GISÈLE BEN-DOR , conductor


Helsinki Sanomat

"I'll Always Suggest Revueltas"

Gisèle Ben-Dor Wanted to Conduct the Music of Mexico's Great Composer Silvestre Revueltas in Finland.

The name of Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) is well known to Finnish musical audiences thanks to Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has recorded with the Los Angeles Philharmonic a fine Revueltas disc nominated for the Grammy awards.

A real Revueltas specialist, though, is Uruguay-born Gisèle Ben-Dor, who is visiting for the second time as director of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. This great talent is, according to a Los Angeles Times music critic, "just the conductor we have been waiting for to make a really persuasive case for Latin composers."

Gisèle Ben-Dor would gladly have conducted Revueltas' music in the Helsinki concert, since this year Mexico celebrates Revueltas' 100th birthday. He was born on the last day of 1899, so Mexico chose the year 2000 to celebrate the centennial.

"I suggested Revueltas' music to the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra," [she says,] "and I always will - or [the music of] Alberto Ginastera from Argentina - but the orchestra had other ideas, and wanted me to conduct Haydn, Mozart, and Tschaikovsky. I agreed easily, and did not push Revueltas."

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra representative Helena Ahonen remembers the proposal for Revueltas: "The program was locked in when we secured Gisèle Ben-Dor. The association with her was so nice that we will surely invite her back, and next time there will be room for Revueltas."

Ben-Dor became acquainted with Revueltas only eight years ago, when she was asked to conduct "Sensemaya," Revueltas' most famous orchestral work.

Near Los Angeles in tiny Santa Barbara, Ben-Dor only recently directed a four-day festival of Revueltas' music, the first outside Mexico. The Santa Barbara Symphony's talented director had almost full-page coverage in the Los Angeles Times, with numerous sidebars.

With the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra, Gisèle Ben-Dor has recorded Revueltas' last work, the ballet music of "La Coronela" (The Lady Colonel).

"When we record Revueltas," [she says,] "I will stress quality over quantity. The famed 'Sensemaya' has been recorded many times."

"Sensemaya" (Snake-Killing Song), recorded by Salonen, is an enticement. Ben-Dor is familiar with the recording and treasures it.

"The Los Angeles Philharmonic is the first top orchestra to record Revueltas," [she says.] Salonen and his orchestra have brought to the public much-needed exposure to Revueltas' music."

In Uruguay, the country of her birth, Ben-Dor learned to play the piano, and fell in love with Latin-American popular music. To play it, she prcured a guitar, and began playing left-handed without changing the position of the strings, which were thus upside-down; and to this day, that is how she plays the guitar.

In 1973, the family moved to Israel, where Ben-Dor continued her musical education. She received her diploma as a conductor from Yale University in the U.S., where she had studied for two years.

"The quality of America's young culture is open-heartedness," [she says,] "therefore even as a woman I had no problem performing."

The bad part of America's young culture is a lack of recognition for their own popular music.

[Ben-Dor states:] "If an American composer uses America's classical music - that is, jazz - he is not taken seriously. European music is always taken seriously, even though it may have been popular music or folk music."

Gisèle Ben-Dor is taking a stand against that [attitude], and wishes that music education would be brought back into [U.S.] schools.


  • Mexican Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), a very talented musician, started very young. When he was five, his father bought him a violin and sent him to Texas to learn music. Later he studied in Chicago.
  • Revueltas was an excellent violinist. In 1929 he founded the Texas Symphony Orchestra in San Antonio. From there, Carlos Chavez, director of Mexico's National Conservatory of Music, asked him to become co-director of the Mexico City Symphony Orchestra and professor of violin at the National Conservatory.
  • Revueltas was an idealist who believed socialism was the cure for his country's ills. He organised concerts for children and workers.
  • In his composition, he explored thoughts and expressions from the forces of nature. He tried everything, the natures and rhythms of life.
  • Revueltas' boiling and explosive works were rhythmic and melodic, with country and city music, Indian lamentations, children's songs, military fanfares, influenced by Europe and modern composers [like] Stravinsky, Bartok and French neo-classicists.
  • Roberto Kolb-Neuhaus, professor of music at Mexico City University, regarded Revueltas' music as "organized chaos" and a musical "flea market."
  • In 1937 Revueltas became Chief Secretary for the Writers and Artists [Movement] during Spain's revolution. He followed the Republican heroes' devastating battles and during the Civil War gave many successful concerts.
  • At the end of 1937, Revueltas returned to Mexico. The Spanish Civil War had affected him so deeply that he became manic-depressive, which ultimately led to his death. Alcoholism added to his depression. He was hospitalised for alcoholism as well as mental imbalance, for which he received electro-shock therapy.
  • Revueltas kept composing until the end, and wrote film scores. He believed his music had a future.

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© 2011 Gisele Ben-Dor. All rights reserved.