Composer's New Work Rooted in San Antonio

by Mike Greenberg

San Antonio Express-News, May 2, 1999

In a chance remark, composer Robert X. Rodriguez drops a key to his musical personality. "I used to live on Carroll Avenue," he says over lunch at a restaurant not far from his former home, which was just off Nogalitos Street a few blocks south of Hwy. 90. The South Side. Of course, some parts of the South Side are more South Side than others, culturally, but Rodriguez's old neighborhood is very South Side - eclectic, familial, sensual, spicy, easy-going, homey and homemade.

Rodriguez moved to Dallas years ago and got famous around the world as a composer of operas, ballet scores and symphonic and chamber music. Three years ago, he accepted an appointment as Composer-in-Residence with the San Antonio Symphony, which this weekend plays the world premiere of his Bachanale: Concertino for Orchestra. Music director Christopher Wilkins conducts.

The new piece, the 14th work by Rodriguez to be played by his hometown orchestra, was inspired partly by a Bach suite - thus the odd spelling of the title - he heard his cousin play on the cello long ago and partly by the bridges over the San Antonio River. "It's actually unlike anything I expected," Rodriguez says of the new work. "I felt like a spectator watching it write itself. I started out with a completely different piece in mind. The symphony had wanted a serious concerto for orchestra, but I just couldn't take it seriously. As Oscar Wilde said, 'Life is too important to be taken seriously.' A concerto for orchestra is the kind of music you have to put on a tie to listen to - the big, important statement. And I wanted to have fun. I wanted the audience to have fun, and I especially wanted the players to have fun.

"Writing the piece was like reading a thriller. I couldn't wait to get to the next chapter. More than any other piece, there were surprises for me. With most pieces, I decide to do something, and I do it; there are surprises, but not about the whole structure of the piece. I have a friend who's a chef. He's French, and he says when he goes to select food, he ‘listens’ to the food and the food tells him how it wants to be cooked.

"These themes have been like that. They have a mind of their own -- the themes I created in reaction to the Bach." Rodriguez decided to begin the work by quoting from the Bach suite his cousin used to play, in four beats to the measure. Juxtaposed with the Bach is an original contrasting theme, in seven beats to the measure. The new theme, Rodriguez says, "arches over" the Bach theme, which "flows serenely" under it. The idea is also a pun: "Bach" is the German word for "brook."

His first task was to devise an original theme that was clearly “unBach.” "Interaction between opposites is the only constant in my writing. I make it a point to make each piece as different from the other as I can, but one unifying principle is my delight in juxtaposing opposites and seeing them interact. I tend to think in theatrical, operatic terms, so the concertino for orchestra started to take shape when I began to think of the instruments as characters in a little drama."

Throughout his career as a mature composer, Rodriguez has appropriated a mixed bag of styles, ideas and tunes from other times and cultures, ranging from medieval chant to contemporary mariachi. Yet his music is always identifiably his own. His stamp can be heard in his music's wit, tenderness, virtuosity and eroticism. "I think part of the seriousness of the 20th century artistically has been the dramatic consequence of modernism's making a total break with the past. I think of Groucho Marx's famous song, 'Whatever It Is, I'm Against It.' That attitude has produced some very serious, rather self-important music.

"I think one of the refreshing elements of post-modernism is that we can again embrace the past. Once you start communicating with your ancestors and building on a foundation, you're more relaxed about the whole process." In contrast to the academic purism of the '60s and '70s, the present is "a very refreshing atmosphere in which to work," Rodriguez says.

"Today certainly is as good a time to be a composer as there has ever been. Not only is there more to draw upon, from past centuries and other cultures, but now it's accepted to draw from all those sources freely and interchangeably. I use the analogy of the bee that collects pollen from the flowers, and the honey is flavored by the flowers. I think of myself as a musical bee. I can freely take in pollen from widely disparate sources and produce consistent and, I hope, fascinating honey."