Berkeley-born pianist and composer Gabriela Lena Frank today was awarded a Heinz Award by the Heinz Family Foundation, which for 25 years has honored the memory of the late U.S. Senator John Heinz by recognizing extraordinary individuals for their creativity and determination in finding solutions to critical issues in the U.S. and abroad. Frank’s award, in the Arts & Humanities category, includes a cash prize of $250,000.
Frank is known for composing works that weave together the visual and auditory history and mythology of Latin America.
“As a person of color, when you enter classical music, you need great fortitude,” she said in a news release. “You may love European culture and European music, but you eventually realize that, with a few exceptions, those you are studying and working with are not necessarily going to love your own culture and your own music back. … And it’s tragic that this relationship has largely changed very little. … Classical music has always largely trained musicians for the 1800s. It is one of the reasons why I started the academy, and why I pour so much into mentorship.”
She currently calls Boonville, in Mendocino County, and is a composer-in-residence at the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Although she was born with near-profound hearing loss, she went on to write compositions that draw on poetry, mythology and native musical styles. Her compositions often reflect her personal studies of Latin American culture. Her compositions have been premiered by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Dawn Upshaw, the Cuarteto Latinoamericano with guitarist Manuel Barrueco, and conductors Marin Alsop and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. She is currently working on her first opera, El último sueño de Frida y Diego, with longtime collaborator and Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, for the San Diego Opera.
Frank was also recognized for establishing the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, based in Boonville, which provides professional mentorship to emerging composers from all music backgrounds, guiding them to become artists who prioritize eco-conscious ways of making music as well as giving back to their community.
The academy accepts aspiring composers with diverse backgrounds from across the globe, including those who have avoided Western notation for its cultural limitations, teaching fluency and ownership of notation for one’s expressive purposes. As part of their residency, composer participants, together with their mentor performers, volunteer their time through performances and music coaching in the surrounding Anderson Valley. Frank also volunteers her time to teach music appreciation at the Anderson Valley Adult School and music composition to students at Anderson Valley High School, a rural school with a large Latino population that has little access to the arts.
“She is shaping a new vision of what it means to be a successful classical music artist, and who occupies that space,” said Teresa Heinz, Chairman of the Heinz Awards, in a news release. “Through her Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, she is accomplishing what is long overdue: inspiring and equipping the next generation to continue to break gender and cultural barriers in the field. Gabriela’s warm and generous spirit, and her commitment to leading by example, are also demonstrating to her students that a life of artistic excellence is one that embraces arts citizenship and connection to community.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Frank started GigThruCovid, where composer alumni from the academy donate short musical works to performers who have lost employment and are facing financial hardship because of the pandemic. For an artist fee raised through the campaign, the alumnus and performer collaborate virtually to develop the work together and then premiere it digitally.