Listening to “Esquinas”and musing on Jorge Mester, Revueltas, and the 20th Century Canon

   Dorothy De Lay, William Schuman, Jorge Meister, Robert McDuffieFormer Juilliard president William Schuman (center) with Jorge Mester (seated), Robert McDuffie (standing), and Dorothy DeLay (right), looking over the score of Schuman’s Violin Concerto prior to Juilliard Orchestra’s Reunion Day Concert in 1984.

 (Photo by Sandor Acs, from the Juilliard Journal May-August 2015))

This week’s research into twentieth century Mexican music brought me back to my undergraduate years at Juillliard in the mid 1980’s. While I know it may seem a bit narcissistic to talk about myself and my own experience in a blog about Revueltas, I think it illustrates some interesting points.

I entered Juilliard as a freshman trumpet player in 1983, at the age of 17. Like most Americans, I knew Juilliard mostly as a legend and had little understanding of what actually happens there. I thought the mere fact that I had been accepted meant that I was a virtuosic prodigy destined for musical fame and fortune, and that Juilliard would show me the path to get there. Little did I know that what Juilliard would actually do for me is to train me to be an orchestral trumpeter, while giving me an understanding and appreciation, and love  of western art music right up through the 20th century, and skills like harmonic analysis and audiation ( being able to look at music and hear it in your head). As a freshman trumpet player I was assigned to the “conductor’s orchestra”, under the direction of Jorge Mester. The purpose of the conductor’s orchestra was to train young conductors and musicians, and we mostly dealt with standard classical orchestral repertoire. I particularly remember working through Sibelius Symphony #2  and Bizet Symphony in C.  Mester was known around Juilliard as a proponent of 20th century music, in fact there were even mean whispers going around that his years conducting 20th century music had “ruined” him for conducting standard repertoire. He was fiery and temperamental and very “old school” in his approach in that he had no tolerance for student conductors or musicians who arrived unprepared to do their job on the podium or in their seat.  I even got to work with Mester at the Aspen music festival in the summer, yet after four years at Juilliard and more than a year working with Mester, I graduated never even having heard of Silvestre Revueltas, even though Mester was one of his main proponents (recording the music of Chavez and Revueltas in vol. 1 of the “Mexican Moderno” series in 1967 with the Louisville Orchestra, much of which is now on youtube), and even though Juilliard very actively performed and promoted 20th century music. I encountered and learned to appreciate Berg, Schoenberg,  William Schuman, Copland, Lutoslawski, Ruggles and many others, but not Revueltas or even Chavez, even though I spent major time under the baton of one of their major proponents. I think this says something significant about the Euro-centrism, or at least Western-centrism of the 20th century musical canon.

In my research for this blog I found a great interview with Mester, where he speaks about the differences between American and Mexican audiences with regards to 20th century music. According to Mester he has found Mexican audiences much more open and interested in every opportunity to hear orchestral music, whether 20th century or earlier, whereas he found American audiences much more fickle, sometimes even seeing Stravinsky as too modern.  He posits that this may be because in general Mexican people may have fewer opportunities to hear orchestral music, and therefore they jump at any chance and bring the whole family. Can you imagine a 20th century conductor in the U.S.  being pursued by children who want his autograph? It happened to Mester in Mexico. As a trumpeter I had the golden opportunity of playing a Mexican orchestra for a year and a half (with the Orquesta Sinfonica de la Universidad de Guanajuato, where I finally encountered Revueltas’ music), and then returning occasionally to Mexico to play as a guest. I experienced the same thing. Many of the public concerts we played were mobbed, standing room only. Quite a difference from the United States where orchestras are constantly trying to figure out what to do to get the public in their seats.

Mester’s description of the conservatism of American audiences rings true with my own experience. I arrived at Juilliard thinking I was fairly knowledgeable and open minded about 20th century music. While I may have had more exposure than most American high school students due to my parents’ eclectic record collection and my attendance at a performing arts magnet school, the 20th century composers I was most familiar with were Barber and Vaughan-Williams. Stravinsky seemed pretty cutting edge to me. Kudos to Juilliard for getting its students to seriously listen to and play atonal, serial, and aleatoric music, but even there the canon was still pretty narrow.

Leonard Bernstein, in a T.V. script for his young people’s concerts preserved in the library of congress, shows some of this bias when he suggests that maybe the reason Cuba and Mexico are leaders in the development of 20th century music among Latin American countries is their proximity to major American cities. He quickly softens this assertion in his next sentence, saying that this may also be due to intrinsic forces in each country.  But truly, why does 20th century American music  have any stronger claim to  being descended from Western European Art music than 20th century Latin American music?

I found a 2012 version of Revueltas’ Esquinas (“Corners”) played by my old orchestra in Guanajuato. I enjoyed the clarity of the conflicting and overlapping melodic motifs, and the sudden rhythmic and melodic switches,as if walking down a street past different scenes. I liked the use of bi-tonality and different rhythmic textures to create several different planes of simultaneous music. The glisses and flutters in the brass were surprisingly expressive. I can see why others have commented on Revueltas’ sense of humor and irony when I hear how he takes a sweet, happy mariachi-esque tune and begins bending it away from its tonality. His stereotypical “tada” ending puts a nice ironic bow on the package.

Like Gershwin, Copland and others, Revueltas found a way of expressing the heart, the soul, and the struggle of his people using 20th century classical composition, and his works are a rich goldmine of musical experience and expression for performers, conductors and listeners alike. On first hearing “Esquinas”, the noisy traffic  sounds of Gershwin came to mind. Yet Revueltas was very careful to say that he had no programmatic intention connected with evoking a particular place or setting, instead was referring to the roads and corners of the Mexican heart.

-Flora Newberry

Sources:

Mayer-Serra, Otto. “Silvestre Revueltas and Musical Nationalism in Mexico.” The Musical Quarterly 27, no. 2 (1941): 123-45. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/739461.

Ordunio, Doug. Interview with Jorge Mester. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbDQvNvLnDk accessed 2/4/2016.

Chase, Gilbert. “Creative Trends in Latin American Music-II.” Tempo, no. 50 (1959): 25-28. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/944015.

Bernstein, Leonard. Page 14 of Young People’s Concerts Scripts: The Latin American Spirit [typescript on blue paper with emendations in black & blue pencil].  https://www.loc.gov/resource/lbypc.0263.0/?sp=14, accessed 2/4/2016.

Recordings:

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