Although he was never the music director of a truly first-rank orchestra, Eduardo Mata spent most of his abbreviated career bringing greater stature to evolving ensembles. And although in concert he preferred Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler, as well as Ravel, Stravinsky, and Strauss, his excellent last recordings may eventually pigeonhole him as a specialist in Spanish and Latin American music. Those late CDs, in which ethnic song and dance meld with art music conventions, hint at the sorts of music Mata listened to for pleasure: Latin American folk music; the songs of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim; jazz; and especially bossa nova. Late in his career, Mata did programs of Latin American and especially Mexican music wherever he conducted -- even in Germany, which is the last place one would expect to find an appreciative audience for music of the jungles and deserts. But Mata strove not to be regarded as merely a "Mexican" conductor. He worked hard to be accepted into the international mainstream, an effort that backfired in the 1980s when he became part of a running joke among music critics about interpretively faceless, indistinguishable conductors. Mata grew up in Mexico City in a family that was not itself musical, but did appreciate arts and culture. In 1985 he told the magazine Gramophone "My father used to sing and take me to concerts; there were people like Horenstein, Sargent, and, of course, Dorati. A major figure in Mexico was Celibidache, and Markevitch was exercising a huge intellectual power as a composer and conductor. He and Chávez were great influences on me. Every time I think about them I feel sad not to have had time (or, perhaps, inclination -– I grew disillusioned with the serialism I once worked with) to write any serious music for over ten years. But a composer's way of looking at a score still remains with me." Most of Mata's compositions date from the early '60s, and they never figured in his own discography. Among his works are five symphonies (the first and second, from 1962 and 1963, are subtitled "Classical" and "Romantic," respectively); a 1963 ballet suite called Deborah; the 1963 ballet-on-tape Los Huescos Secos, a 1960 piano sonata; a 1967 cello sonata, Trio to Vaughan Williams (1957) for clarinet, snare drum, and cello; and a series of pieces for mixed chamber ensembles under the blanket title Improvisaciones. As prodigious as this output is, Mata began to conduct even earlier, at age 15, while studying composition at the Mexican National Conservatory with Rodolfo Halftter and Pablo Moncayo. At the conservatory, where he was enrolled from 1960 to 1963, he also took part in the composition workshop directed by Carlos Chávez and Julián Orbón. A Koussevitzky Fellowship enabled Mata to spend the summer of 1964 at Tanglewood, attending courses in conducting under Erich Leinsdorf and in composition under Gunther Schuller. Mata quickly traded the composer's pencil for the conductor's baton. In 1964, he became conductor of the Guadalajara Symphony Orchestra and was soon also appointed head of the music department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. There he founded an orchestra, complained to the Mexican musical press about inadequate government funding, and remained until 1976, the year he served as principal conductor of the Mexico Casals Festival. During these years he embarked on a series of recordings for Mexican RCA, a contact that would benefit him greatly in the coming years. Although Mata's Mexican recordings were never distributed internationally, the parent company brought him to London for certain projects, including a 1977 Revueltas album that served as his entree to the U.S. record market. Mata had left his Guadalajara post in 1970 to become principal conductor of the Phoenix Symphony. This was not yet a full-time orchestra, but it did provide Mata a base in the United States. With this foothold, Mata procured guest-conducting invitations from the orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and other major cities, and made even more appearances with European orchestras. Even so, he was not well-known in the United States when the call came in 1976 for him to take over the ailing Dallas Symphony -- an orchestra he had never conducted. The Dallas Symphony had a history of recruiting rising young orchestra-building conductors, including Antal Dorati and Georg Solti. But its fortunes declined alarmingly in the early '70s. In 1974, it fell into bankruptcy and nearly a year of inactivity. Mata was initially skeptical of the Dallas invitation, concerned that so much rebuilding lay ahead; nor, as he was just beginning to win international notice, was he eager to be linked with an orchestra associated with failure. Lloyd Haldeman had become the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's president and managing director upon the group's 1974 near-collapse. Haldeman's job was to rebuild the orchestra financially and to improve its hometown reputation. To revive the orchestra artistically, Haldeman hand-picked Mata. He believed the young, charismatic conductor to be on the verge of a brilliant international career, which would at the very least improve the Dallas Symphony's status by association. Indeed, the orchestra soon resumed recording for RCA after a decades-long hiatus only because the label wanted to expand its existing relationship with Mata. But handsome Mata was not wholly welcomed as the fairytale prince come to bring the sleeping symphony back to life. In articles for the Dallas Morning News and Musical America, music critic John Ardoin questioned Mata's fitness for the job. Ardoin would have preferred that the orchestra, which had lacked a full-time music director since 1973, be rebuilt by a conductor with a higher profile. Mata was well-known in Mexico and had enjoyed many guest engagements in Europe, but he had made his New York debut only in 1975 at the Mostly Mozart Festival. In the United States, he was still a little-known quantity outside the Phoenix city limits. Ardoin complained that Mata's initial Dallas concert proved him to be eccentric in Mozart and neutral in Mahler, and that Mata's first few seasons were highly inconsistent. Generally, Ardoin felt, Mata did not stand out from the crowd; he was a conductor with "little or no view point." Ardoin's was not a lone complaint. In the '80s, some critics in national publications wrote of the "Muti-Mata-Mehta" syndrome. They maintained that American orchestras were being taken over by interchangeable, soundalike glamour boys -- Riccardo Muti in Philadelphia, Mata in Dallas, Zubin Mehta in New York -- who led performances that were technically adept but interpretively superficial. The problem, they added, was not confined to those three U.S. orchestras, but spread throughout the continent and across to Europe. Under the influence of overextended, jet-set conductors, orchestras had lost their national styles and were delivering generic performances. After the first few seasons, Mata was credited, even by Ardoin, with bringing brilliance and unity to the Dallas Symphony (the conductor once told an interviewer, "For me, there is no such thing as over-rehearsing. There is always something that can be improved").. But Mata was much slower to develop his own interpretive stance. In the two decades following his Dallas appointment, Mata did gradually mature as an artist. In the mid to late 1970s, for RCA, he had made adept recordings with London orchestras of music by Silvestre Revueltas and Manuel de Falla. When he returned to these composers about fifteen years later for Dorian, the performances were even more vibrant, even though Mata was working with a lesser Venezuelan orchestra. In between, his Dallas recordings of Prokofiev, Copland, Ravel, Gershwin, Holst, and the like for RCA, EMI, and Pro Arte garnered respectful if not wildly enthusiastic reviews. As these were among the first digital recordings, critics tended to comment more on the quality of the sound than on the virtues of the performance. Outside Latin America, Mata's critical stock during this period was highest in England, where he was still a frequent and much appreciated guest conductor. Mata's 1981 Vox set of the Carlos Chávez symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra first suggested what later recordings of pieces by composers as diverse as Enescu and Ginastera would confirm: Mata held a strong natural affinity for highly rhythmic music full of national color. Through the '80s, Pro Arte and Dorian would employ Mata and the Dallas Symphony mainly as their "orchestral fireworks" specialists in such fare as Respighi's Pines of Rome and Saint-Saëns's Organ Symphony. But, on disc, Mata fully came into his own only upon leaving Dallas for the coastal mountains of Venezuela. Mata gave up his Dallas post in 1993 after having infused the orchestra with fine new players, snagging it a series of recording contracts, collaborating in the acoustic development of Dallas' acclaimed Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center (which was designed by I.M. Pei and opened in 1989), and leading the orchestra on its first, highly successful tour of Europe. A London critic declared the tour to be "a preemptive bid to turn the big five orchestras in the U.S. into a big six ... a testament to one of the most rapid and remarkable rises in the fortunes of any orchestra since the war." Still, Mata needed a change. "I have been a music director somewhere every year since I was 22," he told DSO staff member Mark Melson, who recalled the remarks at a memorial ceremony a few weeks after Mata's death. "I would like a rest from the administrative duties, from the personnel decisions, and would like to be free to just make music for a while." The parting was amicable; the orchestra named Mata Conductor Emeritus for Life, and Mata made his public farewell with praise for the musicians rather than with self-aggrandizing comments about his own skills. On his final night as music director, he told a radio interviewer that the biggest change in the orchestra during his tenure was "how the orchestra feels about themselves. They are a proud bunch now. They know that they can play as well as any orchestra in the world." Oddly, Mata next turned his attention to ensembles that could not quite make that claim. He became principal guest conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, principal guest conductor and artistic advisor of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar of Venezuela in Caracas, and artistic director of the Solistas de México. With the latter two groups he embarked on a Latin American music recording project for Dorian, delivering crackling performances of substantial works by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Carlos Chávez, Alberto Ginastera, Silvestre Revueltas, Antonio Estévez, and his one-time teacher Julián Orbón. He also led the ensembles in three admirable discs devoted mostly to music of Manuel de Falla. If his early recordings of European music had been professional yet unengaged, here Mata led performances in which real finesse alternated with the requisite tub-thumping flair. Mata also maintained close relationships with the Pittsburgh Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, London Symphony, Rome Radio Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic, and Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra. But where all this may have led will never be known. On the morning of January 4, 1995, Mata and his companion, Marina Anaya, died when his private plane crashed minutes after take-off from Cuernavaca Airport, outside Mata's home of Xochitepec, south of Mexico City. ~ James ReelPortions of Content Provided by Rovi Corporation.
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