A Conversation with Conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor
by James Reel
The Uruguayan conductor has made a point of playing composers from South of the US border, and her three most recent recording have revolved around the music of Revueltas (La Coronela and other pieces on Koch International) and Ginastera (the complete ballets Pananmbi and Estancia on Conifer/BMG, and the Variaciones concertantes and both versions of the Casals Glosses on Koch International Classics). In January, Ben-Dor managed to combine her taste for Latin American music with her proclivity for getting into unusual situations; she organized a four-day festival in Santa Barbara, California, celebrating the centenary of Revueltas with concerts, exhibits, and even a puppet show.
... it's always good to hear unusual music performed by artists with ideas rather than by diligent sight readers. And Ben-Dor has brought plenty of her own ideas to her latest project for Koch, Villa-Lobos's nearly hour-long Symphony No. 10, called Amerindia or Sumè Pater Patrium...
Michael Fine, who produced this recording and two of Ben-Dor's earlier Latin American CDs, describes it as a "Brazilian Symphony of a Thousand." Ben-Dor and the Santa Barbara Symphony gave its premiere in January during their Revueltas festival (this happens to be the 500th anniversary of the founding of Brazil)...
"The audience loved it, even though there is so much in it, so much variety, it really hard to apprehend the whole thing at first, and it can be a lot of work for the listener," says Ben-Dor. "The sonic world is immense..."
"Villa-Lobos was very famous for his melodic invention and his exotic colors. He was extraordinary, because he was self-taught as a musician, and he developed his own style very early and maintained it thoughout the rest of his life. Other composers experimented and went back and forth with their styles, like Copland or Stravinsky or even Ginastera. If you listen to the first Ginastera...
"But Villa-Lobos was basically the same composer from the beginning. He wrote hundreds of pieces, but we know him only from Bachianas brasileiras, the Choros, maybe the Guitar Concerto. What else do people know about him? Now its true that he could be esoteric; some of his other symphonies are not as appealing as this one. But even though this music is very obscure, the audience in Santa Barbara loved it on the first hearing. Sure it's huge and confusing, but what would you say the first time you heard a Mahler symphony?"...
Michael Fine, a highly experienced and efficient producer, found recording the work a bit daunting. "we had only one day to do the recording, we were using three amateur choirs, and the shell wouldn't expand over the whole orchestra and the choirs," he recalls. Because of the scores riotousness and difficulty, fine left the session with a lot of short takes to piece together. Yet he never doubted Ben-Dor's ability to pull off the performance. He'd recorded her in Revueltas and Ginastera with the London Symphony Orchestra during what amounted to sight-reading sessions, and he wasn't the only person impressed by Ben-Dor's ability to assemble a compelling performance of unusual music in minimal time. " I've dragged a lot of conductors through London, and most of them are forgotten there in five minutes, " he says. "But she made such an impact on that orchestra. At the end, the principal bassist stood up and gave a speech about how much they appreciated working with her." ...
"Gisèle Ben-Dor is one of the best things that has ever happened to the music of the southern hemisphere."
"...I hope Villa Lobos would have liked it," she says "But it's not like I've changed any notes. i think we have done the composer justice. It comes to life, every detail of color, we've been very picky with the sound, bringing out the details in the orchestration. It's a fantastic sound world: you can compare it to a more transparent Richard Strauss. There are many contrapuntal lines at the same time, but they all stand clear; it's not like you are engulfed in the texture. And you can hear that variety of sound worlds within one bar. That's one of the strengths of the score. Now, anybody who looking for a symphony in the Beethoven or Brahms sense, a masterpiece of structure, is looking at the wrong piece. I think 'symphony' may be a misnomer here; villa-Lobos also called it an oratorio. The first movement is for orchestra only, so perhaps that is why the term "symphony" appealed to him. It's a hybrid work, but I hope that people will enjoy it for what it is - and the opportunities for enjoyment are immense, with the wealth of invention, and it's not a pretentious piece. Much of it is restrained, very personal, like the arias in the Requiem of Verdi." ...
She hopes that two of her most substantial current projects will result in Koch International recordings. This past August and September she gave the European premiere of Ginastera's last opera, Beatrix Cenci, with the Geneva Opera, and in November is Ginastera's Turbae ad Passionem Gregorianam, a Passion for orchestra, chorus (including children), and soloists. She may claim not to be a Latin American specialist, but Gisèle Ben-Dor is one of the best things that has ever happened to the music of the southern hemisphere.
Symphony No. 10 - Amerindia
review by Paul Snook
"All lovers of Villa-Lobos should feel unparalleled gratitude and admiration for this spectacular endeavour."
Probably the most significant aspect of this electrifying premiere recording of Villa-Lobos's most challenging symphony is the enormous effort and dedication that have gone into realizing this problematic score...there are some characteristically marvelous portion of this unwieldy work: the first three more compact movements of this five-movement religio-historico-metaphysical pageant - comprising about 40% of the score and beginning with an all-orchestra overture, "The Earth and its Creatures," followed by two hair-raising fast sections marked "War Cry" and "Scherzo" and introducing the "Voice of the Earth - Amerindio" as the guiding spirit of the goings-on - these contain some excellent pages of the mature Villa-Lobos as an absolute virtuoso of the large-scale choral-orchestral forces at his disposal operating at the height of his overwhelmingly semi-improvisational powers...one must salute this recording for its near-miraculous recovery of an important part of the Villa-Lobos Heritage. Given the performance's masterful blend of forcefulness and control over its vast scale, it is now obvious that conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor has transformed the Santa Barbara Symphony into a first-tier ensemble, and her numerous collaborators - three soloists and three different choral groups - make their contributions on the same exhaulted plane of energetic advocacy and sheer professionalism.
All lovers of Villa-Lobos should feel unparalleled gratitude and admiration for this spectacular endeavour.