GISÈLE BEN-DOR , conductor


Scherzo Music Review (Madrid)

Revueltas Festival in California

From the 20th to the 23rd of January 2000, the small city of Santa Barbara celebrated a Revueltas Festival promoted by the active Gisèle Ben-Dor, [musical] director of the city's symphony orchestra, steadily committed to the programming of Latin-American music. Performance of the Mexican composer's music (whose 100th birthday was on December 31, 1999) in the United States can be appreciated in two ways: as a genuine revelation to an Anglo-Saxon public ignorant of the very existence of his transcendental figure in the art of 20th-century Mexican music; and as the possibility of preserving a cultural legacy which the numerous Mexican immigrants in California are in danger of losing. The double purpose was implemented by an intelligent and appealing apportionment of events among the most interesting spots in the city: the University of [California at] Santa Barbara (where Karl Geiringer worked), the old Franciscan Mission, [the] Arlington Theatre (an astonishing specimen of neo-Andalucian or "Spanish" Californian architecture), and other theatres and auditoriums.

As noted in two fascinating lectures by the Mexican Professor Roberto Kolb-Neuhause (of Viennese ancestry) - one of the world's greatest authorities on Revueltas' music, who is currently preparing a critical edition - the composer's style is most advanced and original in his chamber works, much as his film work remains within a more conventional structure. Nevertheless, inclusion in the Festival of three films with Revueltas scores furnished the opportunity of bringing [his film music] to a wider public, as films continue generating great interest in the United States. Vamonos con Pancho Villa (Fernando de Puentes, 1935) relies on a "Mexicanistic" score that eloquently illustrates the pessimistic image of the Revolution as devouring its own offspring. One sequence allows a fleeting glimpse of Revueltas as a piano player in a bar. La noche de los mayas (Chano Ureta, 1939) spurred the composer into a slightly stereotyped mixture of fabricated pre-Columbian music, but the picture's very script is another commonplace - a Mayan tribe living in Arcadian bliss until its encounter with the corrupting white man. Nor is plot the most important aspect of Redes (Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1934), a formidable achievement on the aesthetic plane - "a mural painted in movement," as Professor Kolb-Neuhaus put it - to accompany a naïve attempt to organise a trade union encouraged by the government. Enhancing the spare dialogue, Ben-Dor and the Santa Barbara Symphony brought alive Revueltas' poetic and effective music, with first-rate synchronization. The other work on the program, Villa-Lobos' Tenth Symphony, had a rather pallid reading (impaired by the Arlington's poor acoustics), for a work more of effects than of true musical content. Another Villa-Lobos work programmed for the Festival met better fortune - the Quartet No.5, in the care of nameless group (members of the Symphony), possessing a contagious rhythmic vitality. The two Revueltas works interpreted by these musicians, Quartets Nos. 2 and 4, received vibrating approaches that made clear the modernity of their dissonances and "stridencies." The session also included Clocks (1998), for piano (Alfredo Oyaguez) and strings, an amusing work, ingenuous to a degree, of Miguel del Aguila.

A varied chamber ensemble (similarly drawn from the city's orchestra) played a most interesting panorama of Revueltas' most advanced (and humourous) music - Ocho por radio, Tragedia en forma de rabano (no is plagio) [Tragedy in the Form of a Radish, No Plagiarism Intended], and Toccata sin fuga - meeting as many difficult challenges as before, thanks to their musicality. It is in these pieces that Revueltas' personality is unique in its syncretism, which sets him apart as much from the "Mexicanistic" reference as from the European tradition.

The offering for the children's audience (which turned out en masse ), with the Espiral Puppet Theatre, the percussion group Tambuco, and members of the Santa Barbara Symphony led by Gisèle Ben-Dor, was surely the most successful, with respect to the Festival's second sociological objective. Besides the delicious realisations of Once There Was a King and The Wandering Tadpole (a work Revueltas himself introduced during his stay in Spain in 1937, in the midst of the civil war), perhaps most interesting was the opportunity to become acquainted with the chamber version of Sensemaya , a version that reduces the strength and colouring of the original symphonic poem, but which cleverly adapts itself in juxtaposition to a puppet theatre.

The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, with the indefatigable Ben-Dor, who conducted three concerts that day, also put up on their music stands other typical works from the Revueltas catalogue: Cuauhnahuac , Homage to Federico Garcia Lorca (a score also introduced to some Spanish audiences during the [civil] war), and Musica para charlar . The astonishing percussion quartet Tambuco, capable of making music only with their arms and a table, was in charge of the second part of this concert: Thierry de May's Musique de tables , in which they began to frame a fugue, and then, with Eduardo Soto-Millan's Corazon Sur , proceeded to plunge the audience completely into a magic ritual.

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© 2011 Gisele Ben-Dor. All rights reserved.