La Scena Musicale

Monday, 22 November 2010

Austin Symphony Celebrates Mexico!

Last weekend (November 19 and 20) the Austin Symphony under music director Peter Bay presented an all-Mexican programme. And there was a good reason for it. This year, Mexico is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its independence, and the 100th anniversary of its revolution. A big year for Mexico and President Calderon duly named it “Año de la Patria.”
Surprisingly, given the inspiration for this concert, there was virtually nothing in the programme book to let the audience know what it was all about. All we got were the cryptic words “Mexico’s 200/100” on the main programme page.
Surely a concert such as this provides not only an opportunity to preach to the choir, presumably the Hispanic population in Austin – about 30% of the city’s total population - but also to educate the wider public. At a time when all we hear about Mexico these days is illegal immigration, murders and drug cartels, it is even more important to try to convey a positive message.
For the record, readers might be interested to know that one of the Austin Symphony’s performances fell on November 20, the very day that Mexicans celebrate as the start of the revolution in 1910. So important is this day that in all the Mexican state capitals and many other cities besides, giant clocks were installed in the main squares this year to count down the hours and days to November 20.
Folk Music of Mexico Goes Classical
All the music chosen for this concert had folkloric elements. It was Antonin Dvořák, during an extended residency in the United States in the 1890s, who advised American composers to find their own voice through study of the indigenous folk music of their own country. Eventually, that advice began to bear fruit as composers such as Charles Ives and Aaron Copland did just that.
In Mexico, the same thing happened and a powerful new Mexican classical music began to emerge in works like ChavezSinfonia India (1935). Then came some of the composers represented in the Austin Symphony’s Mexican concert: Silvestre Revueltas and his score for the film Redes ( 1935); Blas Galindo and his Sones de Mariachi (1940); Manuel Ponce and his Violin Concerto (1942) and Moncayo’s Huapango (1941). The other work on the programme, Arturo MárquezDanzon No. 2 dates from 1994, and it too shows folkloric influence. Interestingly, while Aaron Copland was busy creating a distinctly American music, he also found time to show Mexicans the way in his El Salón México (1933).
The concert began with Galindo’s Sones de Mariachi. As the title would indicate, this is music suggesting the sound of the mariachi band. We hear the familiar guitars and trumpets, but not much in the way of development. Although this piece is little more than a transcription, it was nevertheless a pleasant way to open the concert. The trumpet section showed a nice appreciation of authentic mariachi style in their use of a wide vibrato at every opportunity.
Masterful Performance of Pedantic Ponce Piece
Next came Ponce’s Violin Concerto, a much more substantial piece. Ponce was best known in his lifetime for the song Estrellita, and he incorporates elements of the song into the slow movement of the concerto. Unfortunately, the rest of the piece is pretty pedantic and uninspired. It sounds like the work of an academic fulfilling his tenure requirements. Surprisingly, for a Mexican composer of this period with so much lively folk material to draw on, the rhythms are dull and plodding. No wonder it is seldom played. Ponce seemed to be at his best in the short guitar pieces he wrote for Andres Segovia.
The soloist in the concerto was Francisco Ladrón de Guevara-Finck, a young Mexican violinist who studied with Dorothy Delay at Juilliard and who has won several international competitions. He showed great command of his instrument and a beautiful tone. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine him making a major career unless he reconsiders how he presents himself. To come out on stage with wrinkled clothes, baggy pants and unshined shoes makes one wonder about his maturity, and his respect for his colleagues and for the audience. And did I mention that he didn’t bother to comb his hair? The nodding and grimacing didn’t make the music sound any better either.
Brilliant Revueltas and Mesmerizing Moncayo!
After intermission Peter Bay conducted a suite from the film Redes (Nets) by Revueltas. Even without benefit of seeing the film, one can imagine very well the scenes described in the music. Revueltas had a real talent for vividly capturing drama in just a few pages of music. Interestingly, Revueltas spent some time living in the United States including almost a year in Austin (1917-18 not 1916-18 as stated by David Mead in his programme notes for this concert) studying at what is now St. Edward’s University (for more about Revueltas in Austin see below). Sadly, Revueltas ruined his health and his career by drinking too much and died at the age of only 40.
The concert ended with two folkloric showpieces. The first of them, Márquez’s Danzon No. 2 is well-known as one of Gustavo Dudamel’s party pieces with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. It begins as a slow tango and builds to exciting climaxes. Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony played it brilliantly and the audience loved it. Finally, came Moncayo’s Huapango. The folk music on which it is based comes from the state of Veracruz. There is an important part for the harp recalling the arpa jarocha from that region. The climax of the piece comes in a thrilling call and answer sequence between trumpet and trombone.
Both the Danzon No. 2 and Huapango are based on the idea of taking a catchy rhythm, repeating it incessantly and ultimately culminating in loud climaxes. Sounds a lot like Ravel’s Bolero, doesn’t it? But while each piece succeeds in what it sets out to do, I wonder about programming them back to back. Having heard one of them, the other coming right after inevitably sounds anticlimactic.
It must be said, however, that the Austin Symphony was in great form throughout the concert and had complete control of some very complex rhythms. Peter Bay prepared everything with his usual attention to detail and found poetry and excitement in all the right places. And the tempo he set for Huapango was bracing, to say the least.
For Something More…
Readers interested in knowing more about Revueltas’ time in Austin are referred to Lorenzo Candelaria’s article in American Music (Vol.22 No. 4 Winter, 2004), “Silvestre Revueltas at the Dawn of His 'American Period'”: St. Edward’s College, Austin, Texas (1917-1918). This article provides not only significant detail about the composer’s student days in Austin, but also about musical life in Austin in those early years. Revueltas was eighteen when he lived in Austin and attended school for only one year, a period of about ten months. At the school, and in Austin generally, he was known as a gifted violinist, and according to Candelaria, had not yet written any music of substance.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."

Photo by Marita

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