By William Albright
HOUSTON — Requiems can be performed in support of everybody who has ever died, but sometimes they target a specific person or group of people. Verdi’s Requiem honors poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni; Mozart’s commemorates a count’s late wife; Maurice Duruflé wrote his in memory of his father. Arguably, Brahms’ A German Requiem was prompted by the deaths of his mother and Robert Schumann. Cherubini’s contribution to the form was first performed at a commemoration service for King Louis XVI on the 23rd anniversary of his beheading during the French Revolution, and Berlioz was asked to honor those who died in the Revolution of July 1830.
Ending her three-year stint as the Houston Symphony’s composer-in-residence, Gabriela Lena Frank has given requiems a new wrinkle by writing one that’s about a pivotal page in history, uses three languages, and even rearranges the elements of a traditional Latin Mass. She says, “While a requiem in the traditional sense in that it speaks generally of life and loss, this requiem is positioned from the vantage point of the Spanish Conquest of the New World in present-day Mexico” and the resulting fall of the Aztec Empire in the early 16th century. From that event emerged Mexico’s mestizos, people with mixed indigenous and European ancestry.
Fittingly, the Houston Symphony and music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada premiered the orchestra’s latest commission in Jones Hall on May 5, the Mexican holiday known as Cinco de Mayo. On that date in 1862, at the Battle of Puebla, 4,000 Mexican soldiers defeated the French army, which was better-equipped, twice as large, and undefeated for almost half a century. Since that upset victory, no other European nation has militarily invaded a country in the Americas.
Frank built her Conquest Requiem around two people: the multilingual Nahua woman dubbed La Malinche who became conquistador Hernán Cortés’ interpreter and mistress; and Martín, the son she bore him and thus one of the first mestizos. The text for the seven-movement, 40-minute work for large orchestra, chorus, and two vocal soloists is itself a kind of linguistic mestizo. Soprano Jessica Rivera, baritone Andrew Garland, and the Houston Symphony Chorus. led by director Betsy Cook Weber, sang in three languages. The choir sings the Latin of the traditional Mass. The soloists, representing La Malinche and Martin, sing original Spanish-language material by Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, with whom Frank is currently writing an opera, and poetry in the Aztecs’ Nahuatl language by indigenous princes.
Frank says La Malinche has been seen as “feminist hero who saved countless lives, treacherous villain who facilitated genocide, conflicted victim of forces beyond her control, or as symbolic mother of the new mestizo people.” In recent years her name spawned the term malinchista, which means disloyal or traitorous person, and she is depicted in the Conquest Requiem as Mexico’s equivalent of another word-coining collaborator, Nazi-occupied Norway’s Vidkun Quisling.
Frank’s music in this mostly somber, brooding work is predominantly tonal and punctuated with striking rhythmic and coloristic touches and instrumental combinations. The chorus does some humming and even makes whooping sounds in the opening “Introit: Cuicatl de Malinche,” or Song of Malinche. The baritone soloist’s one-line utterance in the driving second movement, “Judex ergo cum sedebit,” triggers without pause the feverish third section, the “Dies irae: Cuicatl de Martín,” or Song of Martín, with its big sonorities and forcefully syncopated rhythms.
The fourth movement, the tranquil, trill-aerated “Recordare,” brings some lyrical relief in the form of ethereal contributions from piccolo and harp and the chorus sopranos’ long, suspended vocal lines.
In the fifth movement, “Rex tremendae: El Aullido de Malinche,” or The Howl of Malinche, she wishes blindness had kept her from seeing the invading Spaniards rape and plunder of her land. The sixth section, “Confutatis maledictis,” is a dirge-like plea for the salvation of everyone including Malinche, the rocking rhythm suggesting keening and the chorus voicing its prayer in murmurs and whispers. Healing redemption arrives in the touching final movement, titled “In paradisum: Benedición de Malinche y Martín,” in which Frank finally cuts poor Malinche some slack.
Orozco-Estrada led a taut and meticulous reading, and the Houston Symphony Chorus, which sings at least a little in every movement, performed robustly and hummed and whooped with skill. The soprano soloist also does a lot of singing, and Rivera brought lustrous tone to her assignment, while Garland used his cushiony light baritone for his briefer contributions. Thumbnail translations of the trilingual text were projected on giant screens above the Jones Hall stage to provide some guidance, and the libretto and an English translation were included in the printed program, but in any event the words were pretty much a blur.
Freed from the need not to swamp the chorus and soloists, and perhaps feeling no longer obliged to rein things in a bit because of the Conquest Requiem’s painful subject matter, Orozco-Estrada unleashed the full force of the Houston Symphony after intermission and let the decibels fly in Shostakovich’s powerful Fifth Symphony, with which he will make his Berlin Philharmonic debut May 18‒20. Even so, moments of relaxation and repose were not slighted in this well-executed reading. The Allegretto’s dance rhythms emerged properly buoyant and springy, and in the brooding Largo he elicited a mere thread of (beautiful) sound from the tremolando strings.
William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.