Call her Chachi - rate her a pioneer. Odaline de la Mart'inez in demand as conductor

I find it very difficult to go to a concert and hear a piece of music and say, `Yes - that's the way it should be.' I always think, `You know, if I were doing that, I'd do it like this.''' Conductor and composer Odaline de la Mart'inez - known to friends as ``Chachi'' - is a quick thinker and fast talker. Her answers are almost ahead of my questions.

We talked at her unpretentious flat. A small, intensely alive woman, she is an American citizen born 38 years ago in Cuba. She has lived in England now for a decade and a half.

It was as a conductor that she hit the headlines in Britain three years ago - she was the first woman to conduct an entire Promenade Concert at the Albert Hall.

This door did not just open itself, however. She had pushed a little. She started a chamber ensemble over 10 years ago called Lontano (a loose translation from the Italian might be ``Way Out'') - a group dedicated to playing 20th-century music. The group does more than 50 concerts a year. I've heard it at the Edinburgh Festival and in Glasgow. Lantano is now in the middle of its American East Coast tour. It tackles and promotes with confident finesse a wide range of modern music, much of it recent. Composers are forever leaping out of the audience during the applause and bestowing handshakes and kisses all round - particularly on the conductor.

It was in 1982 that Ms. Mart'inez had written to the London Proms director asking him to consider Lontano for a concert. She was surprised and delighted that it was only two years before that concert took place - with her on the podium. ``I wonder why have they waited so long to have a woman conduct. Still, I got a lot of attention because I was the first.''

As a result, she says, ``the world has opened'' for her. Invitations have flooded in. By the end of this year, for instance, she will have conducted all of Britain's major BBC orchestras. Next year she will make her debut in the States as an orchestral conductor, with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra.

When she conducts, she comes across as a natural performer, but not at all as an egotistical showoff. She doesn't use a baton: Her arms, hands, and supple fingers seem to be modeling the music, almost matter-of-factly, with movements not unlike the coordinated flight of two birds that know instinctively when to exert most energy and when to rest. What she relishes is the opportunity conducting gives her to put across her own point of view. ``The word for `perform' in Spanish is `interpret,''' she says, ``and that, to me, is almost putting your finger on it. When you perform something, you're interpreting it. What a wonderful chance! Great music, and you can say, `I think - today - I want it like this. Let's try it.' That's exciting.''

Isn't it nerve-racking conducting works by composers who are sitting in the audience? ``It's no different,'' she laughs. ``I do dead composers, too!''

I have heard her conduct Haydn, and it was invigorating. She feels that she is opening up now and really has something to say when she conducts the ``normal repertoire'' as well as contemporary music.

With the new work, however, the first thing she looks at ``is not how will I do it, but what is it that [the composer] is trying to say. I try to get into the mind of the piece of music. ... Then it's just a matter of figuring out how is it that I can shape it. Most composers, so far, have always been very pleased. So obviously something is OK!''

She's always happy for them to come to rehearsals. ``But I always try to keep them out of the first rehearsal.... [That] is when the players make mistakes and correct them or they groan and moan, `Oh, this is awful!' - but when they get over that, they often realize it's a good piece.''

She's never had a composer storm out after a concert. ``No ... but I have done it myself!'' Once, in London, after hearing a performance of one of her own works - a solo piece with tape - ``I just stood up and turned over to the audience and said, `This is not my piece of music' and walked out.'' If she felt they had tried really hard to get it right but still hadn't, ``I think I would have accepted it....'' But all her pleas to attend rehearsals had been consistently ignored. She felt her work had been completely misunderstood. ``That's the only time it's happened.''

She writes most of her own chamber music so that no conductor is needed. ``Being a conductor,'' she says, ``I know exactly how to write things so that it can be done without.''

All the same, she admits to feeling protective about her compositions. ``It is perfectly possible to not understand what the composer has done on paper. Sometimes notation is a very difficult problem. But even beyond notation, understanding style is difficult....

``You can play Mozart like he was a bunch of hammers, you know, and you will still have the same notes ... but the style would be completely wrong. I think the same thing applies, especially, to simpler, less complicated music: you really have to understand where it comes from.''

She has no doubts about where her own music comes from. She describes it, she says, ``in a most odd way.'' There are three strong influences.

``First, J.S. Bach - sometimes my music can be quite contrapuntal. I don't mean to compare myself with a great composer, that's clear, but I'm interested in Bach, very much.

``Then I'm interested in Afro-Cuban music, because it's the first thing I can remember. And I'm also interested in the music of [American composer] George Crumb. Which is where I began to be interested in tonality, in the new tonality, not as it was known in the 19th century.''

Her music is rooted in her background. After early childhood in Cuba and school and college days in the States, ending with degrees in both music and math, she gathered ``about nine years' worth of scholarships.'' The first of them brought her to Britain, and that's where she has stayed.

``I came to England really looking for the avant-garde and was writing avant-garde music at the beginning. But coming, and looking, I found that my roots weren't there. My roots were where I come from - Cuba and the United States.... In my soul I still belong there.''

Her music is intense. ``I have been told many times that my music is very dramatic. You know, when my singers ever did my song cycles or anything like that, they jumped off the stage! People said, `You know, you should write an opera.'''

She did. It is based on the life - a mixture of religious revivalism and scandal - of American evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. It was premi`ered in 1984 in New Orleans and performed again earlier this year by students at London's Royal Academy of Music (where Mart'inez did a postgraduate year in 1975-76).

What appealed to her about ``Sister Aimee'' (and Martinez is open about being a Christian herself) was the evangelist's ``struggle between God and the devil.... She was famous for her ability to preach, but ... infamous because of her mistakes. But they were nothing to do with it: the issue was what she was and what she was after.''

The opera (she is planning a second now) is ``a tonal piece, very tonal. I mean there's a lot of revivalist music in it. It's all original. I didn't steal anybody's ideas! But ... she's there preaching and you hear the fingers snapping, and you hear 'em going `A - men!' That's the story.''

She doesn't mind in the least if her music is called ``eclectic.'' ``If you're writing an opera with a strong message, you use whatever voice you need to convey your idea. I'm not hung up at all.''

As for ``the new tonality,'' she explains its difference from 19th-century tonality as a ``new way of looking at it, as though you really climbed all the way to the top of the mountain, you know, and you climbed the hard way and all of a sudden there's a glass of water - it tastes so much better, you know .... It's not the same glass of water that you had down there at the bottom of the mountain.''

She emphasizes that this doesn't mean that the strength of her commitment to modern music has changed. As a conductor she feels more than capable of understanding atonal music. ``I believe there's a lot of very fine music today being written and a lot of composers, like Brian Ferneyhough, for example, who write extremely difficult pieces that have nothing to do with tonality.''

As a conductor she feels this catholicity is essential, and even as a composer it is good ``to be able to say, `I think this is good, or that is, even though [my music doesn't] have any relationship to [theirs] .... If you don't accept other styles in music, then you become pretty one-sided.''

Mart'inez knows and performs the music of many composers who, she feels, are ``so pro one kind of music that they're against everything else.'' And that, she believes, ``is a pity.''

Her remaining tour dates in the US include Smith College in Northampton, Mass., tonight; Hirschorn Museum (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C., Saturday; and Haverford (Pa.) College, Sunday.

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