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His Compositions Are Spiked

Robert Xavier Rodriguez, whose 'Hot Buttered Rumba' will premiere at OCPAC's gala, wants his music to have it all.

September 08, 1996|Josef Woodard | Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Calendar

What becomes a 10th anniversary most? Tonight, the Orange County Performing Arts Center will be celebrating its first decade of cultural service with an event of gala proportions. The musical fare will include such artists as mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, baritone Gino Quilico and pianist Emanuel Ax, in performance with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Carl St.Clair, all framed by a champagne reception to open the festivities and a dinner dance to follow.

Because cultural celebrations of this magnitude demand some nod to new music--something that will live on after the Klieg lights go dark--the evening will also include the world premiere of what promises to be a frothy, even slightly inebriated, orchestral toast. This night, well-dressed revelers in Segerstrom Hall will sink their ears into Robert Xavier Rodriguez's "Hot Buttered Rumba," commissioned by the center as a "festive overture," according to Rodriguez.

Listen to the composer's account of the piece: "There's a joke that hot-buttered rum is the drink that makes you see double and feel single. My rumba is a little tipsy. It goes in and out of regular meter, and in and out of regular tempo. It loses its footing and there are many orchestral evocations of tipsiness, a few raucous noises from my memories of Spike Jones and a few fond memories of the Xavier Cugat rumbas of the '50s."

However flippantly Rodriguez may describe his latest brainchild, his intent and his compositional voice are serious, the result of an assiduously honed creative evolution. He has been amply, and regularly, rewarded for his efforts. Right after he emerged from the academic chute of USC (with a master's degree in composition) back in 1971, he earned the Prix de Composition Musicale Prince Pierre de Monaco ID TK. His resume also includes a Guggenheim Fellowship, four NEA grants and other laurels that assure us that, if an orchestral rumba is in order, Rodriguez has the proper tools to make it work on a concert stage.

His opera "Frida," about the heroic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, has been presented in Boston, New York and Houston, while his 1986 children's opera "Monkey See, Monkey Do" has had more than 1,000 performances to date. In 1991, John Rockwell, then of the New York Times, called "Frida" "genuinely original and genuinely accessible, a neat combination not that often achieved."

Which is exactly Rodriguez's aim.

"In my music, I always try to combine as many learned devices from the classical world--from the world in which I, after all, grew up--with the populist world. I believe Copland had it exactly right when he said that he wrote music to show what it felt like to be alive today. I want to have it all. I want to have the multilayered complexity of concert music of the symphonic tradition, even the rich atonal structures of the post-Webern tradition, and the toe-tapping immediacy of a rumba. I want professors to analyze the complexities and inversions, and I want children to clap along.

"Music is headed back in that direction," Rodriguez continued, in a phone interview from his home in Dallas. "I think the late 19th century, early 20th century split between elitist and populist music is an unnatural split. I think we're coming, once again, to see the two worlds as two sides of a single coin. The Kurt Weill revival that we're seeing these days is a symptom of the hunger for that kind of duality in music."

Rodriguez, born--in 1946--and raised in San Antonio, started out playing the piano, but was on the composer track by the time he hit college at the University of Texas at Austin. While he was studying at USC in the late '60s and early '70s, he also made jaunts to Paris to study with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, whose students have included Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and Elliott Carter. Ultimately, an offer to teach at the University of Texas at Dallas took the composer back to the Lone Star State. This fall, he begins a three-year stint as composer-in-residence with the San Antonio Symphony, a post he previously held with the Dallas Symphony.

Stereotypes aside, the cultural legacy of Texas, in terms of classical music and especially opera, has long been the envy of other locales in the states. In the '50s, as Rodriguez was growing up, San Antonio, for example, boasted the San Antonio Opera, then one of the nation's most prized companies.

"In Texas," Rodriguez said, "we use the phrase 'the Third Coast' with some justification. I'm pleased to have built whatever reputation I have from the base in Texas, to prove that one does not have to be on the East or West coasts."

That reputation began the way most did in the days before postmodernism and populism--in the grips of serialist orthodoxy. As Rodriguez recalled, "I was writing chic international, serious, serial music, as all young composers of my generation were obliged to do."

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