Similar to many other holidays, El Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of The Dead) has been commercialized and adopted by retailers hungry to sell masks and flowers. We see the image of la calavera (the skull) so frequently these days that its true value is lost, as if we forget that it represents the ultimate conclusion to this thing called life: Death.
Yet in the Mexican tradition, although it induces tears and mourning, Death is not something to be afraid of or vilified. El Dia de Los Muertos is a beautiful celebration of our loved ones and friends who have passed onto the next life, and we take the time to remember and honor them.
On Friday night in Downtown Houston (with showings on Saturday and Sunday as well), the Houston Symphony presented the classiest and perhaps most monumental honoring of the dead since the ancient pyramids were built. The world premiere of La Triste Historia tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers set during the backdrop of The Mexican Revolution. A classic scenario with not-so-classic characters.
The night began with the return of conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, who previously was an associate conductor at the Houston Symphony several years ago. It was easy to see why this man is/was a crowd favorite; his smile and energy and heart makes your best friend in an instant, with enough flair and command to move even the stodgiest of works into symphonic masterpieces.
As he raised his baton, the whole room seemingly came to attention, ready for the ride through the emotional musical journey that was set before us. Watching Prieto maneuver up and down and sideways made it clear that being a conductor is one of the most satisfying jobs in the whole world. Sitting in the audience that night became a festival of enjoyment and wonder, with the senses of sound and sight creeping towards overload.
With a large screen displayed over the orchestra, the animated portion of the evening came to life. The visuals were provided by British animation studio Tick Tock Robot, whose motto "We Make Things Move" was spectacularly displayed in this film. The story was written by writer/director Ben Young Mason, who found inspiration for the project from his experience living in Mexico. The soundtrack was provided by renowned Mexican composer Juan Trigos. Together, the gentlemen created a special night full of wonder, love, and musical fancy.
The story introduces us to Jesús, the son of Don Diego, who will soon be the patrón (boss) of this Mexican village. He is handsome and wealthy, and is presented with the sounds of brilliant horns, each step announcing his importance. Yet even with that power, he seems humble, not arrogant. The kind of man that can fall in love.
That role is taken by Magdalena, who is sweet and virginal, beautiful and delicate. We find her in her room, praying and contemplating life, softly handling the butterfly who found its way into her room. Up on the hill overlooking the village, the coyote welcomes the sunrise as the hummingbird flutters in the air. Each animal is a symbol, retaining the attributes of wisdom, transformation, and other not so pleasant realities.
The two youngsters finally meet and fall in love, albeit in secret. The sounds shift from brilliant to soothing, as the two are connected with sounds of the strings and woodwinds rejoicing in the display of affection and respect. The colors of the images remain strong and bright and lovely, with blues and yellows filling the world with awe.
Jesús attempts to request his love's hand in marriage, but is denied. First by Magdalena's father, and later by the Revolucion! In the chaos, she is killed. The sadness overtakes the symphony and the protagonist, both hurting and longing for the lost love.
The coyote turns out to be a bruja (a witch), who informs Jesús about El Dia de Los Muertos, the day and night that allows him to reunite with Magdalena even though her life is no longer.
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"Magdalena, mi amór, I wait for you in the darkness" proclaims Jesús (in the program notes; the actual film does not contain dialogue).
Such a wonderful tale of life an death, war and love, magic and faith. The multi-media experience commissioned by the Houston Symphony embodied the true spirit of El Dia de Los Muertos, not for profit, but for honor and respect, which is something this world certainly needs.
Rest in Peace, Mami Rosie...