La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 27 March 2014

"Copland and Mexico" in Austin, Texas

Maestro Peter Bay
Copland: Two Mexican Pieces
Copland: El Salón México
Chavez: Chapultepec (Three Famous Mexican Pieces)
Revueltas: Redes (complete with film)

Joseph Horowitz, scriptwriter and producer
Austin Symphony/Peter Bay

Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (a student at St. Edward’s College in Austin [1917-18]) and American composer Aaron Copland were born within months of each other - in December (1899) and November (1900), respectively. Both enjoyed considerable success in the 1930s, but while Copland went on to become one of the iconic figures in American music, Revueltas died of pneumonia, alcoholism, poverty and heartbreak, at the early age of 40; had he lived, Revueltas may well have become the Mexican Copland.

Composer Aaron Copland
This evening’s concert in Austin was part of a larger festival, “Copland and Mexico”, conceived by Joseph Horowitz, and presented last year by five different orchestras, music schools and galleries in the United States. Austin’s version of the festival involved the Austin Symphony, the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas and Danzonera Sierre Madre, a danzón orchestra from Monterrey, Mexico.

Copland's "Epiphany" 
The point of departure for “Copland and Mexico” was Aaron Copland’s visit to Mexico in 1932. According to Horowitz, Copland “had an epiphany” on this sojourn. Mexico, in the throes of the same depression that had brought the United States to its knees, was bubbling with revolutionary fervor, at the forefront of which were renowned artists and composers, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jose Orozco, David Siqueiros, Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas. These artists seized on the Marxist analysis of the plight of their country and worked to give the oppressed masses their fair share of power and wealth. Capitalist owners and managers, they argued through their art, had made a mess of things and it was time to give the working people a chance.

One example of what Mexican artists were doing can be seen in the 1936 film Redes. It tells the story of exploited fishermen in Veracruz and how they began to organize to fight back. Directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann with cinematography by Paul Strand and music by Revueltas, Redes, on the one hand, could be rejected as purely leftist propaganda; on the other, it might be seen as a worthy historical reminder that the Great Depression was real and it was devastating for many around the world. The work of Revueltas, Rivera and the others in Mexico, for example, was paralleled by some in the United States as F.D.R. attempted to lift the country out of despair. Largely through the WPA (Works Progress Administration), artists composers and film-makers were given the means to create works which expressed the mood of the times and hope for the future. Films such as The Plow That Broke the Plains, The River, The City (score by Copland), and Grapes of Wrath mirrored the mission of Redes in Mexico.  

Artists as Documentarists of the Human Condition
Although Copland himself never joined the Communist Party, he was an ardent progressive. He had initially been attracted to a group of like-minded artists, led by Alfred Stieglitz, whose members embraced the idea that artists needed to find a way to speak to the common man rather than merely to fellow artists and elites. American photographer Paul Strand was a member of this group. Invited by composer Carlos Chavez to form a team to make the film, he helped initiate the Redes project in Mexico.

Composer Silvestre Revueltas
Revueltas’ score for Redes is by no means simple folkloric material. From the opening bars it is uncompromising in its dissonance – a style well-suited to the material. While the performances in the film - by real fishermen rather than actors - are somewhat wooden, the honesty of the scenes portrayed, the starkness of the cinematography and the power of the music all combine to create a riveting experience.

The difficulty of synching live music performance to film footage cannot be underestimated - at one point the orchestra jumped in too early and completely drowned out a key line of dialogue – but Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony gave Revueltas’ music a fine performance. This live performance of the movie score added enormous depth and breadth to the film.

Unhappily, once again, patrons in the balcony had trouble seeing the images and the subtitles on the screen. I have passed on this complaint after similar ASO concerts in the past but management doesn’t seem to care.

These criticisms aside, Redes was definitely worth seeing.

An American Classic: "El Salón México" 
The highlight of the first half of the concert was the Austin Symphony performance of Copland’s El Salón México (a memento of his visit there in 1932), which draws on three Mexican popular songs. Copland retains the popular character of the songs but complicates them rhythmically and alters and combines them with great ingenuity. While principal Robert Cannon played his trumpet solos with panache, albeit with a somewhat heavy-handed vibrato, and the e-flat clarinet solos were far too timid for the spirit of the piece, this performance of El Salón México, nevertheless, confirmed its reputation as an American classic.

Composer Carlos Chavez
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the rest of the concert. Neither of the other works by Copland and Chavez on the program were from either composer’s top drawer; Chavez’ Sinfonia India would have been far more representative and made a stronger impression. Revueltas’ Sensemayá would also have been a better choice. A piece by a living Mexican composer, or by an American composer of Mexican heritage might have been better yet.

The first half of the concert also included some scripted material presented by Peter Bay and Robert Rowley, in conjunction with a screen backdrop of some washed-out, mostly black and white, historic photographs. This part of the program was all very superficial and in no significant way illuminated the theme - “Copland and Mexico”.

"Redes" and Revueltas Horowitz Highlight
One might conclude that this was yet another Joseph Horowitz project that proved less interesting in practice than in theory, were it not for Redes. Bay and the ASO deserve a good deal of credit for having the courage to present this neglected piece of history, which not only teaches us about our own history and the history of our closest neighbor, but also about what it means to be poor and robbed of basic human dignity.

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

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