El Salón Mexico
Aaron Copland, El Salón Mexico
Who knew that Ricardo Montalbán (1920 - 2009; the actor who played Star Trek's Kahn) could have been a concert pianist? But the evidence in Montalbán's first film, Fiesta, is clear—he was a talented pianist. Fiesta was filmed in 1947, and in it Montalbán plays a bullfighter who secretly wants to be a classical composer. He is only 21, and, for their joint birthday, his twin sister Maria smuggles his latest composition to the director of the National Orchestra in Mexico City. Enchanted by the score, the conductor travels to Puebla to meet the young composer—but he finds at home only the bitter father, a retired bull fighter, who wants his son to follow in his footsteps. He never tells his son that the conductor had come to their home.
But great music will out! In a crowded cantina, where the radio is tuned to the classical broadcast in far off Mexico City, Montalbán is shocked to hear his piece announced as a world premier, and the opening notes begin. (In reality, the music is Aaron Copland's El Salón Mexico, in a version for piano and orchestra that Copland wrote especially for the film.) Montalbán, visibly shaken, walks to the piano and begins to play the glittering melody. Everyone stops eating, and they turn around to listen. Cooks come out from the kitchen to hear, and people crowd in from the street. (Montalbán actually plays Copland's composition in this scene.) When the piece finishes, Montalban shakes his head as if waking from a dream—but he wakes to a standing ovation. A tourist takes his arm, and says: "The announcer on the radio said this was the first time this was being played? How could you do it?"
They all knew him only as a bullfighter.
Montalbán abandons the ring, and his father is mortified. Naturally, it falls to Maria to try to save the family honor: she disguises herself as her brother, and enters the ring. Shortly, she is in mortal danger—but her brother rushes in just in time to save her from the bull. Ultimately, the father relents and gives permission for his son to study music.
Here is a link to the scene in which Montalbán plays Copland:
What a story! But El Salón Mexico—what a beautiful composition. Copland uses nine Mexcian folk songs in it, and it premiered in Mexico City with the Mexico Symphony Orchestra in 1937. Apparently Copland was nervous about what Mexicans might think of his work—but when he entered the concert hall for the final rehearsal, the orchestra, in the midst of a Beethoven symphony, stopped and applauded him.
Besides Copland's full orchestral version and the shortened version for piano and orchestra that Copland wrote for Fiesta, Leonard Bernstein wrote versions for solo piano, and also for two pianos, four hands.
Here is a link to the full orchestral version of El Salón Mexico; Aaron Copland himself conducts the New Philharmonia Orchestra, from the album The Copland Collection: Orchestral and Ballet Works:
Copland wrote many tributes to Mexico, Cuba, and South America. We will hear more of Copland's music with a Latin feel tomorrow.
I created "The Day Opens Its Hand," the image above, in 2006. It is based on Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from a haiku by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz:
The day opens its hand
and these few words.