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Composer Rides Island's Folk Current

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 29, 2006

Every composer must confront musical modernism at some point in his or her career. The Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra, whose new choral work, "Missa Latina," will receive its world premiere Thursday at the Kennedy Center, moved past that forbidding style after some encouragement from the most unlikely of people.

Gyorgi Ligeti, Sierra's composition teacher in Hamburg in the early 1980s and one of the enfants terribles of the avant-garde, gently pushed the young composer away from his own style of atmospheric, tuneless music. "Having little Ligetis was not his thing," Sierra says in a phone interview from his home near Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he heads the composition department.

Sierra went on to create an engaging and increasingly popular corpus of music that integrates the sounds of his Caribbean home into lush, rich textures. And the upcoming Kennedy Center performance of "Missa Latina," by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Arts Society, marks something of a transition in his composing career. A co-commission of the NSO and the society, the 75-minute work is Sierra's longest and most complicated, expanding on the traditional Latin Mass to deal with matters of faith, conflict and peace. Sierra hopes the score grabs the audience in a way that cerebral works of the 1960s and '70s never have.

Filled with such classic Latino elements as salsa-like rhythms, bright orchestral colors and evocative percussion, "Missa Latina" is a natural next step for the 52-year-old composer, who says he seeks "heartfelt music with a deep emotional content." In this way, Sierra recalls earlier Latin American composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos and Alberto Ginastera, who featured sounds from their respective Brazilian and Argentine homes. Osvaldo Golijov of Argentina is perhaps the only other composer today who possesses the same command of the Latin world's unique idiom.

Though he has not entirely rejected the astringent modernist sound, Sierra treads a more melodic terrain than other Latin-inspired composers working today, which is what attracts NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin to his work. The NSO had great success with two previous commissions from Sierra, including the orchestral whirlwind "Fandangos," which has become one of the composer's most performed works. Soon after the success of that 2001 piece, Slatkin asked the composer to write a larger choral score to help the orchestra celebrate its 75th anniversary, and later approached Choral Arts Society Artistic Director Norman Scribner to see if the society would join the commission to celebrate its own 40th anniversary.

Slatkin saw the commission as an opportunity to build a new audience. "I thought it was important to feature music from Asian and Latin cultures," the conductor says. "U.S. audiences generally have Euro-Slavic backgrounds. They don't think about music from across the Pacific or from down south. 'Missa Latina' is about connecting to audiences that will be here in the future."

The work posed special challenges for the composer, who had mostly focused on smaller chamber and orchestral scores. Sierra opted to stay away from the Requiem Mass, which has inspired artists from Mozart to Berlioz to Verdi. "I was a little worried about writing a Requiem," Sierra says. "I was too young."

During the early phases of the project in 2004, Sierra came across the texts of the Proper Mass, which supplement the core sections of the regular Latin Mass at different seasons. In a time of global turbulence, the texts' messages of calm and quiet conviction resonated with the composer. "I realized I wanted to make a statement that peace is a human issue," he says. "I think we need to aspire for peace and aim for it."

Sierra says he worked to give a strong sense of expression to each of the eventual eight movements, which took two years to complete. Yet it is in the central "Credo" where the composer believes that his view of spirituality and tolerance and their role in contributing to peace emerge most clearly.

" 'Credos' are usually very centralized," the composer says. "Everyone is shouting. Mine is very intimate. The word 'credo' enters on a soft, almost questioning, chord. My feeling is that the idea of belief is sort of an introspective question. There is more than one church and one faith."

The Choral Arts Society has been rehearsing the piece since last autumn, and Scribner praises the sensitivity that Sierra showed toward the choral writing. " 'Missa Latina' is a good, tough piece for singers," he says. "Yet there is a lot of help from the orchestra."

Sierra is unapologetic about his use of popular and folk music, saying that Beethoven and Bach, among many other composers, similarly merged popular and classical styles. Sierra sees the approach as a much-needed break from abstract modernism and a source of energy for classical music over time. "Composers of my generation needed to move away from that narrow path," the composer says. "I want structure, but I want people to be moved at a basic level."

Sierra's new concerto, "Bongo+" for drummer and chamber orchestra, was scheduled for a world premiere Friday at the Juilliard School, a week before the NSO's premiere of "Missa Latina," and he is currently toying with the idea of writing an opera -- as well as that daunting Requiem Mass. These projects are likely to further open the concert hall doors to the Latino sound world and its driving pulse that are so much a part of Sierra's artistry.

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