taken with her as a person,” Calloway says. “Gabriela is full of energy and passion. She’s a wonderful example of someone overcoming challenges. She was born with significant hearing impairment. She has traveled to Peru to rediscover some the sounds of her heritage there. All of these things combined just made my experience working with her such a powerful one.”

That experience can be shared by the university and Columbia communities next week, when Frank, a Grammy Award-winning composer who made the Washington Post’s list of the 35 most significant women composers in history, visits Carolina for a series of events.

At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Dec. 5), the Gabriela Lena Frank Composer Portrait Concert will feature students and faculty performing her music. At 4:30 p.m. Dec. 7, Duo Cortona, a contemporary music ensemble comprised of Calloway and her husband, Carolina assistant professor of violin Ari Streisfeld, will perform music written by composers in Frank’s Creative Academy of Music. Both of the concerts, in the School of Music Recital Hall, are free and open to the public.

“It’s important for my students to really understand that classical music is not a dying old art form. It’s an art form that is constantly being reinvigorated by new pieces, new performers, new composers and new music,” Streisfeld says. “Actually, listening to new music can then give us a greater understanding of the music of the past that most of (my students) study.”

Before coming to teach at Carolina, Streisfeld spent the bulk of his career focused on performing contemporary classical music, and was a founding member of the renowned JACK quartet. He says it is especially rewarding for musicians and students to be able to perform and experience the work of contemporary composers.

“The benefit of having a composer living is that we can work with them. We can get their thoughts directly, which improves our understanding of the music and allows us to feel more ownership over the performance,” he says. “One of the things I love about new music is being able to work with composers on their music.”

Frank was born in Berkeley, California, to a mother of mixed Peruvian and Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian and Jewish descent. Her compositions explore her multicultural heritage, and identity has always been at the center of her music. She has traveled extensively throughout South America and her pieces often reflect her studies of Latin American folklore, incorporating poetry, mythology and native musical styles into a Western classical framework.

“I would say this is a very high energy and intense music, which draws on Peruvian folk music melodies and rhythms. It is music that will stir your passion immediately on the first hearing,” Calloway says. “There may be some sounds that are unfamiliar to you, but they are sounds I believe will inspire you and get us thinking about our own humanity and the world at large and how we all relate to each other.”

Calloway’s friendship and artistic collaboration with Frank continued to bloom in the 10 years since she first performed the composer’s music in Los Angeles. A few years ago, Frank began hosting the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy for Music at her home in the mountains and woodlands of California. Calloway and Streisfeld, who perform as the ensemble Duo Cortona, went to California in May to collaborate with Frank and her composer fellows at the academy, learning new works written for them.

Now, as the second part of that experience, Frank and the seven composers will come to Carolina, where they will work with students in the School of Music and where their music will be performed by Duo Cortona at the Friday concert.

“They’ll be engaging with us, we’ll engage with them. It’s a full-circle opportunity for us in South Carolina to learn from Gabriela and the composers from her academy and for them to learn from us,” Calloway says.

Part of Frank’s residence at the university is a 90-minute coaching session with the USC New Sounds Quartet, a School of Music graduate student string quartet that Streisfeld coaches.

“They focus on music of today,” he says. “They’ve been learning a string quartet by Gabriela that they will work with her on that morning. That kind of experience is eye-opening for students who haven’t experienced that before. I know from working with her. She’s extraordinary in these situations.”

Streisfeld believes the audience at the performances will be “enthralled by her beautiful melody and lifted by the rhythm of the music. It’s exciting but also very, very beautiful. It’s the kind of new music audiences take to very quickly. Some contemporary music can be difficult for a lay audience. Her music is the opposite. It’s very forgiving and very welcoming.”

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