Sierra symphony highlights Caribbean culture

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will launch its 2021-22 season on Oct. 14 with the world premiere of “Symphony No. 6,” composed by Roberto Sierra, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The orchestra and its principal conductor, Domingo Hindoyan, previously premiered Sierra’s trumpet concerto “Salseando” in 2020. The performance was so successful the orchestra commissioned Sierra to compose a new piece to inaugurate its 2021-22 season. The National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra, both co-commissioners of “Symphony No. 6,” will perform it next year.

Sierra began work on the piece at the end of 2020 and completed it this spring. His commissioners gave him a simple mandate. He had to use the same instrumentation as Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9,” which the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will be also be performing as part of the program.

In addition to all the flutes, piccolos, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and assorted brass, strings and percussion featured in Beethoven’s monumental work, Sierra was able to squeeze in a bass clarinet.

“They wanted me to be within the bounds of the framework of Beethoven’s orchestration,” he said. “But they give you a little bit of leeway.”

However, the real inspiration for the symphony was a world away from Liverpool or Beethoven’s Vienna.

It was the Caribbean of Sierra’s youth.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Sierra has always woven aspects of Caribbean culture into his work, incorporating rhythmic structures and melodic phrasings that evoke the popular music he heard growing up. The titles of the new symphony’s four movements – Urban Reflections, At Night, Hurricane and Finale – also nod to that heritage.

“The memories of my youth, they have never abandoned me,” Sierra said. “But my memory is of a place that is not there anymore. The question is why would I want to evoke that? It’s not just nostalgia. It’s to fill that void, that lack of a presence.”

While the pandemic may prevent Sierra from traveling to Liverpool to attend the premiere, he will still have an opportunity to hear his music performed live next year. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is debuting a new violin concerto that he recently completed, and will perform the piece as part of the Cornell Concert Series May 8.

Sierra was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in March and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A two-time Grammy Award nominee, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in music in 2008. In 2017, he won the Tomás Luis de Victoria Prize, the highest honor given in Spain to a composer of Spanish or Latin American origin. Even with his many accolades, he continues to push himself with each composition to do something new and subtly improve upon each successive work.

“Now that I am maturing finally as a composer, I have more of a grasp of structure, of form. And also, I strive for refinement in the language,” he said. “I want to make music that is communicative – so not only what’s on the surface will be enjoyable, but it will also offer some kind of intellectual discourse with a listener.”

He likens these attempts to a quest.

“I’m trying to climb that ladder,” he said, then added with a laugh, “that long, infinite ladder.”

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