GISÈLE BEN-DOR , conductor


Le Monde de la Musique

Silvestre Revueltas in Santa Barbara

The man who had time.

Departed prematurely at the age of 40, Silvestre Revueltas' legacy to posterity consists of forty scores of sarcastic and cubist inspiration. His reputation, however, is submerged in an ocean of misunderstanding. Sixty years later, what has remained of this non-conformist's music?

"Rest, my brother, your journey is over ... the American stars are now your homeland". Was Pablo Neruda intent in immortalizing the Mexcian musician with this eulogy, the day after Silvestre Revueltas' death, on October 5, 1940? "From this day on, the entire Earth shall be your home", said Neruda before the dedication: "To Silvestre Revueltas of Mexico, in death".

Despite this tribute from a Nobel Prize in Literature, posterity has been slow in recognizing, or even acknowledging Revueltas. A Festival in his honor allowed us to revisit his contribution. For the centenary of his birth, conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor scheduled the composer's major works in Santa Barbara. Thus, the Revueltas Festival was born of the inveterate will of Gisèle Ben-Dor and the enthusiastic work of an entire community. In four days, there were nine concerts to discover all of Revueltas' facets.

Originally from Uruguay, Gisèle Ben-Dor has long championed the works of Latin American composers. Since becoming Music Director of the Santa Barbara Symphony in 1994, she has become the convincing advocate of Arturo Marquez, Miguel del Aguila, Mario Lavista, Leonardo Velasquez, Roberto Rodriguez, Javier Alvarez, Gabriela Ortiz and, especially, Alberto Ginastera, Villa Lobos, and, of course, Silvestre Revueltas, whose last score, "La Coronela", she conducted in a world premiere recording. It is not easy to restore a composer's image, having died sixty years ago, scarcely known and seldom played outside of his own country. Even here (in the United States), the social walls do not allow the Mexican community - significant in Santa Barbara - to overcome the barriers which separate it from the event, or to create a populist, welcomed audience. Only the free family concert attracted young Mexicans, thanks to the Espiral Puppet Theatre of Mexico, a historic ensemble for whome Revueltas wrote the delightful Sensemaya (1937). The success with this large audience provided an element of feed-back. Elsewhere, at the Arlington Theatre (of Hispanic inspiration), the evening attracted a very large audience composed essentially of elderly Americans. After Villa Lobos' American premiere of "Amerindia", conducted by Gisèle Ben-Dor, it was the projection of the celebrated film "Redes" ("Nets") by Fred Zimmerman, accompanied live by the SBS, which provided the most striking experience. The score combines urban polyrhythmic music and popular styles like "Mariachi", where trumpets, clarinets and tuba play an essential role. The dramatic power of the music in "Redes" surpasses that of other film scores, such as "Vamonos con Pancho Villa" or "La Noche de los Mayas". In these cases, it would be interesting to judge the impact of the music by juxtaposing the ensemble as a big symphony.

The attending musicologists, specializing in Revueltas, communicated their surprise that the spiritual connection between Revueltas, Poulenc, Weill or Varese is never mentioned. Another forte of the Festival was an evening dedicated to Revueltas' chamber music. "Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca" (1936) is a passionate score, as much as Cuauhnahuac (1931), and particularly the delirious "Musica para Charlar" (1938), a resonant episode depicting a train traveling through South California.

Revueltas' music is a mosaic of ingenious motifs linked by a discourse alternatively fluid and abrupt. His compositions, always surprising, are brief kaleidoscopes. His four string quartets do not exceed a maximum of 37 altogether. This is what makes Revueltas' posterity a problematic matter, a fact which could be noted at the Festival: a program entirely consecrated to his works would saturate the year with a multitude of ideas. His longest work, "La Coronela", lasts 35 minutes, but most of his other works do not exceed 10 minutes or so. Revueltas started composing frantically only ten years before his death. He believed he had time . However, as remarked by Octavio Paz, "in Silvestre lived several interlocutors, many passions, numerous abilities, weaknesses, but also refinement. He gave his work a wealth of possibilities and pulsations. The sound of a first chord is like the first ray of light escaping from a world in formation." What shall the future of Revueltas' music be, composed as it is, of brief and diverse universes?

One must admire the courage of the organizers and of the musicians, who had to assimilate a mountain of scroes, so as to transmit Gisèle Ben-Dor's enthusiasm, her talent as a colorist, and her sense of rhythm. Her precise direction reflects all the joy or the tenderness contained in this music. It would be interesteing for a European orchestra to include some of Revueltas' works in carefully designed programs, where the Mexican composer could be played alongside Varese, Poulenc, and why not, Webern and Berg. Let us not forget that Essa-Pekka Salonen has recorded some Revueltas' works in a disc which was awarded a "Choc" by Le Monde de la Musique in 1999 ...


Born on December 31, 1899, in Santiago Papasquiaro, a small town south of Chihuahua. His tahter gave him a violin on his fifth birthday. Silvestre grew up during the strains of the Mexican Revolution, during which music was to find its national identity, just as mural paintings did. This idea will later impregnate his entire work. Revueltas studied violin and composition in Mexico, and later in the US. During the early 20's, he founded and led an orchestra in San Antonio. Composition was for Revueltas no more than a sporadic excersise then. He first works, "Batik" (1926) and "Piece for Orchestra" (1929) attracted the attention of his friends (including Carlos Chavez), who encouraged him to take a larger step in the art of composition.

At Chavez' invitation, Revueltas became assistant conductor of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra (1925-35). "Cuauhnahuac", composed in 1931, was the work that launched a short but intense creative life. In 1937, he traveled to Europe, conducting his music there and championing the republican cause. After a quarrel with Carloz Chavez, Revueltas survived thanks to his movie scores. He died in 1940, of pneumonia aggravated by alcoholism.

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© 2011 Gisele Ben-Dor. All rights reserved.