Italy de Falla, Paganini, Mexican Trash: The Eduardo Mata University Youth Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Rivero with Massimo Quarta (violin) and Jose Luis Ordonez and Liuvia Ruelas (vocalists). A Santa Cecilia concert at Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome. 14.9.2015 (JB)
What first comes into your mind at the mention of Mexico? Death? Those folks do have what can only be called a special relationship with that jollity. Solitude? Do you know Octavio Paz’s insightful book called The Labyrinth of Solitude and subtitled a study of the Mexican mind? My own visit to Mexico City in the eighties was unforgettable on three counts. First there was a major earthquake: I had no idea that the earth could shake so violently without all the buildings coming down. Second there was the magnificent archeological museum of Mexican civilizations. And third there was the seller of more than forty kinds of chilli peppers in the market place (my most used of all spices).
The Mexican Youth Orchestra’s concert at Santa Cecilia was not the ideal visiting card for this richly complex civilization. The conductor, Gustavo Rivero was routine throughout and chillies were definitely off the menu. The opening sound of the de Falla Ritual Fire Dance was “interesting” even if there was more ritual than fire. The strings were at 12:8:8:6:5 Those twelve first violins, seated in the usual position to the immediate left of the conductor, made a most unusual steely sound in the opening, both arresting and not inappropriate (sorry for the double negative but that nails what we heard and nailing turns out to be their specialty). The eight violas gave us an apt, solid, dark sound –a fine invocation of death.
The orchestra was joined by Massimo Quarta (Italian and winner of the 1991 Paganini Competition) for the popular Second Concerto. The warmth of the Mediterranean sun came out here. Mr Quarta plays a 1765 Guadagnini. The Adagio, in particular, came over with finely poised lyricism. The variations of the last movement were delivered with a delightful – almost impudent – ease. La Campanella remains a firm favourite with audiences and violinists. And everyone from Liszt to Boris Blacher has written variations, following Paganini’s lead. Quarta then encored his concerto with the Campanella variations for solo violin. A deserved, joyous ovation followed. The young players relished Paganini’s request to turn their instruments into mandolins: this was the only time in the evening when they sounded like they were having some fun. In consequence, so were we.
The second part of the concert was dedicated to Mexican Trash with the orchestra joined by two vocalists, described on the programme as tenor and soprano: that was a gross exaggeration; crooners is what they were. They were provided with microphones which alas, were not switched on, so much of these light voices were drowned out by a loud oversize brass section with trombones focusing their valves heavenwards alla the dance bands of the forties.
I have defended Trash in the past, in part out of nostalgia. I grew up in the forties to the BBC Light programme continually pumping out the husband and wife duo of Anne Ziegler (1910- 2003) and Webster Booth (1902 – 1984) to mostly Ivor Novello numbers such as We’ll gather lilacs in the Spring, Hear my song Violetta or If you were the only girl in the world, this last containing an effective use of the dominant thirteen in its final cadence which my schoolboy ears and improvising fingers at the piano had picked out many years before I would learn what it was called. Ziegler and Booth were properly called soprano and tenor and though their voices were light they were not without distinction. Booth did at stint in oratorio and at the Doyle Carte in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas but it was with Ziegler that he made his name and fortune. YouTube has some recordings. As with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald, there was a burning sincerity in their delivery, which was also blatantly false. That places both duos firmly in the realm of camp, which might sound a bit unfair. But still, it’s never less than fun. And by being so obviously dated it can paradoxically seem not dated at all.
The Mexican version of Trash has none of these redeeming features. At least, not in the performance heard in Rome by the Mexican visitors. The sentiments, melodies and harmonies were remarkably similar to their British and American counterparts. The composers were roughly of the same period. But like them or not, the English and American singers had professionalism and polish. Miss that and you miss the whole damned thing with Trash. And it was just here where the sorry Mexicans fell down.