June 5, 1999
Revueltas' Modernist Vision Spices Up the Latin
By Bradley Bambarger
LA VIDA LOCA: With Latin music getting its day in the
sun, it's nice that we have something to celebrate besides
Ricky Martin. Particularly, there is Silvestre Revueltas,
the greatest of Mexican composers, whose crazy, creative
life began on Dec. 31, 1899. Revueltas is in many ways
the musical analog to iconic muralist Diego Rivera;
his modernist art divines the spirits of Mexican folklore
to forge an original and vibrant vision, one simultaneously
earthy and surreal in true Day of the Dead manner. Although
steamy and colorful, Revueltas' primal mosaics are far
from pictured-postcard romanticism, convulsing as they
do with what he described as the "rhythm of life."
Along with his hallucinatory music, the hazy historical
record has helped to reincarnate Revueltas as a mythic
character. The ephemeral details of his life have been
woven into legend, heightened by an early, dissolute
end. Brought up in Mexico's rural Durango province,
Revueltas learned the violin at a young age. He went
on to study in Chicago and lead a theater orchestra
in San Antonio before joining nationalist composer Carlos
Chavez in introducing contemporary music to Mexico City
in the '20s. Filled with revolutionary fervor, he also
spent time fighting fascism in Spain. The last years
of his life were fraught with troubles, and Revueltas
suffered an alcoholic's death in 1940.
In the preceding decade, though, Revueltas had been
prolific, writing intense theatrical scores and such
concert masterpieces as "Sensemayá," a percussive, ritualistic
work that sounds like Stravinsky after swallowing a
tequila-soaked worm. "Sensemayá" went on to win favor
as an orchestra showpiece - and as a feature on disc
from Leonard Bernstein's New York Philharmonic recording
in 1963 (Sony Classical) to more recent Latin samplers
by Michael Tilson Thomas and his New World Symphony
(Argo) and Enrique Batiz and the Festival Orchestra
Of Mexico (Naxos). The world has been slow to catch
up to the rest of Revueltas' Peer Music catalog, although
the stage was set for the centennial with pioneering
sets issued in the mid-'90s: "Night Of The Mayas," a
historic compilation on Catalys/BMG; "Musica De Feria,"
a New Albion disc of the four string quartets played
by the excellent Cuarteto Latinoamericano; and a Dorian
album featuring the volcanic film score "Redes" as rendered
by the late Eduardo Mata and the Simón Bolivar Symphony.
That's not to mention a sharply played and beautifully
recorded album issued this spring by Sony. Esa-Pekka
Salonen leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in "Sensemayá,"
"Ventanas," and the suite from the film score "La Noche
De Los Mayas," and he directs the Philharmonic's New
Music Group in "Homenaje A Federico García Lorca," "Ocho
Por Radio," and two "Little Serious Pieces." The Los
Angeles band will perform the kaleidoscopic "La Noche
De Los Mayas" at the Hollywood Bowl in August, as well
as on tour in Mexico.
But the current leader in the recognition of Revueltas
is the Uruguayan-born American conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor.
She is in the last year of a decade-long tenure as director
of Boston's Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, a group that
has made a name for itself with fresh repertoire. And
as music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony for
the past four years, she has revitalized the California
band (and its audience), specifically by incorporating
Hispanic music. One of the highlights of last year was
Ben-Dor's disc of Revueltas rarities with Santa Barbara
on Koch, the orchestra's debut recording. The album
features a premiere take on Revueltas' final work, the
richly melodic ballet "La Coronela," as well as the
trippy, expressionistic "Itinerios" and more typically
In October, Ben-Dor leads the Camerata De Las Americas
in a Revueltas program in Mexico City. And following
up her earlier staging of "La Coronela," she is planning
an ambitious Revueltas festival for next season in Santa
Barbara that will not only feature the major orchestral
works but the long-unseen films that he scored and concerts
of his chamber pieces and children's music. Ben-Dor
admits that it took some talking to get Santa Barbara
to open its ears to an obscure Latin American modern.
But she is a persuasive advocate.
"I've always believed that some of the best classical
music comes from folk roots," Ben-Dor says. "Beethoven,
Bartók, De Falla - they were all inspired by the music
of their countries. Revueltas is often called the Mexican
De Falla, and you can hear Mexico in him as you can
hear Spain in De Falla. And that is why once people
get a chance to hear a Revueltas piece, they love it.
Whether it happens to be violent or satiric or lyrical,
the audience hears something they recognize, something
they can grab on to. His music communicates immediately.
People in Santa Barbara are still talking about the
times we played 'La Noche De Los Mayas.'"
Beyond Revueltas, Ben-Dor has also programmed the works
of Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, and Ginastera in Santa Barbara.
Koch issued her first Ginastera album in '95, and she
has followed up on Conifer/BMG with a Ginastera disc
with the London Symphony Orchestra that features the
ballets "Panambí" and "Estancia," the latter appearing
complete for the first time. For her next Conifer recording,
she plans to essay rarely heard Villa-Lobos with Santa
Barbara. Ben-Dor has also been the prime mover behind
building a living repertoire of Hispanic concert music;
the Santa Barbara Symphony has commissioned works by
Americans Robert Rodriguez and Miguel d'Aguila.
Yet Ben-Dor is more than just a Latin specialist. More
than once, she has filled in at the last minute with
the New York Philharmonic - most recently conducting
the Mahler Fourth without rehearsal and to rave reviews.
(Impressed, music director Kurt Masur has tapped her
as his backup on the Philharmonic's summer 2000 tour
of Europe.) But with her South American background and
world-class experience, Ben-Dor does feel that she can
make a case for Latin American composers that has gone
"There has obviously been a political prejudice against
classical music from the Third World," Ben-Dor says.
"And with the countries often just struggling to survive,
culture didn't have a chance to get out. It is true
even with Spain. Italian opera is famous around the
world, but Spanish Zarzuela is hardly known - and there
are zarzuela masterpieces to rival those of Italian
opera. Also, conductors tend to champion their own music,
and Latin America has produced very few conductors.
I know that if I had not left Uruguay to study in Tel
Aviv and America, I would not be doing what I am now."
With invitations to conduct Revueltas in Italy and
Ginastera in Finland and Switzerland, Ben-Dor is chasing
her passions around the world from her family base in
New Jersey. She has an upcoming concert in Mexico City
with a program devoted to female composers, including
Clara Schumann, the unsung Vita Kapralova (a Czech who,
if she hadn't died young in World War II, "would've
been another Janacek," Ben-Dor says) and Teresa Carreno
(a 19th-century Venezuelan, whose String Quartet Ben-Dor
has transcribed for chamber orchestra). Ben-Dor's wish
list includes a recording dedicated to Uruguayan composers.
"We have to balance the old favorites with the new and
unusual," she says. "And I believe you can capture people's
imaginations with anything that is done well and with
conviction. As Mendelssohn did for Bach and Bernstein
for Mahler, you must champion what you believe in."