A Fair Hearing for Chávez and Revueltas

The Post-Classical Ensemble played a wide range of Revueltas's works on Friday including the highlights "Caminando" and "Planos."
The Post-Classical Ensemble played a wide range of Revueltas's works on Friday including the highlights "Caminando" and "Planos." (Post-classical Ensemble)
By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 17, 2008

Last week the Library of Congress presented a brace of events reexamining the work and legacy of Mexican composers Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas. Among the concerts, lectures, symposiums and films honoring the pair were performances by the Cuarteto Latinoamericano on Thursday and the Post-Classical Ensemble on Friday.

Chávez and Revueltas, by far their country's best-known composers and both born in 1899, led vastly different lives. The cosmopolitan Chávez enjoyed significant professional acclaim (and was once a candidate to lead the New York Philharmonic) and lived to be nearly 80. Revueltas grew up in rural Mexico, drifted around the United States playing violin for silent movies, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and died destitute of pneumonia (complicated by alcoholism) at age 40.

The thrust of the library's many events appears to have been to correct the general perception of Revueltas as an also-ran, like Boccherini to Haydn, or Kodály to Bartók. The program booklet points out the imbalance in space the two composers are given in a well-known music encyclopedia, and adds a quote by Aaron Copland extolling Chávez (who was a friend) and all but dismissing Revueltas.

Thursday's program offered all four of Revueltas's string quartets, plus one work of Chávez's arranged from other material. The music tickled the ear, as one's mind grasped at imagined or real influences. But Revueltas's undeniable originality left the strongest impression. The thematic material, even when not overtly quoting folk music, was more speech-like than melodic.

While the quartets lacked the organic flow of Chávez's music -- the seams tended to show -- they were highly economical. None of the movements wore out its welcome, and indeed some seemed almost incomplete. Revueltas's expertise as a string player enabled him to create some remarkably fresh tapestries of sound; the coloristic effects in his third quartet were clearly emulated later by Alberto Ginastera in his quartets. The fourth quartet also peered into the future with strange, wistful sounds, even as his harmonic language echoed Copland's.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano has made a specialty of Central and South American music for over two decades, and its long familiarity with these works made for clean, intense performances that allowed listeners to focus solely on the composers' vision.

Friday's concert surveyed a wide range of Revueltas's output for chamber ensembles, with and without voice. Eugenia León was a stately presence whose wonderfully idiomatic singing was inexplicably fed through a microphone. She certainly didn't need the help, and the resulting electronic distortion of the composer's balances marred an otherwise enjoyable evening.

Highlights were the hypnotic "Caminando" (which was encored), "Homenaje a Federico García Lorca," which created a mix of expectation and stasis reminiscent of Charles Ives, and the brilliant "Planos," which showed that Revueltas could create sophisticated absolute music that was completely self-contained, without need for any cultural message or referent.

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