Under Copland’s Sombrero

The Las Vegas Philharmonic Reaches Out to the Local Hispanic Community and Reaffirms the Role of Art in Today’s Politically Divided Landscape

By Brian Sodoma

At some point in one’s career, it’s common to question what you know, to shake up one’s discipline or craft, and challenge status quo. By his early 30s, composer Aaron Copland had studied with Modernists in Europe and was commanding respect from his classical music peers; he, however, questioned whether there was a creative “vacuum” in America and found himself heading south of the border for inspiration.

Copland ventured to Mexico in 1932. At the time, the country was an artistic hotbed of sorts, where creative expression influenced political and social issues of the day. Copland met Mexican composers Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas, the latter of whom is a relative 20th-century unknown, but his passion for a political statement and artistic purpose distinguished him in Mexican culture.

Before Mexico, Copland, like any other young artist, “put on the cloaks of whatever you’re being influenced by,” explains Donato Cabrera, music director, and conductor of the Las Vegas Philharmonic. “By the time he went to Mexico, he was stunned by how artists, muralists, composers … were as important as the statements made by politicians. Their commentary on the situation at hand was every bit as important, and that blew Copland away.”

After Mexico, and perhaps as a result of Revueltas’ and other artists’ inspiration, many of Copland’s works became cultural statements about the American Southwest. His compositions were popular in American Westerns. Some of his most famous post-Mexico work includes “Appalachian Spring,” the somewhat frenzied “Hoe Down” from his ballet Rodeo, as well as the musical score for the film version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and his 1938 ballet for the story of Billy the Kid.

Now, reflecting on Copland’s time in Mexico offers an opportunity for the Las Vegas Philharmonic to engage with the local Hispanic community, Cabrera notes. With its Music Unwound program (October 30th to November 4th), the Philharmonic uses Copland’s work to introduce Revueltas and other Mexican artists who influenced the American Southwest, while still flying very much under America’s radar. At a time of deep political divides, Cabrera says it’s appropriate to shed light on a unique moment of Mexican-American cultural connectivity.

“Art has a way of speaking the truth without artifice, in a way that words and polemic could never do,” Cabrera says. “We programmed this concert well over a year ago, and it seems more timely than ever to have it happen right now.”

Shaking up the traditional orchestra

Done in collaboration with the Endowment for the Humanities and UNLV, Music Unwound is a six-day festival, whose concert on its final day is curated by American musicologist Joseph Horowitz. There are also lectures, interactive experiences, and performances on the days leading up to that final performance.

In addition to introducing audiences to Revueltas, Music Unwound also breaks from orchestral traditions by working to further educate the audience between musical numbers. The Nov. 4th performance infuses an actor who reads both Copland and Revueltas, narrating while delving into Copland’s and Revueltas’s backgrounds and themes.

The concert opens with Copland’s “Hoe-Down,” but then segues, not into a lecture from Cabrera, but to the actor who plays the part of a curious Copland then, also, a slightly off-kilter Revueltas, claiming, as a boy, to prefer “banging on a washtub to doing something useful,” and whose many life teachers were “the best of them with no degrees.”

This narrative approach injects some humanities education into a concert experience, helping the audience travel, with the aid of a story and colorful characters, to contextualizing the musical performance.

“I want to break out of the rut of generic concerto symphony program that doesn’t give you any humanities content,” Horowitz explains. “I think orchestras see themselves as humanities institutions, which is what museums do. [But] too many orchestras live in a little silo. … I think what we’re doing here is intellectually ambitious.”

Music Unwound also offers symposiums that touch on the music of the 1930s, Mexican film history, the Mexican Revolution, and other aspects of Mexican culture and history. On the day of the concert, attendees can enjoy an audio tour along with seeing visual artists of the time and mariachi performances, too.

“We want this to be multi-layered and multi-faceted, like the population reflected in our city,” adds Kevin Eberle, the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s Director of Education. “A lot of people know classical music. They know Aaron Copland, but the story stops there.”

A bond with the common man

Revueltas and Copland shared a drive for the plight of the common man. So the festival also includes a screening of the film, Redes, for which the Mexican government commissioned Revueltas to compose the musical score. The Robert Strand film follows a farmer as he works to support his family but whose fortunes fade at the expense of the farm owner’s drive for greater profit, while also dealing with harsh economic realities. The film inspired Copland to write a 1937 New York Times piece about Revueltas and the film.

Revueltas, who was educated in Mexico and Chicago and conducted orchestras in Texas and Alabama, “does not write symphonies and sonatas so much as vivid tone pictures,” Copland wrote. “That is to say, his music is a spontaneous outpouring, a strong expression of his inner emotions. There is nothing premeditated or unspontaneous about him. When seized with the creative urge, he has been known to spend days on end without food or sleep until the piece was finished. He writes his music at a table in the manner of the older musicians, and quite unlike the musical procedure of the modern composer, who, because he uses complex harmonies and rhythms, is as a rule forced to seek the help of the piano. I mention this as an instance of Revueltas’s extraordinary musicality and naturalness,” Copland also wrote.

Adds Horowitz: “Revueltas was a purely political artist. The only thing that mattered to him was impact.”

Copland’s time in Mexico and subsequent success wasn’t met without challenge. In 1953, he was questioned by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy as a Communist party sympathizer. Copland became somewhat estranged from the audience he cultivated in the 1930s and 1940s, Horowitz notes, who sees similar plights for artists in a politically polarized America today.

“We are not as culturally conducive to political art as Mexico … even other nations,” Horowitz added. “Now, we’re at a moment when a lot of us in the arts community question: why are we doing this? … and what is … the role of culture and art when the U.S. is split in two.”

Cabrera and Horowitz agree there may not be a more perfect time for a city in the American Southwest to embrace Music Unwound.

“I’m not here to prove a point,” Cabrera says. “I’m just here to celebrate realities. There is a reality that the Hispanic population of Las Vegas is underserved with the arts and underrepresented and under-celebrated. …. Mexican culture runs at least 200 years deeper than what has happened in the U.S., so that rich relationship is being celebrated with this concert.”

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