The Los Angeles Times
January 16, 2000
Across the North-South Divide: Conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor makes it her mission to draw attention to modern Latin American composers.
By Josef Woodard
Silvestre Revueltas, for North American audiences, is something of a musical late bloomer. Born in Mexico on New Year's Eve at the turn of the last century, he was dead from alcoholic indulgence by 1940. He has long been a cult hero among serious new music fans, revered for his challenging modernism and warm musicality. But outside specialized circles, and especially outside Mexico, his work has been little-known and less played. As this century turns, however, Revueltas is getting a second look, and Southern California's music scene is part of the reason.
Last year, the Los Angeles Philharmonic released a recording of Revueltas' music that was just nominated for a Grammy this month. More focused, ongoing attention has been paid to the Mexican icon up the road apiece, in Santa Barbara, courtesy of Uruguayan-born conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor. In her sixth season as head of the Santa Barbara Symphony, Ben-Dor has been making Revueltas part of her ensemble's mission for the last two years.
Since 1998, Ben-Dor has devoted one program a year on an eight or nine-program agenda to exploring Latin American composers. Revueltas always makes an appearance. First it was his ballet "La Coronela," which was also included on the orchestra's well-received debut all-Revueltas CD. In 1999, it was "La Noche de los Mayas" along with work by Rodrigo, Falla and Copland's "Danzon Cubano."
This season, Ben-Dor is upping the ante, with the four-day Silvestre Revueltas Music Festival starting Thursday. Built around two symphony concerts Saturday and next Sunday, the festival also includes lectures, chamber concerts, Mexican puppet theater, an exhibition of Revueltas' manuscripts and screenings of films he scored in the seminal movie-music era of the '30s.
Highlights include a performance of Revueltas' score for the short film "Redes" (Nets), along with a screening of the film in the orchestra's performance home, the Arlington Theater, and the U.S. premiere of Heitor Villa-Lobos' Symphony No. 10 "Amerindia" - Villa-Lobos was a Revueltas' counterpart in Brazil.
As a musician with Latin American roots and an abiding interest in music of our time, Ben-Dor has long been an avid Revueltas supporter. She feels that his music has been unfairly cast as being difficult. While he drew on elements of modernism - dissonance, jagged rhythms, polytonality - Revueltas also had a gift for tender, melodic writing.
Ben-Dor argues for Revueltas' place among 20th century stars. "You could point to Falla or you could use Bartok," she says. "There is so much of Stravinsky in his music, too. He uses the fold music idiom, so you could say also that there is a Copland-ish direction. He makes up his own tunes, in the form of the mariachi music or street bands or whatever. In that sense, as a real revolutionary, as an enfant terrible , he's very much like Ives. You can draw many comparisons, because there's a lot of variety in the music."
On New Year's Day, the affable Ben-Dor sat down for an interview at the beach-front hotel where the New Jersey resident stays while in Santa Barbara to lead the symphony. She spoke about the coming multifaceted festival and clutched a brochure protectively, saying, "It's my baby, and it was a lot of work. We have a lot of lollipops here, something for everyone, including children."
In a suave black outfit and a bright red sash, she looked none the worse for the Y2K wear, having led the symphony's annual New Year's Eve pops concert the night before. One of the confections in a lighthearted program was the conducting debut of her youngest son, 8-year-old Gabriel, guiding the orchestra in "It's a Small World" and "Do Re Mi." The rest of her family, husband Eli Ben-Dor and her other son Roy, was in the audience.
Ben-Dor, at 12, wasn't much older when she organized her friends in Montevideo, Uruguay, into a band and made herself the leader.
"I had no idea it could be a profession or that I would someday be doing this as a living. I had no role models. I didn't even know this was called conducting. It was completely instinctive. It's like a kid playing with blocks. He or she doesn't understand that one day they'll be an engineer."
Ben-Dor, the daughter of Polish immigrants, studied piano in her formative years and taught herself guitar, absorbing music, she says, "in both direction" - high art and street sounds. "As a kid, I played a lot of Latin American folk music, the music of the Andes, of Mexico, down south in Argentina and Uruguay where they have the same kind of folklore and Caribbean music. I played all of that apart from concertos and recitals."
She finished high school in Uruguay and moved to Israel with her family in 1973. Committed to learning the conductor's art, she studied at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music and at Yale, where she graduated in 1982. Things fell into place with a debut with the Israel Philharmonic in 1983 and the advocacy of Leonard Bernstein, who recognized her talent and brought her to the Tanglewood Young Artists Orchestra to hone her skills.
"I was one of the lucky ones," she says of that connection. "He had a passion for working with young people. I know it sounds like a cliché, and maybe even corny, but he was inspiring. It's not like you learned this or that gesture, or this point of view. It was his entire personality: This was a life that was devoted to music. [Without devotion], you can't survive in this profession. That fire is what keeps you going. It's treacherous, it's bumpy. Working with Bernstein was like a light along the way."
In addition to leading the Santa Barbara Symphony, Ben-Dor was chosen by the musicians of the Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra as their conductor. In recent years, she has developed a reputation as a versatile, adaptable guest conductor, not to mention one of the rare women in a world still dominated by maestros. She has led the New York Philharmonic a few times, most recently as a last-minute fill-in in March, leading Mahler's Fourth, without a score or rehearsal. In November, while in Santa Barbara lead the symphony, she got a last-minute call to head the Israel Philharmonic.
As much as she likes Latin music, Ben-Dor is quick to point out that her repertory covers a wide range of composers. "I do absolutely everything," she says, "and I enjoy it, too. I'm a Mahler-Beethoven-Brahms-Schumann conductor. I like all facets of the repertoire."
Still, she doesn't mind that she is becoming particularly known for 20th century Latin American music.
"I do it because it's natural for me to do it," she says. "It's my mother tongue."
She also brings a crusader's zeal to working with an underexposed niche of the classical repertory. "Think of all Latin American composers," she says, "and how little of their music is known. You have an entire continent that has been so fruitful, and we know so little about their music."
Ben-Dor recognizes that Latin American music's relative obscurity has to do with cultural geo-politics, and the Eurocentricity of classical music. "There is a big divide between north and south," she says. "These are countries that have struggled. They have enormous social, economic, sometimes geographical obstacles, and there has not been enough political muscle to get the music out. You cannot say it's the music, because there's a lot of great stuff out there."