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Classical preview: NSO to premiere Sierra’s new organ concerto

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra has been on something of a Roberto Sierra kick of late. Last April, the NSO under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero recorded two of the composer’s works – Fandangos and Sinfonia No. 4 – for future release on the Naxos label. Guerrero and the orchestra even played the Sinfonia’s finale as an encore during its recent visit to Carnegie Hall.

sierraThis weekend, the NSO and Guerrero are at it again, presenting the world premiere of another Sierra work at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. That piece, Concierto para órgano y orquesta (Concerto for Organ and Orchestra), was commissioned for the American Guild of Organists National Convention in Nashville this week. Organist Todd Wilson will premiere the work at tonight’s (Friday, July 6) concert.

Sierra has a penchant for the old European forms and over the years has written numerous symphonies, concertos and chamber music. The Puerto Rican-born musician, however, has a singular approach to composing. “I infuse the traditional forms with Latin rhythms and timbres,” says Sierra, who was on the phone recently from his home in upstate New York. “It’s my way of tropicalizing Central European music.”

The new organ concerto is a textbook example of how Sierra breathes new life into the old forms. Arranged in four movements and lasting about 25 minutes, the piece is modeled in part on the Baroque-era concerto grosso, which places a premium on virtuosity and instrumental interplay.

But Sierra finds ingenious ways to Latinize the music. The second-movement “Pastoral,” for instance, includes phantasmagoric allusions to salsa music. The “Danza final” mixes tango and bolero rhythms. Sierra’s vibrant instrumentation suggests bright Caribbean colors. “I like to include Latin timbres and rhythms in my music, because that’s what I heard growing up,” Sierra says.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1953, Sierra began his musical studies on the piano. “My sister had been playing the instrument, so I later took it up on my own,” he remembers. In time, he made enough progress to enter the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music as a piano major. Although he doesn’t perform publically now, he still practices and recently learned Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 11 in B-flat major, Op. 22. “It’s hard because it has a lot of busy fingerwork in it,” he says.

Sierra eventually shifted his emphasis to composing and spent six years, from 1976 to 1982, studying in Europe. His big break came in 1981, when he met the renowned Hungarian composer György Ligeti at a seminar in France. Ligeti was impressed with the young Puerto Rican’s music and invited him to spend a year in Hamburg as his student. It was Ligeti who encouraged Sierra to remain true to his roots.

Sierra moved to the United States in 1989, when he became composer-in-residence at the Milwaukee Symphony. “The music director Zdenek Macal liked my work and invited me to Milwaukee,” Sierra says. In 1992, Sierra moved to Ithaca, N.Y., where he became a professor of composition at Cornell University, replacing the retired Karel Husa. In the years since, his music has been performed by many of America’s leading orchestras.

These days, Sierra’s favorite orchestra may well be in Nashville. The NSO has certainly been lavishing attention on him. When the AGO approached Guerrero about a possible commission, the conductor quickly recommended Sierra. The composer was thrilled. “The Nashville Symphony has become a real Grammy powerhouse, so of course it’s always exciting to work with them,” he says.

LIVE

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra will present the world premiere of Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra at 8 p.m. Friday, July 6 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. The concert will also feature a performance of Stephan Paulus’ Grand Organ Concerto with organist Nathan Laube, along with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, Dvorak’s Carnival Overture and Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The concert is 8 p.m. Friday, July 6 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony. Tickets are $35 and are available at the Symphony Box Office or by calling 687-6400.

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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.