Violinist Harumi Rhodes Discusses Gabriela Lena Frank’s World Premiere

July 5, 2024

Takács Quartet violinist Harumi Rhodes discusses Kachkaniraqmi (“I Still Exist”), a brand new concerto for string quartet and orchestra by composer Gabriela Lena Frank, commissioned by the Colorado Music Festival. Watch the interview or read the transcription below.

Photo Credit: Ken Jacques Photography; Harumi Rhodes appears second from left

Colorado Music Festival: Good morning. My name is Erica Reid, I’m with the Colorado Music Festival, and today I am talking with Harumi Rhodes of the Takács Quartet. How are you doing, Harumi?

Harumi Rhodes: Very well. How are you?

Festival: I’m wonderful. I’m really excited to talk to you today because whenever we have these world premiere pieces of music, it’s such a feather in the cap of the Festival, but it can be difficult for audiences to know what to expect and what to look forward to. So I just wanted to talk to you today a little bit about how it came to be, and what you know about the music so far. I know we’ve got a couple of weeks before the premiere, so there may be still some questions. 

But I wanted to start with: how did this all come about? My understanding is that our Music Director, Peter Oundjian, and the people who organized the festival wanted to bring in a world premiere and wanted to commission something for the Takács to perform. I believe you guys recommended composer Gabriela Lena Frank, can you tell me a bit about how that beginning part happened?

Harumi: Sure, yes, it’s true that Peter and the Festival were interested in having a premiere work that featured a solo string quartet and the CMF Orchestra. 

Gabriela has been a friend of mine for many years, we’ve known each other in different ways, in different capacities ever since we were both becoming professionals working in the scene. She was somebody that I thought of immediately and wanted to collaborate with. 

She’s a phenomenal composer, a wonderful, wonderful human being and loves string players and string music and string chamber music, and has written many string quartets, and is a lover of telling stories through music, and is someone who believes in expanding the repertoire and in working with musicians that she’s friends with. She believes in the idea that music can be a real celebration of friendships and connections.

One of Gabriela’s phrases that she uses quite often that I love, she has a couple of them, but one of the phrases that she uses quite often is this idea of “dreaming and scheming.” It’s a beautiful phrase that she uses in many different contexts, but we’ve used it together several times about different things that we wanted to dream and scheme about. Some of them have to do with teaching and with education and with working with the younger generation, and then some of it has to do with composing and all of that. I felt very, very lucky to be able to make this particular dream that we had together come true.

Festival: Oh, Harumi, that sounds really fantastic. So let’s talk about what we know about the music so far. Gabriela Lena Frank has given us some details about her work. We have a title, Kachkaniraqmi, which means “I Still Exist” in Quechua. And other than that, I don’t know a lot about the music and maybe you know more. Can you tell us what the Takács knows so far? Have you played any of this, or have you just read it, or where are we right now in the process?

Harumi: Yeah, so we received the solo parts a couple of months ago and a copy of the full score and immediately started tearing through it and learning our parts. And we started rehearsing it as a solo string quartet. We’re not yet with the full orchestra yet, rehearsing the four of us together alone without the orchestra. But also in our rehearsals, looking at the full map of the entire score with everyone playing and imagining what that would be like, and also seeing our parts alone. So we’ve heard the piece in some fashion in the sense that we can play the orchestra part and we can play our solo parts, but we haven’t played them at the same time together. 

Festival: Will you get to do that before rehearsals or will that be your first chance to hear it all together?

Harumi: So our first chance to hear it all together will be in the first rehearsal. We will have a pre-rehearsal the day before with Peter, the four of us, the four members of Takács and Peter. Also, I think Gabriela is going to come to that. I just invited her the other day and I think her flight will get in on time. So it’d be really fun to have both the composer and the conductor in the room together. 

I think we almost feel like actors getting the screenplay for the first time. You see your parts and we’re reading them together and getting used to what the chemistry is like between the four of us, but we don’t have the full production yet. We don’t have the full staging, the full set or the full chorus or whatever the analogy is. I feel very much like we’re sort of workshopping the piece together.

And of course we’ve been in touch with Gabriela. I’ve been in touch with Gabriela periodically over the summer about questions that we have. What a privilege is this, that we can work with not only living and breathing composer, but someone who’s really interested in being part of the process, someone who’s a friend, someone who I’ve worked with before. 

Gabriela and I worked together on a project in 2022 during the pandemic where her Creative Academy of Composers and my violin studio at CU Boulder worked on a virtual partnership throughout the entire 12 months of the year and put together nine world premieres of nine different pieces for solo violin and for violin duo. These kinds of partnerships, these kinds of connections, not just me and Gabriela, but also through our students and through the next generation of musicians that we really believe in, it’s these kinds of friendships and partnerships and stories through music that I think both Gabriela and I, that’s how we want to spend our life. That’s what we want to do, that’s what we believe in. 

We’re both doing it in slightly different ways, me with the violin and her with her composing, but actually we’re all the same, right? We’re all doing the same work and being able to bring that excitement into the Colorado Music Festival and into the Quartet, and bring all of these different parts of our lives together is a really joyful moment for us. In Gabriela’s words, the “dreaming and scheming” is both idealistic, and also there’s a sense of urgency. We really want to bring this music to the world and to celebrate these stories.

Festival: Oh, Harumi, that is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing that with me. A couple of things come to mind, so I work in the marketing department and it can be really challenging to explain the breadth of what we do at the Festival because most people are thinking, like, Beethoven and Mozart. Most people just generally attending are thinking about the war horses, the classics. 

That’s such an important part of what we do, but there is this really exciting element of bringing new work to the forefront. I’m sure that plenty of composers are happy to write a world premiere and hand it off and maybe come to the rehearsal and the first performance and move on. But what you’re describing here, this partnership that goes so much deeper, that spans broader than just this one piece of music, and that is really tied to, I don’t know, something larger about creating new music and reflecting a current and future society. All those things that even the classical composers were trying to do for their own time. 

I don’t know, I’m just really excited to hear … I did expect to hear how the professional partnership worked, but to hear that there is a personal collaboration that works with your students, that’s larger than this piece, it’s just really inspiring. It gives me goosebumps. 

If I could magically make everybody understand this piece of the Festival’s work, of your work, of Gabriela’s work, that’s the piece that really gets me up in the morning to do this work. So thank you so much for sharing how much deeper it goes and how truly collaborative this sounds. This does not sound like a score being handed over. This sounds like something that you guys are building together over the course of your friendship and professional collaboration. That’s just something that’s harder to explain in a quick ad for a concert, so I’m really excited to be talking to you today and hearing more about how new work comes to life, and how it excites you as well. 

Can you tell me a bit about how it’s sounding? What are the characteristics of the music that you’re hearing so far?

Harumi: Yes, definitely. It has four movements and the first movement is a prelude and really features the viola and the viola section. It’s soulful and beautiful folk melodies, Peruvian folk melodies, that are intertwined with solo viola and the whole section and with commentary and the other voices. It’s sort of a magical opening. 

The second movement is much more rhythmic and edgy, really fun to listen to and a little bit more sort of fast. I think the word Gabriela used was more “craggy.”

Festival: Craggy. Mmm.

Harumi: Yeah, like a terrain. All of her music, she really describes like a landscape. Again, it’s this idea of storytelling where… she’s really a novelist. I feel like her music is very story-driven, and there are all these images that come to mind. 

And then the third movement is a quick, fast, mysterious, quick fast dance. It has different elements to it, but it goes by very quickly and that’s more of the entire orchestra and the solo string quartet really worked together to create this windy atmosphere, which is slightly dangerous. I think that movement’s going to be really fun to play, this quick six 6/8 dance music. 

The end of that movement again introduces the viola, the voice of the viola again, which takes us and transitions us into the fourth movement, which is called “Child’s Wake.” The name I believe is referencing a professional singer that sings at a funeral. Each of the solo voices is featured in a very cantorial, vocal manner that has a pleading, crying quality to it where we’ll sing through our instruments on one tone, on one note, but it often has a quivering crying grace note up around it. And so the note, very much like the human voice, is an emotional, penetrating line that has a crying quiver to it. It’s very evocative and very emotional that takes us to the climax of the movement. And the piece ends, well, maybe I shouldn’t give it away. [laughs]

Festival: Right? You can keep some secrets if you like. [laughs]

Harumi: Yeah. But again, it’s this idea of — Gabriela is celebrating her cultural heritage. She doesn’t claim to be an ethnomusicologist, but on the other hand, she has done a lot of research about the indigenous Peruvian peoples and their music and their folk music. But all of her music is original. She’s inspired by this voice, this sound, the folk instruments and the people and the spirit of the people and the history of the land, and very much influenced by the visual landscape. 

She brings all of this to the classical music concert stage and she does it in a really joyful and beautiful way. She’s not interested in intimidating audiences, she wants to bring them in. She wants to bring people together, and she wants to make space for these voices and for these stories. I can’t think of a more beautiful way of doing that than to do that with friends and with people that you’ve known for a long time and people that you’ve never met that you can bring together to celebrate these stories. 

Also, I should say, I know this is a little biased because I’m in a string quartet, but how cool is it that she’s writing for solo string quartet and orchestra? This is a genre that we’re lucky to have a few pieces in this combination, but there isn’t that much, actually. Some of it is fantastic, and some of it is a little problematic because when you have a solo string quartet and an orchestra, sometimes it’s hard to hear the soloists just by the nature of the balance of the different species. 

We haven’t played it with orchestra yet, but I can tell by looking at the score, and I also know Gabriela’s music, that she’s very interested in how these voices can intertwine, how there can be a call and response feeling, how the different members of the quartet can take on different roles. 

Also, she knows us a little bit, so she’s interested in celebrating our personalities. So there are moments where we have individual moments and then other times where we’re very collaborative. There are other times where we’re leading the sections. There are other times where we move the story forward. There are other times where we’re joining the chorus. So the way she uses the quartet is very personal and also, just from a technical point of view, extremely wise in terms of the acoustical nature of the beast. 

I’m very excited about hearing how it all comes together. Again, I can only imagine what actors feel like on stage when the whole production comes together or an opera comes together and all the moving parts join forces. Just can’t wait.

Festival: I’m really glad you brought up this piece about quartet-as-soloist and the repertoire that exists or doesn’t exist for that ensemble. I know that Takács performed John Adams’ Absolute Jest a few years back with the Festival, and so if our audience have seen that, they may have some idea of what this will look like. But otherwise I think it would be surprising if a general audience member had any experience with seeing a quartet as the soloist for a concerto.

Is there anything else? I think you’ve touched on it really beautifully how this piece will operate. It’s always been sort of baffling to me because we have dozens of string musicians just to bring the volume up and make sure that the strings are sounding with this whole orchestra, making their voice heard, and so then you just have these four musicians in front. It’s really interesting to me to hear how the writing of that piece can be intentional to counteract that. 

Is there anything else you would like to say, either about this piece or in general, operating as a quartet as soloists that audiences might be interested to know or might help them understand this music?

Harumi: Yeah, I guess one thing I’d like to say is that sometimes audiences can be a little bit spooked about going to hear a new piece. New music can sometimes be a little bit spooky, because new things are scary, right? That’s a fact of life, I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. Also, when you change things up, change is hard. Change is hard for everybody. It’s probably the hardest thing in the world. 

When you ask people to come to a new music concert, you’re asking them to do both of those things, experience something new, and to change their mindset about what it is that they might like. But I think one thing that I find really exciting about new music is that it’s so liberating. We’re all experiencing it together for the first time. We’re all equals. There are no rules. How exciting is that? I don’t experience that kind of feeling very often. There’s something really fresh about it, and it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that we can still create new sounds. After all these years of music making and after everything that we’re talking about all the time, we can still create new and exciting and very beautiful new music. 

I think this piece, especially with its title, when you think of the title, “I Still Exist,” it’s more than just about the music, actually. The music is an incredibly meaningful and beautiful vehicle to express a certain kind of resilience that can really only be expressed through the arts, a very human feeling that we all have, that we can still exist, whether it’s a cultural resilience or an artistic resilience that we live through the next generation of artists and of believers, that we can still be a beautiful human race and create new and exciting pieces of art in the future through the next generation. 

So there’s a feeling of urgency, there’s a feeling of beauty, there’s a feeling of connectivity. It’s amazing how we can do that through sound and through being together and telling stories through music, through expanding the repertoire, through making space on the concert stage, for celebrating these voices and these exciting new sounds, and just sort of acknowledging that we’re still alive — not just alive, but we’re still vibrant and relevant and resilient. I think music is a really beautiful way to do that. 

I think my friendship with Gabriela has really inspired, I’ll speak personally, inspired me to never ever let that go, to always hold on and cherish this idea that we can be better than we are and we can always look to the future for hope. I think that’s what I would say to the audience. [laughs]

Festival: I can really see why Gabriela would want to work with you, and the Takács. It’s so much more than playing the notes. And you guys play the notes so well, that’s not in question at all, but the level to which you understand, first off, the piece of music that has just been handed to you and you’ve never heard in totality, but also the composer’s point of view and hopes and dreams as well as your own and that of your quartet. 

That’s what all of this is about, those deeper stories and that sense of humanness that you just described. I think you’ve just absolutely hit the nail on the head, of course, and I can see why that collaboration, I’m sure it means as much to Gabriela as it does to you actually, because it really sounds like a both ways transaction, a real collaboration. I keep saying that word, but that’s how it sounds. 

I think that’s something really important I’m starting to understand about how this new music comes to life. Again, I think I’ve always thought of it a little bit more transactional. You hire a composer to create a work, maybe it’s for an anniversary or something, they hand off the music, and the musicians play it. I think that’s so far an oversimplified view of what’s really happening. Maybe it’s occasionally happening, but I think probably the truth is more like what you’re describing me today in most cases, where composers and musicians are really coming together to affirm vitality and vibrance and life and story. 

I’m just really uplifted to hear your perspective on that today, as well as to hear what we can look forward to in the music. It sounds like a beautiful landscape of music, to use your term, that people will really enjoy. I have always, like you said, enjoyed the democratic piece of listening to new music together. Because as someone who is not myself, trained as a musician, beginning in the classical world, you hear a Mahler piece and you’re sitting with people who wrote a thesis on it [laughs], who have heard this piece a hundred times and can tell you when the horns are going to come in. And as somebody who’s listening to it for the first time, that can leave you feeling a little bit left behind. 

So to come together and hear music for the first time, music that we hope to hear many times in the future, but to hear it for the first time together, there really is something special about that and something very rare about that. When we hear this piece, you will have only heard it with the ensemble and the orchestra together a couple of times at that point, so it’ll still be very new. 

I just invite them to that experience. It’s such a live, of the moment, human experience that we should all be really grateful to get to take part in. Hopefully, I’m just mirroring back to you some of what you’ve said. You’ve just really illuminated it so well for me today. But before we close out, is there anything we didn’t cover about the experience, about rehearsing it, about working with Gabriela, about anything else that you think our audience might like to know or that you’d like to share today?

Harumi: I guess I would just say that as an audience member, sometimes it’s nice to just give yourself permission to have a really great time, to sit back and really feel like you’re able to have a joyful experience. 

I think Gabriela is someone who wants to bring people together and wants to bring beauty to the concert stage. I think she firmly believes that people in the audience can hear that, that they’ll hear the joy and the friendships and the storytelling and this feeling of celebrating the moment and the future

Of course, go ahead and read the program notes, and of course, go ahead and you can read up on Gabriela’s bio and all that stuff. But also you don’t need to, you can really embrace this idea of this experience being fresh and new for everybody and feeling like you’re a part of the birth of a new piece.

Festival: Thank you so much. I think we’ll end there, but come hear this piece. We’re only performing it once, it’s on one Sunday, [July] 21st I believe is the date. Just doing it the one time, be there in the room with a thousand other people just being uplifted into this really fascinating collaboration and new piece of music. So thank you for illuminating it for all of us today, Harumi, I appreciate it so much.

Harumi: Thank you. Thank you so much.