On a Southern California weekend bursting with musical enterprise, Santa Barbara outdid its giant neighbors to the south with a groundbreaking, artistically triumphant celebration of the centennial of Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (born on New Year’s Eve, 1899). Not only did the four-day festival deepen and clarify our understanding of the turbulent life of Revueltas, who drank himself to death at age 40, but we also heard the first U.S. performance of Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos’ huge, wildly colorful Symphony No. 10 (“Amerindia”).
Given the burgeoning interest in Latin music in all fields, the Revueltas centennial has come at exactly the right time — sweet vindication for a composer whose folk-drenched, neo-classical-influenced, often spiky and sarcastic output was quickly forgotten after his death.
There was plenty of the subversive Revueltas on display in Sunday’s chamber and family concerts, where Gisele Ben-Dor proved to be a startlingly good Revueltas conductor, totally attuned to the music’s barbed mockery, malicious bite and vital rhythms.
Yet at the festival’s centerpiece concert at the Arlington Theater, we heard another side of Revueltas: the crusading, emotionally gripping freedom fighter who turns up in the score for the 1935 film, “Redes.”
A collaboration of American and Mexican filmmakers (including the young director Fred Zinnemann and photographer Paul Strand), “Redes” is an absorbing piece of imagery and period agitprop about poor Mexican fishermen trying to unionize, and Revueltas’ music conveys desperation, earthy vigor and heroism in a first-rate score.
“Redes” has been heard, if at all, only in a 15-minute suite in recent years, but in Santa Barbara, the entire set of cues (revealing much interesting music not heard in the suite) was reconstructed and played live by the Santa Barbara Symphony in the pit, accompanying a screening of the film.
Ben-Dor conducted most persuasively, staying almost perfectly in sync with the action right down to the rhythm of the rowboats.
The five-movement, nearly-hour-long Villa-Lobos choral symphony — due to be recorded here by Koch Intl. — is a big, gusty, busy, messy, exotic, unquenchably melodic travelogue through Brazil.
Though ostensibly about the founding of Sao Paulo, using three languages for the texts, it sounded as if Villa-Lobos was emulating Mahler in trying to incorporate his entire sound world into one giant package, with lots of abrupt contrasts and restlessness.
It must have been tough to tie this rambling canvas together, but the talented Ben-Dor grasped it whole.