September 29, 2007
By PAUL HORSLEY
Think of Latin music and you’re likely to imagine bajo sexto guitars, trumpets, maracas and a tropical beat.
But in the last 20 years Latino music has influenced classical music, as well, as part of a diversified North American culture that it has invigorated and challenged.
Composers from Central and South America have long been a part of our music, from Brazil’s Hector Villa-Lobos and Argentina’s Alberto Ginastera to Mexico’s Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chávez.
But these days a new generation of Latinos in the United States is transforming high-end music with an explosion of styles, colors, rhythms and symphonic textures that are appealing and proving durable.
“We are no longer an accessory,” said Roberto Sierra, whose own artistic persona includes the salsa and bomba rhythms of his childhood.
Sierra is a Puerto Rican who has grown into one of today’s most distinctive musical voices.
This week the Carlsen Center presents an entire program of Sierra’s music, including the world premiere of a new piano concerto, performed by pianist Ian Hobson, saxophonist James Carter and the Sinfonia da Camera ensemble. Last week Sierra was composer in residence at Johnson County Community College.
Sierra’s formative years in Puerto Rico took place during the island’s most vigorous classical-music ferment, thanks partly to the Pablo Casals Festival and the international classical artists it brought to the island. The 54-year-old composer has absorbed an array of European styles that give his music a textural solidity and structural logic.
“I think if you ask each of us, we’ll say we are doing our own thing,” Sierra said of Latino colleagues. “We use aspects of our mother culture, but, at the same time, together we form a certain segment of the American musical fabric.”
Today’s America is fast moving away from a monolithic culture, he said, and classical music is no different.
“It’s still ‘apple pie,’ but maybe you had tacos for dinner,” he said with a laugh.
Sierra grew up a happy kid in the small coastal town of Vega Baja on Puerto Rico’s north-central coast. “It was like Mayberry but, of course, tropical,” he said. “It had that sense of nuclear family and small town, which is gone today. Nothing beats that.”
When his sister abandoned the piano, it was Roberto’s turn.
“The girl plays the piano, then she quits and it sits there,” he said. “And the boy sits down and says, hmm, what is this?”
But just as he was beginning to pick out Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata on the keyboard, the idyll of his tropical boyhood was shattered. His 42-year-old father died of liver cancer.
Sierra, then 15, was devastated.
“It was a catalyst for me, this tragedy,” he said. “It sort of made me go into music to alleviate this pain. His death drew me very deeply into the music.”
Just a year later he was advanced enough on piano to enter Puerto Rico Conservatory. He rose quickly to the top of his class, ultimately earning degrees there and at the University of Puerto Rico.
From there he traveled to London — where he earned degrees from the Royal College and the University of London — Holland, France and Germany.
In Hamburg he became a protégé of the great Hungarian György Ligeti, whom Sierra described as “a man who changed music.” He recalls lessons at the composer’s home, where the grand piano was stacked 3 feet high with musical scores.
“He was a man of great curiosity,” Sierra said. “There was this constant examination of the repertoire. This was a man who was studying Schubert, Beethoven, who was fascinated with Mahler’s orchestration.”
Among other things, he said, Ligeti taught him a sense of perfectionism, something that still makes Sierra’s music stand out.
“He cared a lot about technique, that things need to be done with the highest level of polish,” he said.
Information flowed in both directions: Listeners to Ligeti’s Piano Concerto might hear hints of Latin rhythms — a direct result, Ligeti said, of the salsa music that Sierra brought to his attention.
Sierra is no Ligeti clone. His music embraces a wide range of influences, from ’60s modernism to neo-Romantic lyricism, from Stravinsky to salsa.
Salsa in the symphony? Sierra was one of the first composers to make a successful case for it, even subtitling his Third Symphony “La Salsa.”
It was the freshness with which he wove tropical sounds into his dense scores that drew the attention of American orchestras, beginning with the Milwaukee Symphony in 1989. Then, in 1992, Cornell University hired him.
He said contact with music students is as important for him as it had been for his mentor, Ligeti. But he still despairs at the failing musical education in America’s secondary schools here and in Puerto Rico.
He knows the importance of fundamentals, recalling his own first-rate humanities schooling in Vega Baja.
“I might not be here talking to you now if I hadn’t had that great education,” he said. “I might be making shoes — or in jail.”
Source: Kansas City Star