The American composer Roberto Sierra was born in Vega Baja, in north central Puerto Rico, in 1953. I thought of him repeatedly in 2017, when Hurricane Maria was doing her worst as the most destructive natural disaster on record for the island. Sierra is currently the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Cornell University, so I’m hoping and assuming he was able to find a better refuge in that location than in the middle of the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record. Puerto Rico will no doubt take a while to achieve full recovery, so I thought we might spare a thought for the islanders and try and brighten things up a little by spotlighting the music of one of its sons, who was born and educated there, specifically at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. He went on to study composition in Europe, notably with György Ligeti in Hamburg, Germany, but he has never lost touch with his musical roots as the catalogue of his works has continued to expand: Hispanic, Carribbean, or simply tropical elements are a perennial part of his palette.
Sierra came to prominence in 1987, when his first major orchestral composition, Júbilo, was performed at Carnegie Hall by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He hit what was possibly his largest audience, however, at the First Night of the BBC Proms in 2002, when his Fandangos (8.559738) was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a concert that was broadcast by both BBC Radio and Television throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. The fandango is an old Spanish courtship dance, in triple time, between a couple who dance closely and provocatively, counterpointing with the chatter of castanets. Here’s the closing section of Sierra’s take on the scenario.
Another Spanish dance, the bolero, is a recurrent feature of Sierra’s works; the original Spanish dance eventually procreated a Cuban version. The one that features in the third movement of Sierra’s Sinfonia No. 4 (8.559738) is perhaps more somnambulant than one might expect. The composer explains: “The movement is structured in the manner in which I sometimes dream: recurrent images are never the same, retaining a sense of familiarity while being strangely foreign.” Here’s an extract.
Dancing the salsa became very popular in the 1960s and 70s, and included a significant, enthusiastic New York music scene that eventually defined a whole movement. Salsa has its roots in Puerto Rican, Cuban and other dance forms. One of its branches might be heard in Sierra’s Sinfonia No. 3, ‘La Salsa’ (8.559817). Commissioned by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in 2005, the work earned a Serge and Olga Koussevitzky International Recording Award, which celebrates contemporary orchestral works produced by living composers. Sierra writes: “In the true spirit of salsa (“sauce” in English), I mix diverse types of older and newer rhythms from the music I remember growing up in Puerto Rico,” as the opening movement demonstrates.
One of the recordings for which Sierra was nominated for a Grammy Award features his Missa Latina, ‘Pro Pace’ (8.559624). Reviewers of the release had some interesting comments; this one from MusicWeb International:
“I feel guilty saying it, but I am sure I am not alone, the name of Roberto Sierra was totally unknown to me. So when you combine a complete unknown with a Washington Times review of the first performance of a piece that [describes it as] “the most significant symphonic premiere in the District since the late Benjamin Britten’s stunning War Requiem was first performed in the still-unfinished Washington National Cathedral in the late 1960s,” my curiosity was thoroughly piqued.” Hopefully, yours will be, too. But first, a word from the composer:
“The concept of my Missa Latina ‘Pro Pace’ came directly out of my experience growing up as a Catholic in Puerto Rico… The title I chose—Missa Latina—has dual meaning. On the one hand it refers to the traditional Latin text, while on the other hand the work is infused with a ‘Latino’ character: full of Caribbean gestures that allude to my own Hispanic heritage, and which are present in so many of my works.”
We’ll end with a reference to two chamber works. Sierra wrote his 5 Sketches for solo clarinet in 1984 (8.559263). The third of these is titled Interludio Nocturno and its probable that anyone familiar with Puerto Rica’s tropical evenings won’t be surprised to hear the music emulating the sound of the uniquely Puerto Rican tree frog, the coquí.
And for the final item today—Sierra’s Piano Trio No. 1 (8.559611)—we’ll let the composer have the last word:
“My first piano trio is titled Trio Tropical (1991), implying from the outset my intention of tropicalizing a genre that has a long tradition. The three movements reflect the rhythmic gestures, timbres and melodic gestures of the music I heard growing up in Puerto Rico. The last movement contains a slow introduction (Intermezzo religioso) followed by a fast perpetual motion. In the religious intermezzo, piano riffs of salsa music are superimposed on chorale-like textures, leading to wild explorations of polyrhythms in the movimiento perpetuo.”