Eduardo Mata led Dallas Symphony to brink of greatness


DALLAS -- The death of conductor Eduardo Mata in a plane crash Wednesday at the age of 52 was a tragic end to the career of a dedicated and serious musician who had played a significant role in the music life of Dallas. How significant can best be measured by those who lived through the crisis that brought the orchestra to its knees and put it out of business in the midst of its 1973-1974 season.

From the depths of despair, the Dallas Symphony with Mr. Mata as its music director climbed back to a respected position in America's community of orchestras. He strengthened the personnel, recorded extensively with the symphony, took it on its first tours of Europe and Asia and led it into a new home -- the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.

None of this would have seemed probable two decades ago. Back then, it had taken nearly a year to put the broken pieces of the Dallas Symphony back together; the architect behind the rebirth of the orchestra was Lloyd Haldeman. As a manager, he had helped bring the Cincinnati Symphony to national prominence and was lured to Dallas to rebuild its orchestra.

He arrived in Dallas with the sort of backing from the city fathers that had been enjoyed by very few who had run the orchestra before him. There was a firm and widespread commitment on the part of civic leaders to erase what had become a black mark against the city nationally following a feature in the New York Times headlined "What Sank the Dallas Symphony."

High on the list of Mr. Haldeman's priorities was the hiring of a music director who could bring attention and excitement to the orchestra and make it a "world-class" ensemble. His choice was Eduardo Mata.

It was a controversial decision. Little was known of Mr. Mata at the time. At 33 he had not previously conducted the Dallas Symphony, and the only post he'd held outside his native Mexico was that of music adviser to the Phoenix Symphony.

His appointment was a gamble. But Mr. Haldeman and those he consulted at the time believed that Dallas was getting in on the ground floor of a major career.

It didn't turn out that way. Though Mr. Mata always had a full schedule of engagements and he carved out a respectable place for himself internationally as Mexico's foremost musician, he never made it to the front rank of conductors.

A great deal of this had to do with his inability to deal in a significant way with mainline repertory. Mr. Mata's primary strength was in contemporary music and his ability to give it shape and life. He was also at home with impressionistic works, both French and Spanish, where a suggestion was more important than a statement.

But in repertory that required greater personality, projection and commitment -- the symphonic works of Beethoven and Brahms, for example, that are the backbone of an orchestra's life -- he too often seemed aloof and uninvolved. A good deal of this might have been traceable to the man himself.

In public he was a distant and formal figure, rarely open and giving of himself. This characteristic appeared to carry over into his music-making, where he seemed unable to let himself go and share his deepest emotions with an audience.

Then, too, he preferred a tense orchestral sound and was the sort of conductor who was determined to be in control of every note. He appeared unwilling to trust his players and give them expressive leeway. These factors often caused his performances to sound edgy and stiff.

He was with the Dallas Symphony for 16 years, the longest tenure of any of its music directors. Part of this was due, it would appear, to the fact that no attempts were made to lure him away by orchestras that were comparable to Dallas or better.

It has been hinted that Mr. Mata's departure was negotiated, that the orchestra's backers believed that the new hall called for a new musical direction.

Also, there were those who felt that, though the hall itself would be a magnet for subscribers for the first few years of its operation, after that a new draw was going to be needed. That draw was a new music director.

Perhaps Mr. Mata also realized this and made the decision himself to move on. Whatever was behind his leave-taking, the timing was apt. And when it came, he acted as he always had, with the best interests of the orchestra at heart.

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