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Monday, August 17, 2015

Chávez y su Mundo

YOU CAN COUNT ON THE BARD MUSIC FESTIVAL for textural extremes. Last Saturday’s programs ran a gamut from a charming sonata for guitar and harpsichord by Manual Ponce to the outsized, relentless Piano Concerto by Carlos Chávez, the composer around whom this year’s program was built.

Carlos Chávez, drawn by
Miguel Covarrubias
Chávez was a terrific choice. Mexico’s best-known composer remains little-known north of the border, despite a strong presence on the North American concert scene a few decades ago, a presence at Tanglewood, and an enduring influence on Aaron Copland and others. If some of his work sounds Copland-esque, it turns out to be the other way around.

The first full day of the program began with a morning panel titled “Culture and National Identity: The Case of Mexico,” that began with a tour of the post-revolution muralists, Diego Rivera most notable among them. As Hunter College professor Lynda Klich explained, these artists were charged with creating a new identity for the country, one that integrated indigenous people into the social fabric. Thus was born the “revolutionary trinity” depicted in those murals: the peasant, worker, and soldier.

In the musical realm, works like Chávez’s Sinfonia india and (his student) José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango have become the sound of Mexico’s concert music—although Cornell’s Alejandro Madrid stressed that these too were written to order, encouraging the audience to buy into a manufactured national identity. But nationalism is always practiced from a distance, Columbia anthropology professor Claudio Lomnitz confirmed, and requires constant translation.

Translation is more than a matter of words, as demonstrated by a concert showing the Parisian influence on Chávez and his fellows. Even as Ravel cast a huge shadow of his own, he assimilated a Greek influence in 5 Mélodies populaires grecques, sung beautifully by baritone Joseph Eletto. Advised by Paul Dukas to look to Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas as a model for the use of folk song elements, Chávez arranged two of those songs for a trio of flute, viola and harp—the same instrumentation Debussy used in one of his last compositions, and also including two songs by Debussy. In the opening song, “The Snow is Dancing,” Chavéz’s mastery came through in the small detail of doubling flute and viola, but keeping the viola’s notes shorter.

Francis Poulenc saluted (and mocked) the rage for all things African that prevailed when he wrote his Rapsodie nègre in 1917, a five-movement chamber work with a delightful nonsense song at its center, the song’s setting for baritone (Eletto) and piano (Brian Zeger) giving a foretaste of minimalist technique.

Ponce’s sonata opened the second half of this program, a brief, three-movement work that exploited a wide range of aural possibilities, charming and excellently performed by guitarist Jason Vieaux and harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire. And the program finished with a wonderful string quartet by José Rolón, written in 1935 and right from the start showing Debussy’s influence.

But we also met the younger Chávez through his solo and chamber works, including a stunning performance by pianist Simon Ghraichy of a 1925 work titled 36, reminding me of George Antheil’s jazzy side, and the Stravinsky-inflected Sonatina for Piano from 1924, as well as settings of poet Carlos Pellicer in “Seis exágonos,” that were variously haunting and whimsical, nicely sung by soprano Ava Pine.

Jorge Federico Osorio
In 1940, Chávez wrote a work for winds and percussion that he titled Xochipilli. It was part of the MoMA exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art, and was the composer’s answer to the challenge of coming up with something that offered pre-Columbian sounds. Chávez essentially made up a pentatonic system that he asserted was Aztec-based. It’s emblematic of the challenge he faced in the pursuit of nationalism (and it was performed the night before the events I’m reviewing here). But it sets a stage for his Piano Concerto of 1938, which dominated the evening’s concert.

While some by-now familiar folk song influences peek through, it owes more to Bartók and the younger Prokofiev. Pianist Jorge Federico Osorio didn’t just perform it: he inhabited it. It’s an endurance test. It’s colored with a large orchestra with featured roles for celeste, harp and marimba. It features a 20-minute first movement that reminded me of some of my worst moments of insomnia, when you can’t tell whether you’ve slept or might still be asleep.

I’m pretty good with picking out the form of a piece as it unfolds, but this one defeated me. Perhaps my emotional distance was a symptom of my own pursuit of nationalism. In any event, after a tense bridge across the seven-minute molto lento middle movement, the concerto returned to blazing form with an even faster, more frantic finish. It was performed with virtuoso gusto, but I’m going to have to go back to this one to make more sense out of it.

Chávez’s pleasing, well-scored first symphony, the brief Sinfonia de Antigona, presented an effective contrast, a work heavy on the horns but making brilliant use of them. It’s a reworking of music he wrote for the theater, just as Silvestre Revueltas’s Redes came from a film score but works well alone. And if you’re hearing Copland, you’re actually hearing Revueltas.

Piece No. 1 for Small Orchestra by Conlon Nancarrow displayed the jaunty rhythmic complexity that would characterize his later, impossible works for player piano, while Arthur Honegger’s 1946 Symphony No. 3 (“Liturgique”) closed the demanding concert on a somber note, heralding the post-war, post-Stravinsky direction into which concert music would travel.

Leon Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra, who performed, as usual, superbly, making a lengthy concert of unfamiliar works sound as polished as any of the warhorses we’re (fortunately) spared at these events.

Carlos Chavez and His World

Bard Music Festival, Bard College, Aug. 8

Metroland Magazine, 13 August 2015

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