The Requiem Mass, a ceremonious Latin mass for the dead that has inspired countless musical compositions, dates back to the 15th century. All the big names in classical music have composed one—Verdi, Mozart, Berlioz, Haydn, Stravinsky, Liszt and Fauré to name, literally, a few. Here in Houston, Gabriela Lena Frank joins their ranks with her premiere of Conquest Requiem on May 5–7 with the Houston Symphony. Mixing Latin and Meso-American text with passages by Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, Frank puts her own spin on the red-letter day form.
For starters, she takes the highly religious musical rite of death and uses it to tell a story about a specific moment—and figure—in history. The musical setting of Conquest Requiem follows the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and centers around Malinche, a Nahua woman who was a slave turned advisor and mistress to Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés.
“She’s a controversial figure,” says Frank, gesturing to the wide-ranging impressions of Malinche as both a notable intellectual and a woman who enabled genocide. “Was she a victim, or did she take advantage of this situation to gain a certain status and protection?”
Moving away from other staples in the genre, Frank’s Requiem features two—not the usual four—soloists: soprano Jessica Rivera as Malinche and baritone Andrew Garland as her son Martín. And although it adheres to a conventional seven-movement structure, you can expect untraditional rhythms from its European-Meso American fusion of language and sound.
Frank’s first experiences with the Requiem genre happened here in Houston, when she was a student at Rice University.
“I came to Houston when I was 17. I got my first car and my first boyfriend there,” Frank recalls. In the list of Requiems she sang in the choir at Rice, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a momentous work about the First World War, was the one that resonated the most.
“I remember experiencing that in live concert and in recordings and just being blown away; being moved by a tribute to those who have fallen with an eye to the future,” Frank says. “I wanted to do something like that with a cataclysmic, huge event that changed the world, and that’s what happened when the old world and the new world met. I am a product of that.”
Hear Gabriela Lena Frank's Conquest Requiem on May 5–7 with the Houston Symphony. From $25. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St. 713-224-7575. houstonsymphony.org