Polish, Purpose

Santa Barbara Symphony releases its first CD.

Los Angeles Times

By Josef Woodward

The Santa Barbara Symphony, a fine ensemble by most any standard, has been steadily refining its sound and purpose over the past few years, with the impressive and forward-thinking conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor at the helm.

Ben-Dor has polished and juiced up the symphony in subtle ways, taking things slowly, careful to avoid shocking the essentially conservative constituency of the core symphony audience.

Now comes a new milestone in the symphony's history, and it's available at a music retailer near you.

The symphony has released its debut recording, on the Koch label, and the results are quite thrilling. It's significant enough that the orchestra has, at last, made the leap into the recording domain, but the nature of the project gives it extra distinction, and could help this album venture out into the larger world of important classical recordings.

Ben-Dor, whose Uruguayan roots have led her to champion Latin American music, has used the occasion to offer world premiere recordings of music by the late - even great - Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940).

Revueltas, whose modernist approach and adaptation of folk materials encourages parallels with Charles Ives and Bartók, has been a cult hero whose music has continually been rescued from obscurity and neglect.

Viewed as a naive rebel without the proper allegiance to Europe, he worked outside the classical mainstream and died too young, done in by alcohol. But he left a sizable cachet of music worth hearing - for example, the music on the new CD.

The main attraction on this release is a buried treasure, "La Coronela (The Lady Colonel)" - a ballet written toward the end of Revueltas' life, in collaboration with the Mexican choreographer named simply Waldeen.

Like the composer's story, the work itself has had a circuitous history. It was premiered in 1940, but fell into obscurity until revived and reorchestrated in 1957, the original orchestra having been lost.

At this juncture, the music is vibrant and smart, especially with the clear yet energetic treatment of Ben-Dor and her charges. They bring out the post-Stravinsky-esque balances of sweetness and well-honed anarchy-tunes and tumult-and deliver a piece that seems at the least a modest revelation of Mexican modernism.

Gilles Apap, the charismatic concertmaster and an impressive soloist in his own right, handles the solo part on the finale, "El juicio final (The Last Judgement)."

The Revueltas touch is characteristic in this movement, the longest of the four in the ballet.

It begins on a sardonically triumphant note, its festive folk rhythms tinged with polytonal tensions, leading into moments of angst and melancholy.

Also on the CD is the plaintive "Itinerarios" (1938). To close, comes the furtively propulsive 1932 piece "Colorines," performed by the English Chamber Orchestra, another of Ben-Dor's conducting connections. These two pieces further exemplify Revueltas' muscularity and panache.

Revueltas, like the better-known and embraced composer Carlos Chavez, worked toward a sense of Mexican musical identity, but his results were more rugged and challenging to the ear.

In this ballet, as elsewhere in his music, elements are drawn together in a kind of mad, enthralling mosaic, taking in aspects of sentimental, indigenous musical folklore with the disjointed, nonlinear qualities of life in the 20th century.

In short, written more than 50 years ago, this is very much music for our time. And it's a cause for civic pride that the Santa Barbara Symphony is a conduit for its continuing exposure.

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