Karen LeFrak, composer

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I entered the world of music when I was three years old. My nursery-school teacher recognized that I could play, so I accompanied the children while they sang their favourite songs because she couldn’t. My family was not musical at all, but they arranged for me to study piano. I began composing melodies soon after, and I remember that in sixth grade, the chorus sang a song I wrote during a school assembly. In my high school choir, I learned about 4-part harmony. It was the choir teacher who inspired me and had the most significant influence on my developing musical life. From then on, it has been the support and encouragement from professionals in music capacities such as conductors, musicians of the New York Philharmonic, ballet company artistic directors and choreographers, music managers, college music professors, music producers, and fellow composers. They all played a part in developing and establishing my career as a composer.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Because my role as a wife and mother has been predominant for so many years, I have been reluctant to expose my private musical life to others. It is a challenge to make myself known as an established composer, even though my pieces have been performed and well-received all over the world.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I enjoy composing when specific parameters are set. For instance, when I was asked to score a children’s book I had a wonderful time putting myself in the mind of the characters and developing themes that would illustrate their personalities and the different episodes in the story. When I was asked to compose a piano trio named after a flower (Gloriosa), I enjoyed crafting the three movements of the trio to represent the life cycle of that specific flower.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

The greatest pleasure is hearing the musicians rehearse, perform, and bring to life my compositions. While musical notations of phrasing, dynamics, articulations, and tempi are written into scores, it is the artists’ personal interpretations and individual talents that make each live performance so special and unique.

Of which works are you most proud?

While Pavlovsk, Sleepover at the Museum, Gloriosa Trio, and the New Yorker Trio have had many repeat performances, I really love my early piano miniatures which were written so that my future grandchildren would someday know about my musical passions, especially of composition. But truthfully, I really am proud of every piece. Like one’s children, you love them all.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Tonal, accessible, direct, and melodic with harmonic complexities, modulations, and some unexpected turns and nuances.

How do you work?

I begin my creative process by improvising at the piano and notating by hand my melodic and harmonic ideas. After the concepts become more concrete, I transfer them note by note, to Sibelius (music notation software). When I listen to what I have written, I begin to experiment with more complex harmonies and instrumentation. I also have a great editor who is a conductor and reviews the phrasing, articulation, and dynamics.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I consider success a personal satisfaction when I listen to one of my pieces played, recorded, or performed live, and still like it! This holds true regardless of whether or not an audience is present.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I would encourage aspiring composers to learn the rules of composition, but not to be afraid to break them, and not to be afraid to rework what one has already written in the composition process. Some of the best results come from the willingness and openness to change a modality, a harmony, or a melodic line. It leads to some unexpected and wonderful surprises.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Parents and teachers should play classical music often at home, and in schools. Children have the capacity to absorb and comprehend these complex sounds, and should be introduced to the beautiful, diverse, and individual sounds of every instrument.

What is your present state of mind?

I feel I achieved a deeper understanding and connection to the many gifts in my life while being isolated from regular activities through this pandemic. Like the titles of my Interlude albums, I am in harmony with the world, inspired, grateful, and, (for the moment), clear.

A native New Yorker, composer and author Karen LeFrak has created vibrant, moving musical scores that have been presented in prestigious concert halls across the globe.

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