By Ted AYALA
Amid the din of the ecstatically raucous coda of Revueltas’ La Noche de los Mayas (The Night of the Mayas) – reverberating thunderously through Occidental College’s Thorne Hall after the last blazing chord cut forth – and with the audience at the Santa Cecilia Orchestra’s (SCO) end of season concert erupting into an equally raucous standing ovation, it was obvious not only that the SCO had scored yet another musical triumph. With each concert, it becomes clearer that the SCO is perhaps one of the best-hidden cultural gems in the Los Angeles area. This orchestra has emerged as not a meek, well-meaning community orchestra content to saw away lackadaisically at a mattering of the same hackneyed classics time and again, but as a highly disciplined and energetic ensemble who seek not only to spread the joy of great music to the surrounding communities, but to foster interest and inquiry into musical roads that have yet to gain the attention they deserve from the North American and European musical establishments.
Case in point was the Sunday, May 22 SCO concert. Sharing the program was two of the finest composers Mexico has bequeathed to the world. These are two who – different as they are from each other – stand eye-to-eye with the United States’ and Europe’s most acclaimed composers, even rising head-and-shoulders above some of their better known contemporaries.
Revueltas and Catán, sitting at opposite ends of the 20th century, represent two very different facets of Mexico’s musical soul. The veins of Revueltas’ muse course hot with the lifeblood of Mexico’s folklore and street vernacular. Often dismissed as a musical primitive, Revueltas’ extensive writings and musical criticism display the mind of a man of profound erudition and culture who turned his back on European tradition not because he was incapable of working in traditional forms, but because his unique musical language had no use for musty traditions at odds with his searing vision. In his music beats – like in the work of his musical kindred soul Modest Mussorgsky – the voice of a people, long downtrodden, yearning to be heard. Revueltas, belonging to the first generation to come to maturity after the Mexican Revolution, was keenly aware of his musical raison d’être.
Catán’s oeuvre, sitting astride the 20th and 21st centuries, represents altogether a different vein. In his music breathes the romantic languorousness and openhearted gregariousness of the Latin American temperament. Throughout this lissomely melodic music is stamped not only the imprint of Catán’s classical forebears, especially that of Puccini, but also the honeyed romantic ballads and boléros of Agustín Lara, Gonzalo Curiel, and their like. Catán’s musical voice is also one that reflects his time and place, where the old nationalist ethos has given way to a new musical that seeks to be a citizen of the world.
Daniel Catán’s music opened up the first half of the program beginning with the wistful overture to the Mexican telenovela, El Vuelo del Aguila (The Eagle’s Flight), a historical drama surveying the rise and fall of Mexican military hero and president Porfirio Díaz. The nostalgic waltz melody that serves as the overture’s principal theme vividly resounded with the echoes of Mexico’s “Porfiriato” era, which spanned the close of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and came to an end with Díaz’s resignation and the start of the Mexican Revolution.
An intermezzo from Catán’s final completed opera Il Postino followed. Its gentle melancholy was made all the more poignant in the wake of its composer’s untimely passing. Featuring principal oboist Sarah Beck on the oboe d’amore, a mellower sounding cousin of the standard oboe, she effortlessly allowed Catán’s voice to speak with an eloquently elegiac tone that left the audience utterly rapt in her wake. Beck’s plangent tone was a wonder of hushed beauty.
But it was perhaps Catán’s percussion concerto Caribbean Airs that best reflected the man’s temperament. Subverting the notion that music for percussion is by nature loud and coarse, the concerto presented the percussion soloists (Jason Goodman, Bruce Carver, and Brad Dutz) with music of an eloquent and almost melodic quality. The dance-hall music popular in Latin America during the mid 20th century echoed eloquently. In fact, Caribbean Airs had a distinctly retrospective quality. Almost as if Catán was penning a bittersweet farewell to the popular idioms of his youth, now long supplanted by extraneous musical forms of dubious quality. It was a loving embrace of memory and played warmly by the SCO and Maestra de León de Vega.
The panoramic musical frescoes of Revueltas’ La Noche de los Mayas, originally incidental music for an eponymous Mexican film, with its bold lines and primary colors was worlds away from Catán’s gentler aquarelles. From the very opening bars, with its pounding bass drum and regal main chorale theme, the music gripped the audience by the throat. Through this music, one felt the very voice of the Mexican soul speaking. Now teeming with energy; now defiant and acidulously humorous. But also, as in the Noche de Yucatán movement, tender and as sublimely romantic as one could ever dream. In this movement, the SCO and de León de Vega were breathtaking. With controlled and pliant playing from the string and superb woodwind work, one could almost see the tapestry of limitless stars in the night sky hovering over them; the expanse of the Mexican coast before one’s eyes. Especially memorable in this movement was principal flautist Salpy Kerkonian’s playing. Towards the end of this movement, Revueltas has a flute gently intone an ancient Maya melody that was one of the very earliest recorded in Western musical notation. Kerkonian’s moonlit playing nearly suspended time with its beauty and eloquence.
But with the snap of fortississimo bass pizzicatos came the work’s final movement, La Noche de Encantamientos (The Night of Enchantments). Drawing forth a panorama of wild jubilation, Revueltas closes this symphonic suite with ritualistic and orgiastic music requiring a veritable troop of percussionists. Topping this is the repeated crazed conch shell cry (played brilliantly by Bill Roeper) that pierces through this music, fomenting the rest of the orchestra into ever-frenzied waves of rhythmic abandon. Maestra de León de Vega had full measure of the music here, leading the SCO into a blazing coda that conquered all before it. After such a brilliant close, it’s going to be even harder to wait a whole summer until the next SCO concert. But with the level of musicianship and the creative programming displayed here, you can bet that I’ll be waiting – impatiently, to be sure – but ever ready for their next season.