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Program Notes: Equal Play


Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout (selections)



Program Notes

By Tim Munro

Our Equal Play concert is an annual tradition to honor composers who are women and celebrate Women’s History month. Jessie Montgomery’s Strum brings the strings to effervescent life. Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas takes us on a journey through the Andes, and Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte sways with abandon.



Jessie Montgomery

Born 1981, New York, New York

Montgomery is a violinist and composer whose music is heard across the country. She is a member of the Catalyst Quartet and plays with the Silk Road Ensemble and Sphinx Virtuosi. Recent works include a nonet inspired by the Great Migration, and a reimagining of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha.

“I’ve always been interested in trying to find the intersection between different types of music,” she has said. “I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”

Strum is a celebration of “American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement,” writes Montgomery. Its title refers to the guitar-like plucking of the strings that plays many roles: floating hum, earthy groove, rapturous thrum.

“The piece begins with fleeting nostalgia.” Melodies weave in, over, and between layers of strumming. Several minutes in, there is a shift in gears. The music shifts, “transforming into ecstatic celebration.”

First performance: April 2006 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by the Providence String Quartet

First SLSO performance: These concerts, recorded October 31 and November 8, 2020

Scoring: String quartet

Performance time: Approximately 8 minutes


Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

Gabriela Lena Frank

Born September 26, 1972, Berkeley, California

“There's usually a story line behind my music; a scenario or character,” writes composer and pianist Gabriela Lena Frank. Her musical tales are often inspired by her mother’s Peruvian heritage, and Frank’s own extensive travels across South America.

Frank is currently Composer-in-Residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra and was named one of the most significant women composers in history by the Washington Post. She has written works that tell the story of the Spanish conquest of South America, the folk tale of La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman”), and the musical traditions ofEl Día de los Muertos (“the Day of the Dead”).

Leyendas is a musical celebration of diversity. The term mestizaje refers to the cultural and ethnic mosaic in Central and South America. In Leyendas, Frank imagines a place “where cultures can coexist without the subjugation of one by the other,” where western classical music and Andean musical traditions speak to one another as equals.

Three of Leyendas’s six movements will be performed in this concert. Although the work is written for a traditional string quartet, Frank evokes the sound of traditional Peruvian instruments, as she details in her descriptions:

“Chasqui” depicts a legendary figure from the Inca period, the chasqui runner, who sprinted great distances to deliver messages between towns separated from one another by the Andean peaks. The chasqui needed to travel light. [So I have chosen] the charango, a high-pitched cousin of the guitar, and the lightweight bamboo quena flute, both of which are featured in this movement.

“Toyos” depicts one of the most recognizable instruments of the Andes, the panpipe. One of the largest kinds is the breathy toyo which requires great stamina and lung power, and is often played in parallel fourths or fifths.

“Coqueteos” is a flirtatious love song sung by gallant men known as romanceros. As such, it is direct in its harmonic expression, bold, and festive. The romanceros sing in harmony with one another against a backdrop of guitars which I think of as a vendaval de guitarras (“storm of guitars”).

First Performance: July 27, 2001, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, by the Chiara Quartet First SLSO performance: These concerts, recorded October 31 and November 8, 2020

Scoring: String quartet

Performance time: Approximately 24 minutes



Caroline Shaw

Born August 1, 1982, Greenville, North Carolina

Caroline Shaw prefers to be known as “musician” rather than “composer.” What might seem like humility is actually evidence of a modern artist. Her musicianship is the sum of interconnected parts: violinist, vocalist, composer, and producer.

The Brooklyn-based, Pulitzer Prize–winning musician’s recent work includes a large-scale cantata inspired by the Golden Record launched into space in 1977, and an orchestral work that reflects a visit to Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory. She is currently working on a short opera for the Chicago Lyric Opera “about loneliness.”

Much of Shaw’s music responds to music of the past, whether Buxtehude or Bach, Mozart or Haydn. The inspiration for Entr’acte came when she found herself struck by what she calls the “spare and soulful shift” in a performance of the Minuet and Trio movement of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 77 No. 2.

Haydn’s perky minuet falls into silence, and when the trio section begins, there has been a slip, a change in color. In homage to that shift, Entr’acte is structured as an old-fashioned minuet and trio. Shaw says she is “riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further.”

Historically, an Entr’acte is an interlude between acts of a play or opera. Shaw’s work has no such function, but the title is appropriate. Shaw’s music has certain transitory quality—uncertain about what might come next, it threatens to lapse into silence.

Shaw seeks “the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.”

First performance: March 21, 2011, by the Brentano Quartet

First SLSO performance: These concerts, originally recorded October 30 and November 4, 2020

Scoring: String quartet

Performance time: Approximately 11 minutes


Tim Munro is the SLSO's Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.


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