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WEEKEND REVIEW / Music

A Big-Time Opener for Little Festival

January 12, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

SANTA BARBARA — In the way that small towns sometimes do, Santa Barbara is packaging its regular performing arts events this month grandly as the 1998 Midwinter Music Festival. But the Santa Barbara Symphony, which has an enterprising music director, took the marketing seriously Saturday night.

It offered the American premiere of the little-known last work, the major ballet "La Coronela," by the great Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. And it even went so far as to invite the State Street Ballet to make new choreography for it and then find a clever way to fit dancers on the stage in front of the orchestra.

But it went even further in a far-reaching program that had a theme of classical music with folk music roots. There was the Harmonica Concerto by Villa-Lobos, Dvorak's Eighth Symphony and another short work, "Itinerarios," by Revueltas. And if that weren't enough, the harmonica soloist, Robert Bonfiglio, played three solo blues encores, and the orchestra added a tango by Astor Piazzolla as an encore of its own.

The enterprising music director is Gisele Ben-Dor, a Uruguayan conductor who, like Carl St.Clair at the Pacific Symphony and Marin Alsop, got a strong push from Leonard Bernstein. Ben-Dor is a star on the rise and very much ready for prime time.

She is also just the conductor we have been waiting for to make a really persuasive case for Latin composers like Villa-Lobos and Revueltas, whose music should be heard more than it is.

Revueltas was a revolutionary composer who did with Mexican folk music something similar to what Stravinsky did with Russian folk music in "The Rite of Spring." Revueltas was also a political revolutionary who lived hard and drank hard, and he died young (at age 40) in 1940, leaving "La Coronela," his revolutionary ballet, unfinished.

Its subject is the overthrow of the decadent privileged class by the workers, and the version finished by Blas Galindo and orchestrated by Candelario Huizar in the year of Revueltas' death is convincing. Which means that this shockingly strange, angry and haunting music, with its melancholy laments that can break at any time into incredible frenzied dances, was a frisky bit of programming for a tame festival in the playground of just the kind of indolent society Revueltas advocated overthrowing.

Rodney Gustafson's choreography played it safe by relying on kitsch more reminiscent of revolutionary Red Chinese ballet. But Ben-Dor did not. She is a conductor with a streak of wildness in her, and she let the demon in Revueltas out.

Actually she let demons out all evening. She sounded none too happy when she told the audience that Bonfiglio hadn't prepared the audience for Dvorak with his blues encores (the Villa-Lobos went first on the program; the Revueltas was after intermission). Bonfiglio could be a Paganini of the harmonica--he is that level of phenomenon--if it weren't for his affected aw-shucks manner of self-promotion.

But Ben-Dor had nothing to worry about, except her uneven orchestra. The only Dvorak I know to match what she had in mind here was the kind of violent Dvorak that Furtwangler conducted in Berlin during World War II. The Eighth is usually thought of as a lyrical symphony. And Ben-Dor did not shy away from big, dug-in sweeps of lyricism. She even brought back portamento, that sentimental sliding from string to string, now discredited.

But lyricism with Ben-Dor is calm before the storm. And although the orchestra was not always up to neatly executing the furious effects she demanded, the conductor proved relentless. The sense of urgency of this performance was downright astounding.

For the rest of the program, the orchestra sounded more secure. It is recording the Revueltas for Koch International Classics, and most of the preparation undoubtedly was reserved for that. But its fame could be short. There is surely no holding back a conductor with so ferocious a talent.

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