At the Schermerhon
The Pastoral and La Malinche
On the third weekend of November 2022, the Nashville Symphony gave a marvelous performance of two very different pieces: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 “Pastoral” and Gabriela Lena Frank’s Conquest Requiem, in the Laura Turner Concert Hall at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
Beethoven composed his sixth symphony in 1808 and it premiered in December in Vienna, just as winter was setting in. One could hear and feel the old composer’s nostalgia for a past spring in his first movement, “Awakening of cheerful feeling on arriving in the country.” Delicately, Maestro Guerrero coaxed the famous gentle theme from his string section with a beaming smile. When followed up in the woodwinds, the theme’s nostalgia articulates the pastoral setting. It is remarkable to think that the composer was simultaneously working on his dark and troubling fifth symphony as he wrote this essay on peace and beauty.
The second movement continued this beautiful setting, with the woodwinds providing the calls of Beethoven’s birds as the strings gently set the babbling brook. The reveling third movement, a Scherzo celebration, with its rollicking dance leading precipitously to the storm. It is a rush, and a fearful storm, but one of those enlightened storms that one sees from a distance, and its threat in the end is only of a refreshing shower. One must agree with Tovey that while Beethoven’s use of the piccolo here (played wonderfully by Gloria Yun) is not exactly one of its best moments in the repertoire, “…a real thunderstorm would be an expensive and inefficient substitute.” As the hymn of the final movement came to a close, it was clear what Beethoven meant when he described this work as “an expression of feelings” instead of a programmatic depiction. I had by this time completely forgotten the cold night outside the Schermerhorn.
After the intermission, Andrew Garland (baritone), Jessica Rivera (soprano) and the Nashville Symphony Chorus joined the orchestra for Frank’s Conquest Requiem. A massive and tragic work, somewhat derivative of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Frank’s work combines old and modern texts, languages, and genres. The main character, Malinche, according to Frank, was inspired by a true story. A skilled translator, she was “a Nahua woman from the Gulf Coast of Mexico who was given to the Spaniards as a young slave […] she would convert to Christianity and become mistress to Cortés during his war against the Aztecs.” Malinche was there when Cortéz met Montezuma, and the interpretation of the events that followed often hinge on her role as translator.
Her soprano role was sung with great nuance and passion by Rivera, providing an individual, humanizing voice to the tragedy, lending a voice to the conquered Aztecs. The chorus, wonderfully prepared by Tucker Biddlecombe and heard throughout, provides a moralizing interpretation that one would find from a Greek chorus. Malinche’s son Martín, sung with vigor, excellent diction, and an exacting intonation by baritone Andrew Garland, created a Janus-faced moment in that he is identified as the first mestizo, indicating a new era has come into being.
The performance was excellent, and I am sure the recording derived from it will garner an award. However, the idea of this narrative set within a Requiem does not sit well with me. I understand that Malinche is historically understood to be treasonous, but we don’t have to buy it. On the one hand, I certainly do not wish to celebrate the tragic repercussions of the encounter between the old and new worlds, on the other, I think I might be too optimistic of a person to discount the moment of contact entirely as a “cataclysm.” When Frank, in her notes, describes Malinche as having been “…variously viewed as feminist hero who saved countless lives, treacherous villain who facilitated genocide, conflicted victim […or] symbolic mother” I no longer see her appropriately depicted within a Requiem. Indeed, at her death, she was a free and wealthy woman with a family. For me, Malinche’s story is one of survival and resilience, an opportunity for a positive message of a complicated human who managed to stay alive despite the tragic events unfolding around her. For me, she might just be one of Beethoven’s heroes.