Can a decade really have already passed since January 4, 1995, the day former Dallas Symphony Music Director Eduardo Mata died? It hardly seems possible. I remember the day vividly. The phone rang at my desk in the Dallas Symphony office, I answered, and Brian Levine, vice-president of Dorian Recordings (the Dallas Symphony's record company at the time) was on the other end.
"I don't know how to say this, Mark, but we just received a call from our Mexican distributor that Eduardo Mata was killed in a plane crash this morning." I waited a moment while the shock registered before I responded, "Are you sure?"
He was sure and the story was correct. I ran upstairs to then-President Gene Bonelli's office, interrupted a meeting he was having with board member Al Meitz, and broke the news. They were stunned, as were all of us on staff as the word circulated. A few minutes later Gene told the musicians at the end of their morning rehearsal. There were anguished outcries from the musicians, many of whom had been hired by Mata, who was in his second season as conductor emeritus after 16 years as music director. His private plane had lost an engine and gone down earlier that morning near Cuernavaca, en route from Mexico to Dallas. The 52-year-old maestro and his companion, Marina Anaya, were killed instantly.
A few weeks later, on January 24, the musicians of the Dallas Symphony and first-year Music Director Andrew Litton donated their services for a memorial concert at the Meyerson with three distinguished guests: violinist Pinchas Zukerman, conductor Robert Shaw, and mezzo-soprano Mariana Paunova. The Dallas Symphony Chorus also performed. It was a moving tribute to a man who guided the Dallas Symphony to recovery after the mid-1970s bankruptcy that had shut down the orchestra for nearly a year. Mata came to the orchestra in 1977 as a gifted and ambitious 35-year-old. By the time he announced his decision to step down as music director, he had brought the DSO an RCA recording contract, two Carnegie Hall appearances, and its first-ever European tour. He also guided the orchestra's move from Fair Park Music Hall to the Meyerson and influenced the design of the new hall.
But his legacy to the world of symphonic music reached beyond the Dallas Symphony. More than any other conductor who enjoyed an international career, Mata championed the cause of Latin American composers, especially Chávez, Orbón, Revueltas, Villa-Lobos, Ginastera, Estévez, and Gutiérrez-Heras, whose meditative Postludio for Strings will be conducted by Litton on January 6-9 as a tribute to the late director. Mata's advocacy of this music was not limited to Dallas, for he conducted Latin American music everywhere he went, from London and Frankfurt to Australia and Caracas. In programming this music, he not only broadened the horizons of concertgoers around the globe but he also gave encouragement and hope to Latin Americans who had a tough time cracking the tight circle of mostly European composers whose music comprises the world's standard symphonic repertoire.
Late in his Dallas tenure, Mata established a relationship with the Simón Bolìvar Orchestra of Caracas, with whom he started to record much of the Latin American repertoire he loved. His untimely death cut short not only that project, but also a career that was just reaching its artistic maturity.
The program book for that poignant 1995 memorial concert at the Meyerson included tributes from dozens of colleagues around the world‹musicians, managers, record company executives, and colleagues in Dallas. Shaw, who was music director of the Atlanta Symphony for many years and the dean of American choral conductors, called Mata "a man of keen musical intelligence, warm and communicative passion, a special regard for music's composer-creators, and exceptional personal grace." Pianist Ivan Moravec wrote that he was "altogether unprepared to accept the fact that Eduardo is not among us any more. His tragic departure means for me the painful loss of a great musician and a rare and loyal friend." Pianist Joseph Kalichstein contributed a letter addressed to Mata, which said, simply, "Something of me died, too, in the plane…We shared a lot of Mozart: I hope he's with you: he's with me, trying to comfort me for this unexplainable hurt."
Those of us who love and support the Dallas Symphony salute Eduardo Mata and all he did to nurture this orchestra and enrich the great art form it serves. Remember his legacy as you enjoy the concerts of this orchestra he helped build.