CD Review: Nashville Symphony delivers red-hot renditions of Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra’s music

giancarlo2The Nashville Symphony Orchestra is clearly hungry for more Grammy gold, because it has spent the fall cranking out CDs. In September, the orchestra under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero released a terrific recording of composer Richard Danielpour’s music. Now it’s composer Roberto Sierra’s turn.

The newly released CD, recorded last season at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center for the Naxos label, features three of Sierra’s works. Two of them, Sinfonia No. 4 and Carnaval, are world-premiere recordings. The third, Fandangos, is one of Sierra’s great crowd pleasers, and it receives a sparkling rendition here.

sierraA Puerto Rican-born composer who now teaches at Cornell University, Sierra has pioneered a compositional style he calls “tropicalization.” He works within a traditional European framework, writing symphonies, concertos, chamber works and such, but he imbues this music with the colorful harmonies and vital rhythms of the Caribbean.

Sinfonia No. 4, which the NSO commissioned and premiered, is a textbook example of the composer’s style. Sierra takes the template of an 18th-century, four-movement Germanic symphony and transforms it, substituting a bolero for the traditional minuet while coating the entire piece in brilliant orchestral colors.  Guerrero and the NSO are in their element in this music, performing every note with just the right mix of virtuosity and sensuality.

If Sinfonia No. 4 is homage to Haydn, then Carnaval is clearly channeling Robert Schumann. Like Schumann’s 19th-century piano masterpiece of the same name, Sierra’s Carnaval consists of a series of colorful character pieces. Sierra even includes a quote of “Papillions,” one of the most florid and energetic selections from the Schumann set.

The five movements in Sierra’s Carnaval all boast the names of legendary beasts – gargoyle, sphinx, unicorn, dragon and phoenix.  Naturally, Sierra’s vivid orchestration captures the essence of this mythical menagerie – the unicorn is gentle and luminous; the sphinx is mysterious and atmospheric; and so on. Guerrero and his musicians, for their parts, deliver characterful interpretations that readily convey the beauty and ferocity of these creatures.

Sierra found initial inspiration for his Fandangos in one of 18th-century Spanish composer Antonio Soler’s harpsichord pieces. There is a certain courtly elegance to Sierra’s music. Yet at the same time, there is nothing antiquarian about it. His piece is awash in bright, contemporary orchestral hues, and it’s brimming with emotional heat. The NSO gives a performance that’s guaranteed to warm the soul on a cold winter night.

Here’s a clip of Guerrero and Sierra discussing this music:

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.