June 5, 1999
Revueltas' Modernist Vision Spices Up the Latin Quarter
By Bradley Bambarger
LA VIDA LOCA: With Latin music getting its day in the sun, it's nice that we have something to celebrate besides Ricky Martin. Particularly, there is Silvestre Revueltas, the greatest of Mexican composers, whose crazy, creative life began on Dec. 31, 1899. Revueltas is in many ways the musical analog to iconic muralist Diego Rivera; his modernist art divines the spirits of Mexican folklore to forge an original and vibrant vision, one simultaneously earthy and surreal in true Day of the Dead manner. Although steamy and colorful, Revueltas' primal mosaics are far from pictured-postcard romanticism, convulsing as they do with what he described as the "rhythm of life."
Along with his hallucinatory music, the hazy historical record has helped to reincarnate Revueltas as a mythic character. The ephemeral details of his life have been woven into legend, heightened by an early, dissolute end. Brought up in Mexico's rural Durango province, Revueltas learned the violin at a young age. He went on to study in Chicago and lead a theater orchestra in San Antonio before joining nationalist composer Carlos Chavez in introducing contemporary music to Mexico City in the '20s. Filled with revolutionary fervor, he also spent time fighting fascism in Spain. The last years of his life were fraught with troubles, and Revueltas suffered an alcoholic's death in 1940.
In the preceding decade, though, Revueltas had been prolific, writing intense theatrical scores and such concert masterpieces as "Sensemayá," a percussive, ritualistic work that sounds like Stravinsky after swallowing a tequila-soaked worm. "Sensemayá" went on to win favor as an orchestra showpiece - and as a feature on disc from Leonard Bernstein's New York Philharmonic recording in 1963 (Sony Classical) to more recent Latin samplers by Michael Tilson Thomas and his New World Symphony (Argo) and Enrique Batiz and the Festival Orchestra Of Mexico (Naxos). The world has been slow to catch up to the rest of Revueltas' Peer Music catalog, although the stage was set for the centennial with pioneering sets issued in the mid-'90s: "Night Of The Mayas," a historic compilation on Catalys/BMG; "Musica De Feria," a New Albion disc of the four string quartets played by the excellent Cuarteto Latinoamericano; and a Dorian album featuring the volcanic film score "Redes" as rendered by the late Eduardo Mata and the Simón Bolivar Symphony.
That's not to mention a sharply played and beautifully recorded album issued this spring by Sony. Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in "Sensemayá," "Ventanas," and the suite from the film score "La Noche De Los Mayas," and he directs the Philharmonic's New Music Group in "Homenaje A Federico García Lorca," "Ocho Por Radio," and two "Little Serious Pieces." The Los Angeles band will perform the kaleidoscopic "La Noche De Los Mayas" at the Hollywood Bowl in August, as well as on tour in Mexico.
But the current leader in the recognition of Revueltas is the Uruguayan-born American conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor. She is in the last year of a decade-long tenure as director of Boston's Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, a group that has made a name for itself with fresh repertoire. And as music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony for the past four years, she has revitalized the California band (and its audience), specifically by incorporating Hispanic music. One of the highlights of last year was Ben-Dor's disc of Revueltas rarities with Santa Barbara on Koch, the orchestra's debut recording. The album features a premiere take on Revueltas' final work, the richly melodic ballet "La Coronela," as well as the trippy, expressionistic "Itinerios" and more typically folkloric "Calorimes."
In October, Ben-Dor leads the Camerata De Las Americas in a Revueltas program in Mexico City. And following up her earlier staging of "La Coronela," she is planning an ambitious Revueltas festival for next season in Santa Barbara that will not only feature the major orchestral works but the long-unseen films that he scored and concerts of his chamber pieces and children's music. Ben-Dor admits that it took some talking to get Santa Barbara to open its ears to an obscure Latin American modern. But she is a persuasive advocate.
"I've always believed that some of the best classical music comes from folk roots," Ben-Dor says. "Beethoven, Bartók, De Falla - they were all inspired by the music of their countries. Revueltas is often called the Mexican De Falla, and you can hear Mexico in him as you can hear Spain in De Falla. And that is why once people get a chance to hear a Revueltas piece, they love it. Whether it happens to be violent or satiric or lyrical, the audience hears something they recognize, something they can grab on to. His music communicates immediately. People in Santa Barbara are still talking about the times we played 'La Noche De Los Mayas.'"
Beyond Revueltas, Ben-Dor has also programmed the works of Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, and Ginastera in Santa Barbara. Koch issued her first Ginastera album in '95, and she has followed up on Conifer/BMG with a Ginastera disc with the London Symphony Orchestra that features the ballets "Panambí" and "Estancia," the latter appearing complete for the first time. For her next Conifer recording, she plans to essay rarely heard Villa-Lobos with Santa Barbara. Ben-Dor has also been the prime mover behind building a living repertoire of Hispanic concert music; the Santa Barbara Symphony has commissioned works by Americans Robert Rodriguez and Miguel d'Aguila.
Yet Ben-Dor is more than just a Latin specialist. More than once, she has filled in at the last minute with the New York Philharmonic - most recently conducting the Mahler Fourth without rehearsal and to rave reviews. (Impressed, music director Kurt Masur has tapped her as his backup on the Philharmonic's summer 2000 tour of Europe.) But with her South American background and world-class experience, Ben-Dor does feel that she can make a case for Latin American composers that has gone long unmade.
"There has obviously been a political prejudice against classical music from the Third World," Ben-Dor says. "And with the countries often just struggling to survive, culture didn't have a chance to get out. It is true even with Spain. Italian opera is famous around the world, but Spanish Zarzuela is hardly known - and there are zarzuela masterpieces to rival those of Italian opera. Also, conductors tend to champion their own music, and Latin America has produced very few conductors. I know that if I had not left Uruguay to study in Tel Aviv and America, I would not be doing what I am now."
With invitations to conduct Revueltas in Italy and Ginastera in Finland and Switzerland, Ben-Dor is chasing her passions around the world from her family base in New Jersey. She has an upcoming concert in Mexico City with a program devoted to female composers, including Clara Schumann, the unsung Vita Kapralova (a Czech who, if she hadn't died young in World War II, "would've been another Janacek," Ben-Dor says) and Teresa Carreno (a 19th-century Venezuelan, whose String Quartet Ben-Dor has transcribed for chamber orchestra). Ben-Dor's wish list includes a recording dedicated to Uruguayan composers. "We have to balance the old favorites with the new and unusual," she says. "And I believe you can capture people's imaginations with anything that is done well and with conviction. As Mendelssohn did for Bach and Bernstein for Mahler, you must champion what you believe in."