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Roberto Sierra: Musical Visionary of the Caribbean: the colorful and rythmic music of this classical composer draw heavily on his Puerto Rican heritage.

Roberto Sierra did not set out to be a composer. He received a good liberal arts education in small-town Puerto Rico, and at an early age he began piano lessons, at which he excelled. While pointing out that musical influences on the island were limited, he tells of singing in the chorus for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Casals Festival and briefly meeting cellist Pablo Casals. He loved Piazzolla's music and remembers seeing him perform on the bandoneon in person. "I was going to be a pianist," he says, noting that he was nurtured on the 19th century classical works of Chopin, Liszt, and Mendelssohn. Then, one of his teachers at San Juan's Music Conservatory interested him in harmony. "As I kept going with piano, I wanted to write pieces for myself. Gradually, I came to realize I wanted to be a composer."

My conversation with Roberto Sierra and his wife, Virginia, began just before lunch at their suburban home high on an interfluve above Lake Cayuga and Ithaca, a short drive from Cornell University where Roberto is chair of the music department and teaches composition. Cooking, it turned out, is Roberto's other passion, and he had spent part of the morning before my arrival preparing a salad and a perfectly turned out, scrumptious Spanish tortilla for lunch. The kitchen shelves were lined with well-used cookbooks, and his favorite party dishes, he later wrote me, tend to be stews.

We took up the thread of his career trajectory in a comfortable, tastefully appointed living room, which also houses a grand piano. Roberto related that when he was ready for advanced study, he intentionally chose the Royal College of Music and the University of London in England. For cultural and political reasons he wanted a neutral place. "I didn't want to be part of a minority," he states. He credits his London experiences with enlarging his personal universe; he was able to go to a lot of concerts and make frequent visits to the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was intent on learning the very latest trends in music,-which in the 1970s included Stockhausen, Koenig, and Boulez as well as going to John Cage lectures. After London, he studied electronic music in the Netherlands and, finally, he spent three years with the inventive Austro-Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti in Hamburg.

When asked how one finds one's voice as a composer, Roberto responded that "As a student you mimic," then added, "All composers mimic. You absorb and internalize what you hear. It's a long process to develop your own voice. You gradually shed out those things not essential to your music. I think you are the last one to hear your voice." His voice and compositions have become, over the last thirty years, among the most distinctive and widely performed of contemporary American composers. They are recognizable for their complexity, virtuosity, and infusion of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and idioms into a variety of avant-garde and classical forms. His style has recently become less abstract and more melodic--a process that was at the heart of our conversation. "Today," he said, " I listen less to contemporary composers than to classical. I find more and more significant to me is Brahms; I listen to a lot of Brahms."

After his training, Sierra returned to Puerto Rico in the mid-1980s, where he soon became Chancellor of the Conservatory of Music. His works from this period are spirited, polyphonic, and abstract, written largely for chamber groups or one or two instruments. He established a relationship with Continuum, the New York-based ensemble specializing in contemporary music, co-directed by pianists Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer. In the ensuing years, Roberto has written many commissions for Continuum, and the ensemble regularly performs his work around the world.

Although Roberto incorporated Afro-Caribbean elements into his work virtually from the beginning, they were often overshadowed by the textural complexities. "One of the things I fight against, within my own limitations," he responded, carefully choosing words, "is the view that Latin American music and composition are simple. I don't want to be stereotyped. Certain people in the arts have held that 'complexity' is for the people of the North. There's a lot of stereotyping in the arts; [Latin American] composers feel we are steered into a bracketed place. The music industry wants us to be festive. We should be free, comfortable to be complex, to be simple, to be ourselves. But I admit," he added, "that complexity interests me." Joel Sachs of Continuum and the Julliard School said that he and Roberto once conversed about the difficulty that Sierra's early compositions posed for performers and the need to write so that performers could master the pieces in the time they had available. "Early Sierra reminds me of early Bartok," Sachs commented. "His work goes in and out of complexity; he learned it from Ligeti and there's always a musical reason for it; there's a tremendous integrity to his music; he's uncompromising in his musical vision."

Part of that vision is the integration of the Afro-Caribbean folksongs and rhythms he heard as a child into his work and, ultimately, into the classical musical language and canon. The common thread for all Latin American composers, Sierra explained, is that they are rooted in popular or folk idioms in the same way that Beethoven was rooted in German folksongs or lieder. In a presentation to other Cornell faculty entitled "Schumann in the Caribbean" and recorded on YouTube, Sierra shows how he utilizes short motifs from Schumann then improvises with them in his own style and Caribbean elements. It is a fascinating example of how Roberto works. He refers to it as "fantasizing with small ideas," and the creation of such original variations is a process evident in all his composing.

Over the last ten years, however, the Afro-Caribbean elements have become more assimilated and accessible, something Sierra himself recognizes as a new stage in his composing, citing Fandangos (2000) and his Missa Latina (2006) as two examples. Fandangos was premiered by the National Symphony in Washington DC. It is Roberto's musing on Scarlatti's, Soler's, and Boccherini's Fandango, a baroque Spanish dance in which there are constantly changing melodies over a repeating bass line. Sierra has turned it into an infectious Latin American fantasy for full orchestra, complete with castanets, brass fanfares, and vibrant melodic outbursts. Fandangos' immediate success led the National Symphony to commission a large scale work from Roberto. The result was the gloriously beautiful Missa Latina "Pro Pace," a setting of the Latin text to music that is infused with Caribbeanisms. While it is an extremely complex piece--for orchestra, chorus, and soprano and baritone soloists--it is perhaps the most satisfying of Roberto's works, one of straining beauty and originality. After its premiere it was immediately hailed as a modern masterpiece.

It was not until 2002 that Sierra received his first commission for a symphony. Typically, he took it as a challenge to match "two things so seemingly antipetal as Caribbean popular idioms and the 'classical' form of the symphony." Indeed, he wrote three symphonies over the next three years. It is the third, premiered by the Milwaukee Symphony in 2005, and tellingly entitled "La Salsa," in which Caribbean dance rhythms and motifs explode in a riot of four infectious, yet distinctive, movements. The dance begins in the piano and marimba, then gradually--in typical Sierra fashion--brings in additional layers and instruments until there are multiple rhythms and melodies going on at once.

As Roberto has written more scores for orchestra, he has found a champion and "soul mate" in Giancarlo Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony. With Guerrero conducting, Nashville premiered Sierra's Fourth Symphony, which was commissioned and has been performed by a consortium of orchestras around the United States. Giancarlo speaks enthusiastically about Sierra's music. "Writing a symphony is like climbing Mt. Everest for a composer," he explains. "A symphony is structurally complex, but it has to make sense ... and in writing a symphony you expose yourself to comparison with all the great composers--Beethoven, Mahler." He points out that Latin Americans haven't written symphonies, then states "Roberto's Fourth Symphony is a stroke of genius. His work is never dull; it's characterized by little rushes of energy, little languages that are always talking, with lots of moving parts at the same time. It's the conductor's duty to help bring such work into the repertoire."

Roberto's works for solo instruments similarly demonstrate his ear for the distinct tonalties of individual instruments. After hearing renowned saxophonist James Carter in a concert, he wrote Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra (2002) for Carter and the Milwaukee Symphony. It is a virtuosic piece in which Carter can wail on the tenor sax in a jazzy-rhythmic first movement, sing on the soprano sax in a slow, waltz-like melody in the second, and wow with a show-stopping boogie-woogie in the third. Roberto also composed an organ symphony for an American Guild of Organists premiere in the summer of 2012. To prepare for writing it, Sierra said he listened to a lot of Bach. "Roberto is up for any challenge," Giancarlo Guerrero adds. "He loves complexity and I imagine that for him, with two keyboards and foot pedals as well as full orchestra--well, it's like being at mission control on Star Trek." Guerrero will conduct the premiere.

Roberto Sierra has already produced a significant body of music and, as challenging and complex as it is, audiences respond to it. He's an incredibly prolific composer with several new symphonies and chamber works about to be premiered and is clearly at an important stage in his musical development. As our conversation came to a close, Sierra acknowledged, "Melody is becoming more important to me as I get older. I'm getting farther away from what was in fashion when I studied. I'm comfortable with all my music, but I now I want the music I write to sing." As anyone who has discovered Sierra's music knows, there awaits a treasure trove of good listening from one of the most distinctive contemporary musical voices in the Americas. Our good fortune is that he's still writing.

A freelance editor and writer, Janet Crane holds a doctorate in geography from the University of California at Berkeley and has taught on culture and environment at universities in Brazil and the United States. ----------Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Crane, Janet
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1U0PR
Date:May 1, 2012
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