Bard Music Festival 2015 Celebrates 20th Century Mexican Composer Carlos Chávez

Carlos Chavez (photo Bravo)

Carlos Chavez (photo Bravo)

(ANNANDALE-on-HUDSON, N.Y.) – The Bard Music Festival breaks new ground this summer, turning for the first time to Latin America with a two-week, in-depth exploration of “Carlos Chávez and His World,” from August 7 through August 16, 2015. In eleven themed concert programs, complemented by pre-concert lectures, panel discussions, special events, and expert commentary, Bard examines Carlos Chávez (1899–1978), the central figure in 20th-century Mexican music.

Weekend One considers his achievement in helping create The Musical Voice of Mexico (August 7–9), and Weekend Two offers an immersion in Mexico, Latin America, and Modernism (August 14–16). Enriched by a wealth of compositions from Chávez’s predecessors and contemporaries, and addressing wider questions of Mexican musical identity, all events will take place in the striking Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts and other venues on Bard College’s Hudson River campus. As in previous seasons, the 26th annual Bard Music Festival is set not only to provide the creative inspiration for Bard SummerScape 2015, but also to prove itself once again “the summer’s most stimulating music festival” (Los Angeles Times).

A protean force as composer, conductor, teacher, journalist, and visionary cultural ambassador, Carlos Chávez embodied 20th-century Mexican music; as his New York Times obituary put it, “for more than half a century, [he] stood in the eyes of the world for the best in Mexican music.” While incorporating modernist techniques into his music, he was also among the first to reference his homeland’s indigenous past, and played a crucial part in the “indigenismo” movement, celebrating his native culture. In a handful of major works, Chávez drew inspiration and strength from Mexican themes, and it was his synthesis of markers of Mexican identity with modernist techniques that led Aaron Copland to judge him “one of the first authentic signs of a New World with its own new music.”

As a conductor, Chávez not only founded the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, directing it for more than two decades, but also guest conducted such leading U.S. ensembles as the Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Philadelphia Orchestra, championing works by composers including Copland, Colin McPhee, Henry Cowell, and Amadeo Roldán, and leading Mexican premieres of music by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Milhaud, and Falla. Through his work as a governmental arts administrator and founder of several major Mexican cultural institutions, among them the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Chávez brought international visibility to Mexican musical and cultural life.

Maintaining such visibility remains, however, a work in progress. Despite the tireless efforts of Chávez and other of his compatriots, their compositions are still all too seldom programmed in U.S., European, and Asian concert halls, and very few have achieved anything like broad recognition by the concert-going public. Bard seeks to redress this balance, taking Chávez’s life and career as the lens through which to examine a vibrant cultural period in Mexico and Latin America. His life encompassed the Mexican Revolution, which was followed by a period of cultural renaissance in literature, film, the visual arts, and music, providing rich material for a reassessment of his homeland.

Bard’s festival launches with Program One, “Chávez and Mexico’s Musical Heritage,” which offers an introduction to Mexican music since the colonial period of New Spain, culminating with the work of Chávez and his 20th-century contemporaries. Featured composers include Manuel de Sumaya, whose style reflects the influence of the Italian Baroque on Spanish culture; Ernesto Elorduy, Felipe Villanueva, and Juventino Rosas, three Romantic pianist-composers of the long “Porfiriato” era; Manuel M. Ponce, with whom, as a teenager, Chávez studied piano; and Silvestre Revueltas, who served under Chávez as assistant conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México. Representing Chávez’s own oeuvre are chamber works including Xochipili: An Imaginary Aztec Music (1940), originally scored for indigenous Indian instruments, in which he sought – without access to actual Aztec melodies or rhythms – to project something of their neoprimitive musical aesthetic.

In the early 1920s, after the Mexican Revolution, Chávez undertook a musical pilgrimage to Europe and experienced first hand the emergence of modern music in New York through his association with Edgard Varèse and the Composers’ Guild. Back in Mexico, Chávez organized concerts featuring music by such luminaries of the Parisian scene as Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc (both members of Les Six), Varèse, and Stravinsky. Program Two, “The Parisian Influence,” explores this exposure to modernism, juxtaposing works by the Europeans with some of those they helped inspire, not only by Chávez, but also by Ponce and José Rolón, both of whom were members of Paul Dukas’s composition class.

Bard’s first orchestral concert – Program 3, “Mexico: The Crossroad of Antifascism” – considers Chávez as conductor as well as composer, and the works he chose to showcase in his 21 years as Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México. These included Honegger’s Third Symphony “Liturgique” (1945–46), composed in the wake of World War II, and his own Sinfonía de Antígona (1933), which draws on the incidental music he composed for Jean Cocteau’s modernist take on the Sophocles tragedy. By contrast, because Chávez accepted but never actually programmed it, the Piece for Orchestra (c. 1945) by Conlon Nancarrow – the American experimentalist who escaped to Mexico to avoid persecution as a former communist – went unheard until 2004, and is only now to receive its American premiere. A similarly complex history attends the score for the leftist film Redes (1934–35), a joint project of Chávez and photographer Paul Strand for the education of the Mexican working classes. Co-directed by Emilio Gómez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and A Man For All Seasons), the film was released in the U.S. as The Wave, becoming one of the most important examples of Mexican cinema’s “golden age.” The film score was originally to have been written by Chávez, but was eventually consigned to Revueltas, which may have contributed to the breakup of their friendship.

As they emerged from the long years of revolution, the Mexican people developed a renewed sense of identity and purpose that would have profound cultural ramifications, as Program Four, “Music and the 10-Year Mexican Revolution” discovers. The artistic renaissance that followed the prolonged and bloody civil war saw the creation of explicitly national works addressing the indigenous, mestizo, and/or modern aspects of Mexican culture, by Chávez, Revueltas, and others, including Blas Galindo and José Pablo Moncayo, two of Chávez’s star composition students at the National Conservatory of Music. Both became close associates of the older composer, Galindo succeeding him as director of the National Conservatory, and Moncayo as artistic director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México.

The burgeoning nationalism of the era was embodied by the world-renowned Mexican muralist movement. Spearheaded by the “big three” – Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros – this saw the promotion of murals bearing social and political messages, in an attempt to reunify the country under the post-revolutionary government. In Program Five, “Music, Murals and Puppets,” Bard concludes the festival’s opening weekend with works that capture something of the murals’ riotous color, bold strokes, neoprimitivism, and larger-than-life aesthetic. Subtitled “Dance Pantomime for Children,” Revueltas’s wind symphony Troka was written to accompany a children’s radio broadcast advocating the use of technology and the downfall of imperialism. In Falla’s one-act puppet chamber opera El retablo de maese Pedro, based on an episode from Don Quixote, the Spanish composer began the transition into the Hispanic neo-classicism of his later works. Chávez’s Suite for the Double Quartet is taken from The Daughter of Colchis (Dark Meadow) (1943), a ballet commissioned for Martha Graham, of which the New York Times declared: “It’s about sex.” Doug Fitch will design and direct the program.

In breaking away from the traditional European focus on melody and harmony, the genesis of the independent percussion ensemble has often been linked to interest in the music and philosophy of non-Western cultures. American maverick John Cage was especially drawn to Eastern philosophies, and it was he who first approached Chávez to compose his formidably challenging Toccata (1942), which proved to be a pioneering achievement in legitimizing unaccompanied percussion ensemble performance. In Program Six, “East and West,” on the first evening of Bard’s final weekend, Toccata will share the program with Varèse’s Ionisation and other music for percussion by Cage, Henry Cowell, Cuba’s Amadeo Roldán, and Lou Harrison, whose Threnody for Carlos Chávez (1979), scored for viola and Sundanese gamelan, explicitly seeks to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western cultures.

Chávez traveled many times to New York, spending almost two years there in the late 1920s, where he became part of the modern music scene and, together with his friend, painter Miguel Covarrubias, developed a fascination with Afro-American dance music of the Harlem Renaissance. Later, his numerous guest-conducting engagements in the city included leading the New York Philharmonic and a series of concerts with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra. Program Seven, “New York New York” celebrates this association, presenting several of the piano pieces Chávez composed and saw premiered in New York, like his Third Piano Sonata, Blues and Fox (all 1928), together with works by some of the New York-based composers who most vociferously championed him as a progressive voice in American music, most notably Varèse, Copland, and Cowell.

For all Chávez’s advocacy of his homeland’s pre-Hispanic musical heritage, he had in fact very limited knowledge of it beyond that of the Indians of Tlaxcala, with which he had been familiar since childhood. Instead, he relied largely on his imagination, even in Sinfonía india (1935), the one-movement masterwork by which he is still best known. Although it is scored for indigenous percussion as well as orchestral instruments, and incorporates melodic material collected from Mexico’s Cora, and Seri Indians, ultimately the piece is modeled most closely on classical sonata form, its Mexican elements interpreted from the European perspective Chávez had internalized. Nonetheless, in the imaginary past it conjures, he succeeded in creating a sound that would come to be heard as identifiably Mexican. In the second orchestral concert of the festival, Program Eight, “Reimagined Landscapes and Pasts,” Bard presents the Sinfonía india alongside comparably evocative attempts to reconstruct Latin America’s pre-colonial roots, by Revueltas, Moncayo, and Brazilian legend Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Mexico boasts a choral tradition as long and rich as it is little known; indeed, it is only in the past 70 years that scholars have begun to study and catalogue what is stored in the Mexican cathedral archives. In Program Nine, “Sacred and Secular Choral Music from 5 Centuries,” Bard offers a rare opportunity to sample this little-tapped resource together with other choral music of the New World. Introduced with commentary are selections by composers ranging from Spanish-born Renaissance composers Hernando Franco and Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, to Francisco López Capillas, Mexico’s most prolific composer of Baroque masses who, like Sumaya and Franco, served as chapel master of the Mexico City Cathedral; and from Italian-trained Juan Bautista Plaza Alfonso, of Venezuela’s Caracas Cathedral, to Chávez and Copland.

Chávez undertook a number of U.S. teaching engagements in the late 1950s, at Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Festival, as a visiting professor at the University of Buffalo, and as Harvard’s 1958–59 Charles Eliot Norton Poetic Chair. Bard’s final chamber concert, Program Ten, “Post-World War II Latin America,” pairs Chávez’s works with others from the same period by such composers as Argentina’s Astor Piazzolla, of nuevo tango fame, Alberto Ginastera, Panama’s Roque Cordero, and Peruvian Celso Garrido-Lecca.

In Program Eleven, Musical Culture of the Hemisphere, Bard presents a selection of some of Latin America’s most important contributions to the orchestral literature. Written to symbolize the economic relationship between the industrial United States and the agricultural tropics, Chávez’s ballet symphony, H.P. (Horse Power, 1932) is a vital score, rich in orchestral color, which achieves a synthesis between the influence of Stravinsky and popular Mexican dance idioms. Also on the program is Alberto Nepomuceno’s Série Brasileira; the First Symphony (1901) of Julián Carrillo, the German-trained Mexican composer best known for developing a theory of microtonal music; and Estancia (1941), an orchestral suite by Ginastera. With this program, the 26th annual Bard Music Festival draws to a gripping close.

Besides the eleven concert programs, there will be a special event presenting “Music by Contemporary Latin American Composers,” a recreation of a program created by Chávez for the 1940 exhibition “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a film showing of The Other Conquest (1991). Three free panel discussions – “Culture and National Identity: The Case of Mexico,” “Mexico and the United States: Past, Present, and Future,” and “Mexico and Latin America” – will be supplemented by informative pre-concert talks to illuminate each program’s themes. These pre-concert talks are free to ticket-holders and, as has become traditional, the first of them will be given by Maestro Botstein himself.

The New York Times observes, “The Bard Music Festival has managed more than its fair share of ambitious feats in its immersive annual examinations of classical music’s major composers.” Drawing on recent scholarship, the festival’s signature thematic programming, multi-disciplinary approach, and emphasis on context and reception history make for a depth and breadth of cultural discovery that appeals to classical music novices and aficionados alike. Since its inception, the Bard Music Festival and its co-founder and co-artistic director Leon Botstein have infused the standard concert repertory with a host of important rediscoveries.

As the New Yorker’s Alex Ross puts it, “Bard SummerScape and Bard Music Festival always unearth piles of buried treasure.” And while the Bard Music Festival’s pioneering approach to thematic programming has sometimes been emulated, “Nothing quite compares to the fascinating summer programs popping out of Leon Botstein’s brain” (Bloomberg News).

Now in his 22nd year as music director of the resident American Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Botstein – recently recognized as “one of the most remarkable figures in the worlds of arts and culture” (THIRTEEN/WNET) – will lead the ensemble in all three of the Bard Music Festival’s orchestral programs. As in previous seasons, choral works will feature the Bard Festival Chorale directed by James Bagwell, and vocal and chamber programs will boast an impressive roster of guest artists.

Since the founding of the Bard Music Festival with “Brahms and His World” in 1990, Princeton University Press has published a companion volume of new scholarship and interpretation each season, with essays and translated documents relating to the featured composer and his milieu. Scholar-in-Residence Dr. Leonora Saavedra, whose publications include articles on Chávez, Ponce, and Mexican opera, is the editor of the upcoming 2015 volume, Carlos Chávez and His World.


Dubbed “part boot camp for the brain, part spa for the spirit” by the New York Times, the Bard Music Festival has impressed critics worldwide. NPR named it “one of the ‘10 Can’t-Miss Classical Music Festivals,’” and on his blog, Boston Globe journalist Steve Smith confessed:

“For an unrepentant music geek like me, the Bard Music Festival is simply irresistible: a fabulous wealth of music by a major composer from the classical tradition, surrounded and contextualized with works by forebears, peers, colleagues, friends, enemies, students, followers – you name it.”


The New York Times reports that “performers engaged by Bard invariably seem energized by the prospect of extending beyond canonical routine, and by an audience that comes prepared with open ears and open minds” for the “two-weekend musicological intensive doubling as a sumptuous smorgasbord of concerts.” As the Wall Street Journal’s Barrymore Laurence Scherer observes:


“The Bard Music Festival … no longer needs an introduction. Under the provocative guidance of the conductor-scholar Leon Botstein, it has long been one of the most intellectually stimulating of all American summer festivals and frequently is one of the most musically satisfying. Each year, through discussions by major scholars and illustrative concerts often programmed to overflowing, Bard audiences have investigated the oeuvre of a major composer in the context of the society, politics, literature, art, and music of his times.”

Bard SummerScape ticket information

For tickets and further information on all SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at 845-758-7900 or visit Bard Music Festival. Tickets start at $25. Fisher Center members receive priority access to the best seats in advance, and those who join the Center’s email list receive advance booking opportunities as well as regular news and updates.


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