A languid stroll down a winding dirt road, the sky clear, the air calm – no clouds, no breeze, no hurry. So it was crossing the border with the Austin Symphony Orchestra in its Copland and Mexico program. "Paisaje Mexicano," the first of Aaron Copland's Two Mexican Pieces opening the concert, offered four minutes of lazy lyricism, musing on the landscape of our neighbor to the south in long notes and sedate tempos, led by woodwind soloists ambling along meandering melodic trails. It was a subdued, albeit appealing introduction to Mexico in music, playing off our romantic notions of the country as undeveloped and placid, a land out of time where us U.S. urbanites, overscheduled and stressed out, might ditch our date-books and lose ourselves.
Copland was nothing if not a master at expressing the allure of a place and culture in music, and once charmed by Mexico, he applied his considerable and not-so-simple gifts to evoking it in the concert hall. It might be with a festive caper across the dance floor, as in "Danza de Jalisco," the companion to "Paisaje Mexicano," as nimble and zesty as its predecessor was unhurried and tranquil, at one point almost veering tipsily out of control like a lightheaded party guest. Or it might be with the alternating sweetness and pepper of El Salón México: here the reeds and strings doing a sly courtship dance as around a Mexican hat, there the brass blasting along at a gallop, spurred by that pounding timpani so beloved by Copland. Whatever atmosphere or flavor the composer tried to conjure, the ASO, under Peter Bay's sensitive direction, teased out the appeal in his vision of Mexico. Only in El Salón México's softer passages did the players sound restless, like reined-in colts eager to cut loose. And in the piece's final minutes, they did, bringing it to a close with a rousing vigor.
Once we'd heard the visitor's impression of the country, the program turned us over to native composers. Carlos Chávez, who knew Copland and conducted the premiere of El Salón México in 1937, did his friend one better with Chapultepec, an orchestral sketch of three Mexican pieces. In it, Chávez escorted us from a bandstand, where an old-fashioned march got one's patriotic blood pumping, to a plaza, where a boozy waltz drew tears, to the streets, where a parade celebrated the people's fight. Next to these, Copland's compositions sounded like the work of an admiring tourist; Chávez's music seemed rooted in Mexican soil, and the symphony imbued it with lively authenticity.
The Copland and Mexico program, part of the interdisciplinary Music Unwound series, admirably sought to open up the standard concert hall experience with projections of artwork and period photos and readings by Bay and guest performer Rick Rowley. But while the choices by Music Unwound producer Joseph Horowitz provided useful context for the music and its creators, the concert's first half didn't have enough of them, or enough depth, to really immerse us in this land and culture. The second half came closer with its screening of the 1936 film Redes while the ASO played Silvestre Revueltas' score live. For an hour, we followed the lives of poor fishermen on Mexico's Gulf Coast, captured in exquisitely composed black-and-white shots by the masterful modernist photographer Paul Strand. The visuals connected us viscerally with these Mexican lives and their environment, making Revueltas' music of unease – violins anxiously repeating the same phrase; cellos ominously drawing out long, low notes; a lonely French horn keening – more powerful. Unfortunately, a clumsy melodrama very much of its time (poor workers exploited by the Man) grafted onto what was originally to have been a documentary left the movie neither fish nor fowl. Its abrupt finish, building threateningly toward a confrontation but stopping before it occurs, left this journey south strangely unresolved. We entered Mexico at peace and departed it unsettled.
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