Santa Barbara's Gisèle Ben-Dor makes her case
by Richard S. Ginell
Until not too long ago, Silvestre Revueltas, the incorrigible, left-leaning, wildly gifted and, alas, alcoholic Mexican composer, languished in the shadow of his onetime friend and eventual rival Carlos Chavez - known mostly, if at all, for the brief, rocking socking tone poem Sensemaya . Euro/North American disdain toward music from the Latin world had something to do with this neglect - and no doubt Revuletas also made powerful enemies during a turbulent life that ended ignominiously and prematurely at age 40.
He was born New Year's Eve 1899, and would have had a good, bitter last laugh had he lived until his centenary. In Southern California at least, he is becoming a hero to Latinos and anxious marketing types trying to build an audience for classical music from that group; indeed Sensemaya is practically basic repertoire here now. Isa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic put out a decent CD survey of his music (Sony) last year, and Revueltas has gone over well at the Chandler Pavilion and the Hollywood Bowl. Yet it was Santa Barbara that has produced the most impressive Revueltas project so far - a four-day festival of orchestra nad chamber music concerts, lectures, films, exhibits of manuscripts, US premieres - the works - from January 20 to 23.
Gisèle Ben-Dor, the Urugay-born music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony, had pushed for this festival for years, and after accumulating goodwill chits from the local audience while sprinkling increasing amounts of Revueltas ino her programs, she finally went for broke, pulling in several of the small city's performing arts organizations. She is the most persuasive Revueltas conductor I've ever heard, completely in touch with the sarcastic wit, the malicious bite, the bounce of the rhythms, the strong Mexican folk flavor, and in some of the film music, the stirring heroism. She also has a strong constitution; at one point, she led four concerts in a span of roughly 25 hours, two of them virtually back-to-back.
The festival's final day offered the greatest concentration of music by far, starting with a family concert that banished the old stereotype of easy-listening, spoon-fed warhorses designed for short attention spans. Ben-Dor and a small band of players from the Santa Barbara Symphony delivered such tough little workouts as Planos and the rare, chamber-sized, shortened edition of Sensemaya , both of them without compromise and with especially barbed menace in the latter. She enhanced, but did not sweeten, the deal by sharing the split stage of the aging yet acoustically solid Santa Barbara Junior High Auditorium with shadow dancers Maria and Carmen Solis in Planos , and the colorful, bizarre antics of the Espiral Puppet Theater in Sensemaya . In league with a somewhat confusing display by the puppets, she made some news with the US premiere of the unfinishsed incidental music to Once Upon a Time There Was a King - one of Revuletas' last works, discovered only in late 1999 - whose nifty rhythmic mockery reminded me of L'Histoire du Soldat . The concluding Wandering Tadpole unleashed more sarcastic humor and polyrhythmic Mexican brio.
Stepping away from Revueltas, but not the Latin agenda, at the Arlington Theater down-town, Ben-Dor led the first US performance of Villa-Lobos' huge, rambling, restless, unabashedly melodic Symphony No. 10, Amerindia , which takes the composer's usual lushly foliated mannerisms and multiplies them over a 58-minute span. Seeminly taking his cue from Mahler to embrace an entire world. Villa-Lobos wrote an exotic "Symphony of a Thousand" for the founding of Sao Paulo that could double as a travelog, using a large orchestra, three choruses, three vocal soloists, and a wild tri-lingual text (in Portuguese, Latin, and Tup Indian dialect) punctuated by erotic, wind-swept, wordless choral swoops. Ben-Dor was scheduled to make the first-ever recording of the piece for Koch International here after the festival, and she evidently grasped its vast, buckling dimensions completely, though the Santa Barbara Symphony showed some audible strain.
The gusty, long-winded Villa-Lobos gave way in the second half to the earnestly crusading side of Revueltas with a screening of the 1935 film Redes (or "Nets"), accompanied by a live performance of his reconstructed cures. Along with obvious period agitprop elements - poor Mexican fishermen trying to unionize against greedy middlemen - the film contains striking imagery of the sea and skies, and Revueltas' first-rate score, one of the most satisfying every written for film, packs a heroic emotional punch. The performance was in almost perfect sync with the film, right down to matching the rhythm of the rowboats.
While the Arlington was packed for this spectacular, only a handful turned out at the junior high for the concluding concert of zesty Revueltas chamber orchestra pieces (it was, after all, a rainy Sunday night before a work day). Ben-Dor and the very good Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra could claim another US premiere with the string orchestra version of the Aztec-flavored Cuauhnahuac - which is quite different from the more common orchestral edition, lengthier by about five minutes, with a quiet ending for solo cello and double bass instead of the razzmatazz orchestral coda. Ben-Dor's performance was packed with vigorous rhythmic feeling and in the more lyrical pentatonic stretches, a Copland-like sense of vastness.
The more or less familiar Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca was given a bumping, raucous, streetwise performance full of sass and vinegar. Ben-Dor brought out the discordant hijinks in the clownish pratfalls of Troka - Revueltas could be as funny as Shostakovich - and concluded with the homier country scenes and mysterious cues of Musica Para Charlar (from the documentary Ferrocarriles de Baja California ).
As a festival nightcap, the marvelous Mexican percussion group Tambuco delivered some choice, swinging minimalism (Graham Fitkin's Hook ); a piece for four scrapers played in the physical positions of a string quartet (Leopoldo Novoa's Sabe como e? ); a surprisingly satisfying piece for three musicians playing a table - or table-six-hands, as it were (Thierry de May's Musique de Tables ); and a mesmerizing ritual (Eduardo Soto-Millan's Corazon Sur ) for quartets of drums, woodblocks, cowbells, and crotales.
I'm convinced that the current mushrooming interest in Latin music of all idioms, coupled with burgeoning Latino population statistics, is going to produce a bumper crop of Latin American classical music devotees, soon. And with this triumphant Revueltas Festival, along with recordings like 1998's sizzling Conifer disc of Ginastera's complete Estancia , Gisèle Ben-Dor promises to be a major player in that ballpark.