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Mata, conducting here this week, increasingly drawn to Latin music


Eduardo Mata leads the Baltimore Symphony this week in a program that the Mexican conductor describes sadly as "an exception for me."

His disappointment comes not from any lack of affection for Dvorak's "Scherzo Capriccioso," Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra or Schumann's Piano Concerto, which Mata will perform with his friend, the great Czech pianist Ivan Moravec. It's because he isn't conducting any 20th century Latin American music.

"I always try to play at least one Latin American work," the conductor says in a telephone interview from his home south of Mexico City. "I did propose several pieces [to the BSO], but none of them seemed to work out."

The works Mata proposed were probably by such composers as the Mexican Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), the Cuban Julian Orbon (1925-1991) or the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) -- all of whom are represented on Mata's discs for jTC Dorian Records. The recordings are done with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in a series the conductor hopes will eventually comprise a comprehensive sampling of Latin American classical music in the 20th century.

This is not to say that Mata is a specialist in Latin American music. For 16 years -- until the end of last season -- he was music director of the Dallas Symphony, where he regularly met with success in music by composers as diverse as Mahler and Stravinsky or Mozart and Shostakovich. It is not an exaggeration, in fact, to call his Dallas tenure a triumph. The still youthful conductor -- he is only 52 -- left with the unprecedented title of Conductor Emeritus for Life.

When Mata went to Dallas in 1976 as a relatively unknown, 34-year-old conductor, he went to an orchestra that had been to the brink and back many times. He could not have arrived at a worse time. After a declaration of bankruptcy in 1973, the orchestra endured a series of unsuccessful, short-lived music directorships; at the same time, financial cutbacks had created a hemorrhage of Dallas's best players. Although it had a distinguished history -- Antal Dorati, Paul Kletzki and Walter Hendl were among its previous music directors -- Dallas did not seem like a promising place for a young man to make a career.

"It took a lot of time and effort, but we rebuilt," Mata says. Although he brought the orchestra back to the recording studios, took it on its first world tour and hired excellent young players to replace the ones who had left, the achievement he's proudest of is helping to raise the money for the construction of the $81 million Morton Meyerson Symphony Center -- an elegant building, designed by I.M. Pei, reputed to have the best acoustics of any American concert hall since the construction of Carnegie Hall more than a century ago.

With such proven success as an orchestra builder, Mata could have acquired another American music directorship. But he chose not to do that. While he's still active in Europe, particularly in London and Rotterdam, he's reduced the extent of his activities in the United States so he can spend more time in Latin America.

In some respects, Latin American music seems richer than its counterparts to the north. Latin American composers have traditionally had the same ties to Europe as those from the United States -- often studying, like them, in such places as Berlin, Leipzig or Paris. But while Latin American music can be as cerebral as that written here, it is more accessible -- or, at least, more closely tied to Hispanic popular and folk music, and its multiple roots in the cultures of its indigenous peoples and in those of Spain, Portugal and Africa.

"The distance between classical forms and popular forms is less in Latin America than in the United States," Mata says. "There is a lot of great [Latin American] music that has not been discovered. But Latin Americans never seem to care enough to make a point aggressively for this music."

Mata can't say that about himself. He reduced his United States schedule (and visibility) so that he can spend two months each year with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela, performing and recording the music of Hispanic composers.

"We're trying to record the first generation of composers, then we'll begin the second generation," he says. "I feel that I must spend the time [in Latin America] because I must have access to orchestras that can do this [repertory]."

If the remaining records in the series prove as interesting as the first three, perhaps Mata can someday look forward to conducting Latin American music in Baltimore.

"Let's hope for next time," he says.

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