Houston Symphony offers a multimedia work, 'La Triste Historia'

Houston Chronicle

By Steven Brown

The Houston Symphony applies the storytelling power of music to the Day of the Dead this week, unveiling a multimedia work it hopes will speak to more than the regular concert-hall audience.

"La Triste Historia," which Houston Symphony premieres Friday, tells the tale of two young people who fall in love just before the Mexican revolution. It unites a 30-minute symphony by Mexican composer Juan Trigos with video by the British animation studio ticktockrobot. The starting point: a short story by filmmaker and screenwriter Ben Young Mason.

Mason's tale - "The Sad Story" in English - centers on Magdalena and Jesús, whose love affair is torn apart by the Revolution. Only on Day of the Dead, when Mexican lore says spirits of the dead can return to Earth, do the couple reunite.

Mason became acquainted with Mexican traditions by visiting the country often during his youth, and his story gives the Day of the Dead tradition an even broader reach, says Duncan Copp, the project's executive producer.

"Love stories resonate in any culture," Copp says.

The Houston Symphony commissioned "La Triste Historia" as part of its efforts to broaden its reach in the community. Partnering with the Consulate General of Mexico, the orchestra is hosting an exhibit of Day of the Dead altars that will be on display in Jones Hall's beginning 90 minutes before each performance.

Trigos was born in 1965 in Mexico City, where his father was an author and playwright. His father and grandfather both enjoyed classical music, and Trigos accompanied them to concerts, operas and plays.

Trigos studied guitar and piano at Mexico City's conservatory, where he was drawn even deeper into European music. Yet he also absorbed the folk music of his father's native Veracruz - a mixture of Indian, Spanish and African influences. Studies at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Italy increased Trigos' appreciation of Gregorian chant and Renaissance music.

Put all those influences into a cocktail shaker and give it a good jostling. "Voilà ­- it's me," Trigos says.

"You're the result of all the music you love."

Today, Trigos has parallel careers as composer and conductor, leading an orchestra in Mexico City and a new-music ensemble in Rochester, N.Y. (Carlos Miguel Prieto, the Houston Symphony's former assistant conductor, will lead "La Triste Historia.")

Trigos conferred with Mason as work on the music and video progressed. But the four-movement piece also was meant to stand alone. The challenge, Trigos says, was to give each movement a cohesion of its own, yet let it dovetail with the video telling the story.

So the score - Trigos' Symphony No. 3 - unfolds in keeping with the story's broad contour. The first movement, he says, sets the scene in graceful pre-revolutionary Mexico. The second depicts Magdalena and Jesús falling in love. The third unleashes the war's violence. The finale centers on the sweethearts' reunion on the Day of the Dead.

To evoke the elegance of old times and the lovers' tenderness, the score sometimes looks back to simple, traditional styles, yet with modern twists, Trigos says. In the war scene, "La Cucaracha" - which was a political statement during the revolution - is a snarling trumpet call representing a mocking skeleton.

The folk-tune reference was tricky, Trigos says.

"I chose the 'Cucaracha' because everybody knows it. But that makes it more difficult to treat. Because if you treat it badly, you will be hated," he says with a laugh.

But Trigos says he doesn't believe in lecturing audiences about what they'll hear. What does he think is essential for them to know?

"Nothing," Trigos says. "Just listen to the music and feel."

The orchestra's previous collaborations with Copp - "The Planets: An HD Odyssey" and "Earth: An HD Odyssey" - were based on existing music. But the music and images in "La Triste Historia" were crafted together. Copp thinks the result harks back to the way silent movies made their impact.

"It's going back to basics - the simplicity of a very strong score, and pictures to accompany that score," he says.

He and ticktockrobot studio opted for a stylized approach to the images. Taking advantage of Day of the Dead's origins, the designers drew on the bold, geometric look of Mayan and Aztec sculptures in shaping the human characters, says Simon Armstrong, ticktockrobot's creative director. To shape the owl, coyote and other Day of the Dead symbols, the artists referred to patterning found in Aztec paintings.

The designers intentionally kept a distance from realism, Armstrong says.

"We wanted to create something ... that would allow people to paint some of their own emotions and feelings into this, rather than having the story literally told," he says.

The magic of animation, Copp says, is in letting viewers flesh out the story by their own lights.

"It's going to be open to interpretation," Armstrong says. "So we decided to celebrate that."