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Renaissance for a Firebrand

Colorful works by a free spirit of Mexico's classical music are sweeping into Southern California.

April 04, 1999|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a regular contributor to Calendar

"Silvestre."

In Spanish, the word means wild, as in untamed or undomesticated. Few incipient artists have been as prophetically named as Silvestre Revueltas, the great free spirit of Mexican classical music.

Born on the last day of the 19th century in a rural village, Revueltas revealed precocious musical talent, principally on the violin. Trained in Mexico and the United States, he became assistant conductor of the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico under Carlos Chavez in 1929, parted ways with Chavez in 1935 and founded his own orchestra in opposition. In 1937, he toured Spain, where he supported the Republicans in the Civil War. Throughout his last decade, he composed prolifically before a history of alcoholic binges caught up with him in 1940.

Hollywood would love the guy (oh yes, he also scored seven films in his last five years). A conflicted champion of lost causes, Revueltas wrote colorful, expressive music grounded in the vernacular of contemporary Mexico, music of the streets and countryside, postmodern before its time.

But the times have caught up to him, a hundred years after his birth. This week the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico--heir to the Sinfonica de Mexico of Chavez and Revueltas--and its music director, Enrique Diemecke, arrive in Southern California, bringing with them a generous measure of Revueltas and the world premiere of a centennial homage, "Danza Silvestre" by Arturo Marquez.

"I think the legacy of Revueltas, for many of us, is simply [that he created] the most important music ever done in Mexico, or even Latin America," Marquez says. "He did not leave many works, but all the main pieces of Revueltas are important. The emotion and understanding of Mexican culture is all there in his great music."

An understanding of Mexican culture or an appreciation of the greatness of Revueltas has not always translated well across the border. Otherwise generally reliable and popular resources such as Jim Svejda's "Record Shelf Guide to Classical CDs and Audiocassettes" and Ted Libbey's "NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection" make no mention of Revueltas--or Chavez, Manuel Ponce, Jose Pablo Moncayo, Blas Galindo or any other Mexican composer, for that matter.

Despite this gaping southern blind spot of our music mavens, Revueltas has had one durable success, the tone poem "Sensemaya." Leonard Bernstein's hotly swaggering, idiosyncratic version, for example, has hardly been out of print since he recorded it with the New York Philharmonic in 1963.

That lone work kept the Revueltas flame alive in this country, a flame that now seems to have become a brush fire in Southern California. Local orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Long Beach Symphony and the Santa Barbara Symphony, are playing Revueltas at an unprecedented clip. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Phil, in fact, have just released a new Revueltas CD, with "Sensemaya" as the title track (see accompanying review). Given the previous neglect of the composer and the eagerness of orchestras to tap into the burgeoning and largely undeveloped Latino audience, a question arises: Is it art or is it demographics?

"A little of both, perhaps," says JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Long Beach Symphony. "It is partly our situation in Southern California, but there is something more, and Southern California is often a catalyst in the music world.

"I think audiences are ready--in ways maybe 25 years ago [they] couldn't be--for something as direct and completely physical as Revueltas' music. There is a trend toward simplification now, and there is a primitive element in Revueltas that people find appealing. His music is full of bright, vivid colors and incredibly sensory."

Of course, the peripatetic Diemecke has taken the music of Revueltas and other Mexican composers all over the world. In addition to leading the Orquesta Sinfonica National de Mexico, he is also music director of the Flint Symphony in Michigan, and he is principal guest conductor of both a regional French orchestra and the Fort Worth Symphony in Texas. He has even conducted some of this music in guest appearances in Russia and China.

"Oh yes, I have played all of this music everywhere," Diemecke says, speaking by telephone from Flint, where he was preparing to end the season there with an all-Wagner program. "It has, of course, an easiness for our own musicians. Certain things are different, because of musical style and language; triplets, for example, are not always the same--sometimes we stretch the first note, a little like the way the Viennese stretch the second beat in a waltz."

Diemecke's Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico was formed in 1949 through the merger of the orchestra Chavez founded with the orchestra of the national conservatory, and it was conducted for its first five years by Moncayo. Diemecke took over in 1990 and is continuing the orchestra's noble tradition of composer-conductors.

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