Classical Music
11:31 am
Sun December 15, 2013

Mexican Classical Music: From The Known To The Unknown

If there's one thing to be learned about classical music from Latin America, it's that there's much more there than one might imagine, especially if we only know of that proverbial tip of the iceberg, the scant amount of Latin American music which has trickled into American, European and Asian concert halls. When I first began producing my weekly radio program, “Itinerarios,” I began casting the net further and further into Latin America, hoping to keep new materials flowing in as fuel for the show. I was pleasantly surprised at what I could find, but also chagrined to discover how isolated Latin America continues to be from the American marketplace. There's nothing more frustrating than learning of such and such recording, wanting it badly, but finding no source. The fact is, there's still a severe North/South hemispheric divide which makes many recordings, especially from Central America and generally all of South America, near impossible to acquire. There are even certain labels based in Mexico with little or no distribution into the US. I'll mention several of these in the course of this brief glimpse at some of the classical music one might want to know from Mexico. This is by no means comprehensive, but it'll perhaps get you started if you want to know some of the classical musical treasures of Mexico.

I recently mentioned on Facebook that I was listening to a suite from “La Madrugada del Panadero,” a ballet by Rodolfo Halffter. This prompted a string of comments and eventually an inquiry about classical music scores from Mexico. This gives me a good starting point for a more comprehensive list of classical music from throughout Latin America (to come later). For now I will begin with the focus on Mexican music, in no particular order, although the more popularly known music will likely dominate the early going.

Since I already mentioned Rodolfo Halffter, let's begin with the briefly referenced suite from “La Madrugada del Panadero.” Rodolfo Halffter is part of an important family of Spanish musicians. Normally, this would put him outside the bounds of Latin America but for the fact he immigrated to Mexico in 1939, seeking refuge from the Franco regime. Thus, any of R. Halffter's music written after he arrived in Mexico is fairly regarded as a product of Latin America. Worth inserting here is that Halffter went on to become an important composition teacher at Mexico's National Conservatory, thus influencing many students who eventually became the voices of Mexico's contemporary music.

Rodolfo Halffter's music is almost always worth hearing, though a comprehensive dosage might not be everyone's cup of tea. As with so many composers of the 20th Century, Halffter explored both a tonal and atonal world. I can think of no better place to observe this than through his keyboard music. This is also an interesting territory because there are at least two recordings which explore a broad swath of his music for solo piano. I like both these recordings, one by Edison Quintina (Urtext label) and another by Silvana Santinelli (Centaur).

Piano Music by Rodolfo Halffter, recorded by Silvana Santinelli
Piano Music by Rodolfo Halffter, recorded by Silvana Santinelli
Credit Centaur records

The keyboard music of Halffter is interesting because it gives the opportunity to understand those many directions explored by his fertile musical imagination. However, a better place to begin to know his music is through his orchestral output. Conductor Fernando Lozano gives a fine performance of “La Madrugada” with his Orquesta Filarmonica de la Ciudad de Mexico (OFCM). This recording is included in a 2 disc set of “Musica Mexicana” on the Forlane label. It should be relatively easy to find and also includes some other lesser known contemporary Mexican composers, all worth at least a listen or two, though I think I would begin with “La Madrugada.”

Enrique Batiz covers several other Halffter scores within his essential 8 CD set of “Musica Mexicana,” a bargain from Brilliant Classics. This includes Halffter's “Violin Concerto,” played authoritatively by Henryk Szeryng. Although the concerto was written originally for Samuel Dushkin, Szeryng thoroughly revised the work, one assumes with the approval of Halffter, and it is this revision which is recorded here. As a footnote, I should mention that Szeryng was not only an important international figure, but also a musician who gave generously to the musical life of Mexico over the many decades he resided there. In fact, Szeryng was officially recognized in 1960 as Mexico's Cultural Ambassador to the world.

I can't overstate the importance of the Batiz collection. The set includes several of the symphonies by Carlos Chavez (completists will want to have the complete symphonies recorded by both Batiz and, historically more significant, the set by Eduardo Mata), plus the gorgeous orchestration Chavez made of Buxtehude's “Chaconne in e minor.” And don't neglect Manuel Ponce's three concerti, one for violin, another for piano, and then the guitar concerto, titled “Concierto del Sur.” These are all important works, recorded with love and care by violinist Szeryng and pianist Jorge Federico Osorio. The guitar concerto is played by Alfonso Moreno. I also like some of the other orchestral scores by Ponce, especially “Ferial” and “Chapultepec,” both included in the Batiz collection.

Mexican conductor Enrique Batiz
Mexican conductor Enrique Batiz
Credit N.Y. Times

When I recommend the recordings conducted by Enrique Batiz, I often feel I'm in league with the Devil. There is little denying the musical gift and credentials of Batiz. However, he has a reputation, much of it deserved, of being abusive towards his musicians. That said, I can't ignore the value of many of his recordings, though truthfully much of the credit is due the musicians in the orchestras. The players in the Orquesta Sinfonica del Estado de Mexico, the OFCM, and various of the London orchestras often deserve high praise for their recordings with Batiz.

A couple of record labels deserve credit, too, for their concentration upon recordings of Mexican music and artists. Eduardo Mata did much to lift the reputation of the Dorian label, this after he produced a substantial catalog of recordings for RCA. By the way, it should be noted that Mata was also a composer with considerable ability, though sadly most of his work as a composer has been eclipsed by the work he did as a conductor. That said, anyone wanting to know the composer side of Mata might want to pick up the recording of his “3rd Symphony” with the Orquesta Filarmonica de la UNAM. The recording, conducted by Mata, demonstrates both sides of his art, conducting and composing, and is from Mexican RCA. With persistence, you can find this recording.

Dorian made numerous recordings with Mata, many of them of Latin American repertory. The 3 disc set of “Latin American Masters” is filled with memorable playing, and includes works by several Mexican composers. It is worth noting here that Dorian takes a great deal of care with the making of their recordings, so you are in for some fine sonics in the Latin American set and also a multi-disc compilation of sessions with the Dallas Symphony.

Gauguin, from Urtext Records
Gauguin, from Urtext Records
Credit Urtext Records

Another record label deserving of kudos is the Mexico City based Urtext label. The conductor Benjamin Juarez Echenique and his flutist wife, Marisa Canales, have shown great ambition in growing the Urtext catalog, and much of the material is worthy of our attention. Of particular interest are the various scores by the Mexican jazz man turned composer Eugenio Toussaint. What a talent, sadly missed following his premature death a couple of years ago! His work is well represented on Urtext, including the complete recordings by he and his brothers, part of the Weather Report(ish) jazz ensemble known as “SACBE.” If you love jazz of the late 70s through the 80s, in the model of Weather Report (and I hate describing them this way because SACBE is much more than Weather Report wannabees), then seek out these recordings. There is a high level of both creativity and technical prowess on display here. Once one has heard Eugenio Toussaint's work as a jazz player and composer, it is less surprise that he would also excel at the challenge of writing music in a “classical” or legit style. I have always enjoyed the Urtext issue titled “Gauguin.” It features three compositions by Toussaint, each highly enjoyable.

There are other fine recordings to be discovered on Urtext, including the delightful work of the wind ensemble “Sinfonietta Ventus.” Their disc “Musica para Divertirse” shines throughout and includes some great dance rhythms in Eugenio Toussaint's “Mambo Suite,” arrangements of compositions by mambo-master Dámaso Pérez Prado. Also to be discovered are compositions by Arturo Marquez, essential in understanding there is more to Maestro Marquez than just his immensely popular “Danzon No. 2.” I love his “Danza del Mediodia” for woodwind quintet (Urtext) and “Espejos en la arena, for cello and orchestra,” written for and recorded by the Mexican cellist Carlos Prieto. (Although not on the Urtext label, the complete “Danzones” of Marquez have been recorded, though I believe on a private label. They are well worth seeking out.) There are many more interesting recordings on Urtext, though there is an unevenness to be found there as well. I watched one evening the making of a couple of recordings by the Orquesta Sinfonica de Xalapa, supervised and produced by Marisa Canales. I came away feeling I had seen the sausage being made, for it had that feel about it – I don't think the orchestra was well prepared, nor was the technical end well-covered either. My apologies to both my friends in Xalapa and to the folks at Urtext for having to write bluntly, but that is what I saw and heard. On the other hand, some of that sausage turned out pretty good, in particular the two albums worth of music by Silvestre Revueltas. It's not all top shelf, but some of it is.

And as long as we are on the topic of Revueltas, here are a few essentials. Without a doubt, his best known orchestral score is “Sensemayá.” This is also one of the few Revueltas scores known widely outside of Mexico. There are many good recordings, including those by Fernando Lozano, with the Mexico City Philharmonic, and Leopold Stokowski and his symphony orchestra, a recording said to possess the historical distinction of being the first recording of the work. I have played “ Sensemayá” with Luis Herrera and was struck by the sensuality he brought to the score (the women in the orchestra would describe it as sexy). I'm sure there is somewhere a recording by Herrera of the piece, but I am hard pressed right now to identify it.

Several other Revueltas compositions should be better known. For my money, “Homenaje a Federico García Lorca” is Revueltas' masterpiece, though the suite from the film “Redes” is also music of high calibre. Esa-Pekka Salonen and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic do a good job on the Lorca score, but I also find the recording with Eduardo Mata and the Philharmonia a good choice, though some would disagree. If you're looking to buy recordings, it's hard to go wrong with the Revueltas complilation on RCA's Catalyst label. This disc, titled “Night of the Mayas,” includes a highly ranked recording of Revueltas' “Noche de los Mayas” with Herrera de la Fuente and the Orquesta Sinfonica de Xalapa (OSX). Kudos to one of my former orchestras, the OSX, for managing this difficult but compelling score.

Finally, a few contemporary composers who should be better known. Chief among these is Daniel Catan. A man of the theater, Catan wrote a number of important operas, each written with admirable creativity, rich harmonic language and richer still orchestration. Eduardo Diazmunoz recorded excerpts from “Rappaccini's Daughter” with the Mexico City Philharmonic (OFCM). Two other operas up the ante considerably: “Florencia en el Amazonas” and “Il Postino.” These are both represented by fine recordings, “Florencia” in an audio only original cast recording from the Houston Grand Opera, and “Postino” in a moving video from the premiere performance by the Los Angeles Opera. Catan passed away much too young and with so much promise left unfulfilled. I mourn the loss every time I think of him. He was a friend.

A couple of other Catan scores show up in a three disc series of contemporary Mexican music, showcased by the OFCM and Eduardo Diazmunoz. These discs, on the ProDisc label, are keepers. There is interesting music on each of the discs, and I highly recommend each of them. Another disc, pretty much impossible to find, covers music from Catan's “El Vuelo del Aguila,” music for an acclaimed Mexican telenovela. You can find this well made, sentimental music on YouTube.

Solo Rumores, a collection of 10 commissioned compositions to the topic of Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Paramo"
Solo Rumores, a collection of 10 commissioned compositions to the topic of Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Paramo"
Credit Quindecim Records

Interested in freshly made contemporary music for solo piano? Then check out several projects by the American born pianist Ana Cervantes. Ana lives in Guanajuato, Mexico, and from that base has commissioned several projects worth of new music. Her latest, called “Canto de la Monarca,” is only now emerging but promises to breath life into a wealth of new music. There is also much to recommend her previous project, a series of commissioned music to the topic of Juan Rulfo's seminal short novel “Pedro Páramo.” In fact, the response to Ana's call for compositions was so enthusiastic that she ended up making two Cds, titled “Solo Rumores” and “Rumor de Páramo.” These are both on the Mexican Quindecim label, the source of numerous fine recordings but with little to no distribution outside of Mexico.

There are many other Mexican composers who should be acknowledged here, but not enough time. However, I will say I am following closely the work of both Gabriela Ortiz and Marcela Rodriguez. These two, along with others, represent a healthy fountain of creativity in Mexico, carrying on the torch of Chavez, Revueltas, Ponce, Halffter and Mario Lavista.

Now, please permit me to mention a few other interesting composers and their music which rarely, if ever shows up on the radar, even within Mexico. Record producers, please listen up. Alfonso de Elias wrote an orchestral score called “Cacahuamilpa” which I believe needs to be explored. Another score by Elias which needs a good recording is “El Jardin Encantado.” These were both recorded in the past by the Orquesta Filarmonica de Jalisco, but the music proved a bit beyond the grasp of the orchestra. However, these old LPs give proof of music which is well made and well orchestrated. Unfortunately, music is only as good as the best interpretation. This sounds disrespectful to the composer, but it's the truth. A great score will gather dust if it is not given a competent performance, better yet a good recording. Finally, one other composer is revealed through an old LP by the Jalisco orchestra. I would love to hear someone take up again “El Festin de los Enanos,” by Jose Rolon. Any takers?

Music to consider (* denotes music examples in the audio feature)

*Huapango (Moncayo)
*La Madrugada del Panadero (R. Halffter)

*Secuencia (R. Halffter)
*Violin Concerto (R. Halffter)
Symphonies (Chavez)
Chaconne in e minor (Buxtehude/Chavez)
*Concierto del Sur (Ponce)
Violin Concerto (Ponce)
Piano Concerto (Ponce)
Ferial (Ponce)
Chapultepec (Ponce)
*Symphony No. 3 (Mata)
*Horsepower Suite (Chavez)
*Jaco (Toussaint)
*Gauguin (Toussaint)
Mambo Suite (Toussaint)
Danzon No. 2 (Marquez)
*Danza del Mediodia (Marquez)
Espejos en la arena, for cello and orchestra (Marquez)
*Danzon No. 1 (Marquez)
*Redes (Revueltas)
*Sensemayá (Revueltas)
*Homenaje a Federico García Lorca (Revueltas)
*Noche de los Mayas (Revueltas)
Rappaccini's Daughter (Catan)
Florencia en el Amazonas (Catan)
Il Postino (Catan)
*Tu son, tu risa, tu sonrisa (Catan)
*Páramo de Rulfo (Lavista)
Cacahuamilpa (Elias)
*El Jardin Encantado (Elias)
*El Festin de los Enanos (Rolon)