Review: Bard Festival Salutes Carlos Chávez

The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

August 10, 2015

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — In an article in 1940 in The New York Times the Mexican composer Carlos Chávez wrote that “the folk-music of a country influences in one way or another, but always substantially, the individual creations of great ‘learned’ composers.” The degree to which Mr. Chávez (1899-1978) integrated native and local traditions into his own works was a major theme of the Bard Music Festival, which opened last weekend at Bard College here.

It’s the first time the festival is highlighting the accomplishments of a Latin American composer. Mr. Chávez had a vital role in Mexico as educator, composer and conductor. He directed the Conservatorio Nacional de Música and founded the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, which established state support of the arts.

In the introduction to the festival book, the scholar Leonora Saavedra writes that the question of how music could represent Mexico and how modern it should be was an important debate in his lifetime. For Mr. Chávez, there was little question that music should be modern.

In 1928 he founded the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, which gave hundreds of premieres and offered free performances on Sundays for blue-collar workers and students. “There is no Mexican equivalent of Milton Babbitt,” said Leon Botstein, director of the festival, at a panel on Sunday, one of several speakers placing the programs in the political and social context of the time. (Mr. Botstein was referring to an article by Mr. Babbitt, “Who Cares if You Listen?,” in which he argued that contemporary music should be the domain of specialist listeners and not the general public.) For Mr. Chávez, added Mr. Botstein, “Music was a social art and had to be heard.”

But while Mr. Chávez’s outreach was populist, his music wasn’t, and it often elicited mixed reactions. He shunned European romanticism for an astringent, modernist aesthetic, writing colorful, densely scored works with complex rhythms, lyrical interludes, striking dissonances and vivid percussive elements.

Some of those elements are evident in his Piano Concerto (1938), a vast and sometimes unwieldy piece whose slow movement features an unusual duet between harp and piano and whose virtuosic whirlwinds, acerbic chords and gentle pentatonic, folklorish melodies were deftly and energetically rendered by the pianist Jorge Federico Osorio on Saturday evening, with Mr. Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Chávez’s catalog includes six symphonies. The second, the Sinfonía India, uses native Yaqui instruments and North Mexican melodies and is one of Mr. Chávez’s best-known pieces; it led Copland and other prominent American supporters to identify Mr. Chávez as a quintessentially “Mexican composer.”

The opening-night program, on Friday, featured two other pieces by Mr. Chávez that contain direct references to pre-Columbian and indigenous culture. In “Xochipilli: An Imagined Aztec Music,” written to coincide with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940 called “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art,” wind and percussion instruments replicate the sound of Aztec instruments like the conch shell. Mr. Chávez’s “H.P. Danse des Hommes et des Machines,” a chaotic reimagining of folk tunes, was later adapted for a ballet featuring sets and costumes by Diego Rivera. But there was nothing particularly “nationalist” about many other of Mr. Chávez’s works featured during the five weekend concerts, including a performance of the String Quartet No. 3, whose driving, acerbic outer movements and mournful slow movement were vividly rendered on Friday by the Daedalus Quartet.

The festival seeks to spotlight a composer in the context of contemporaries and predecessors. On Friday the lineup included pieces by Silvestre Revueltas, Mr. Chávez’s colleague and fellow modernist, as well as a French-influenced work by Ricardo Castro (1864-1907), Manuel Ponce’s Concierto del Sur for guitar, and a one-movement piece by Julián Carrillo (1875-1965), who developed theories about microtonal music. (Mr. Botstein warned the audience about the alternate tunings, to avoid listeners thinking that the musicians simply couldn’t play in tune.) The program on Saturday sandwiched Mr. Chávez’s Piano Concerto between his “Sinfonía de Antígona,” Revueltas’s concert suite of music for the film “Redes” (about repression and injustice in a Mexican village), and Honegger’s Symphony No. 3 “Liturgique.”

There are invariably delightful surprises among the densely packed programs at Bard; I particularly enjoyed some of Mr. Chávez’s short works for solo piano, brilliantly rendered by Orion Weiss. Two excerpts from Mr. Chávez’s Ten Preludes (1937) provided a jolt of color, an enigmatic Andantino espressivo and a virtuosic, harmonically edgy Allegro. There were alluring moments in his Suite for Double Quartet, with the oboe melodies beautifully rendered by Alexandra Knoll.

One program was devoted to the Parisian influence on Mr. Chávez’s music. The French composer Paul Dukas encouraged him to use Manuel de Falla’s “Siete Canciones Populares Españolas” as a model for how to incorporate Mexican traditional and popular music into his works. The program, with works by Ravel, Dukas, Stravinsky, Poulenc, Ponce, Milhaud and a vibrant, harmonically astringent quartet by the little known José Rolón (played with panache by the Amphion String Quartet), also included arrangements Mr. Chávez made of short pieces by de Falla and Debussy.

A program on Sunday, “Mexico and the 10-Year Mexican Revolution,” explored the impact of popular song on art music. According to Ponce, Mexican composers had a duty to “ennoble the music of their own country, clothing it in polyphony while lovingly preserving popular melody, which is the expression of the national soul.”

Mr. Chávez wove the tunes of folk songs like “La Cucaracha” through a modernist idiom in a work for solo piano, and altered a traditional song chromatically in his Sonatina for Violin and Piano. His “Cuatro Melodías Tradicionales Indias del Ecuador” was beautifully sung by the soprano Cecilia Violetta López, whose bright, expressive voice made a strong impression in several works, including de Falla’s “El Retablo de Maese Pedro.” The resetting of part of Don Quixote de la Mancha’s story concluded the final program in a charming production featuring puppets and witty visuals designed by Doug Fitch.