Musical conquistador

Grover Wilkins hadn't intended to make musical history. He was happy with his life: conducting avant-garde 20th-century music in Pittsburgh and in Paris, France, and getting Fulbright scholarships to do research on the group of 20th-century French composers known as Les Six. But a series of events resulted in Wilkins discovering a treasure trove of early music by Spanish composers who may be as good as Bach, Handel, and Haydn--their famous contemporaries. To perform that music, a performing arts group--the Dallas-based Orchestra of New Spain--was born, and is quietly breaking new musical ground of worldwide significance.

Back in 1984, Wilkins was in Dallas to guest-conduct the Dallas Ballet. The downtown Arts District was just taking shape, with the Dallas Museum of Art newly built and the Meyerson Symphony Center being planned, and Wilkins' interest was piqued when the city and the Catholic Diocese announced their decision not to raze the historic Cathedral Guadalupe Church on Ross Avenue. Wilkins had done a lot of performing in cathedrals in Europe and thought the Gaudalupe Cathedral might make a great place for a concert. "I got to thinking about it," he recalls, "and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it would be really interesting to do something; and why not Spanish music?"

The next time he was in Paris, he stopped by the Bibliotheque Nationale to see what it had in the way of Spanish music. He was astonished to find a collection of 10 volumes, published in the 1850s, full of incredibly high-quality music from the baroque era (1600-1750), a period known for its dearth of published music from Spain. "There was no question that if there were things of that quality, there had to be a lot more," Wilkins says. "As I looked at that collection, it was too important, too good not to be part of a much larger body of work."

Inquiries yielded nothing; even Spanish experts told Wilkins they had never heard of most of the 16 or 17 composers in the Paris collection. Wilkins, however, became even more determined: He decided he would go to the source. By then, it was 1988, a year before the Meyerson's scheduled September 1989 opening. Wilkins knew there had been interest expressed in doing some sort of Hispanic-themed performance for that occasion, so he informed one of the women working on the concert hall's opening that he had found this very important music. To do a concert in the Guadalupe Cathedral, he suggested, would be a wonderful addition to the Meyerson's opening festivities that would also draw on the history of the local Hispanic communities. No one was giving concerts in the cathedral at the time, and it would help the important symbol be seen as a part of the burgeoning Arts District. "It seemed to me to be a great statement to make," Wilkins says. "You keep the old with the new."

Wilkins sat down with representatives of the Meyerson opening committee, the Arts District, and the Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and hammered out funding that could send him to Spain to find music for the concert; he also petitioned the Texas Commission on the Arts for help. As a musicologist, Wilkins knew that many scores published in the 19th century were, in fact, revised and updated versions of what 17th- and 18th-century composers had written; that was why it was necessary to go to Madrid to try to find the original manuscripts. "We had a new body of work," Wilkins says. "We wanted to make sure we were giving the composer his due by playing what he really wrote."

Wilkins had chutzpa. Not only did he have no music, but he had no idea whether the cathedral would work acoustically. "At that point, there was lots of carpet on the floor, and there was no good acoustical shell behind it," Wilkins remembers. "You're never going to know for certain, but I had a pretty good idea. It's a beautiful place, and there's a certain ambience to it." (Today the cathedral is used on a regular basis by many arts groups for a variety of concerts and other events.)

Armed only with a photocopy of one of the masses by Antonio Ripa published in the 19th century, Wilkins flew to Madrid to try to find something that might be a handwritten original. His first stop was the Royal Palace, where he came up emptyhanded. He decided to go to Seville, where the cathedral for which the piece had been written was located. He ended up at the cathedral library, one of three in Seville. The librarian there couldn't find the Ripa piece, but she suggested calling a local organist.

The organist went to another library, the choir library, and returned with a 2-foot stack of file folders filled with music. "He said, 'This is the composer you're looking for--enjoy!'" Wilkins recalls. "I got busy, and in the first 10 or 15 minutes, I found the piece! I compared the original manuscript with the photocopy I had brought. They were very close, but there were several changes: In the fifth measure, there was a substantial insert, and a few measures later there was another substantial insert. It was very important to know why that insert was there...I was delighted to have found the original manuscript, because it proved my point that there were at least some differences between what had been published and what the composer had written down."

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Laurel Ornish

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