About this Recording
8.559817 - SIERRA, R.: Sinfonia No. 3, "La Salsa" / Beyond the Silence of Sorrow / Borikén / El Baile (Guth, Puerto Rico Symphony, M. Valdés)

Roberto Sierra (b. 1953)
Sinfonía No. 3 ‘La Salsa’ • Borikén • El Baile • Beyond the Silence of Sorrow


Roberto Sierra’s Sinfonía No. 3 ‘La Salsa’, Borikén, El Baile, and Beyond the Silence of Sorrow, illustrate the gamut of the composer’s remarkable oeuvre, abundant with arrangements for various soloists and ensembles, and combining a wide range of musical and artistic ideas.

Originally commissioned by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in 2005, Sinfonía No. 3 ‘La Salsa’ earned the Serge and Olga Koussevitzky International Recording Award (KIRA) which celebrates contemporary orchestral works produced by living composers. The award is hosted by the Musicians Club of New York, one of the oldest in U.S. history (1911). Sinfonía No. 3 is a large-scale work scored in four exuberant movements: Tumbao, Habanera, Danzas and Jolgorio. As the title suggests, the symphony owes much inspiration to the music of the Spanish Caribbean: Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. The popularity of salsa in the 1960s and ’70s, which included an enthusiastic New York music scene, imparted much support and notoriety to the genre, eventually defining a movement. Sierra writes: “In the true spirit of salsa (“sauce” in English), I mix diverse types of older and newer rhythms from the music I remember growing up in Puerto Rico.”

Stemming from European music traditions dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the first movement is structured in sonata-allegro form, exposing two groups of themes in the early part, followed by several measures of development, and closing with the reprise of the opening thematic groups (4’23”). The different themes presented in the first movement evoke piano riffs, tumbaos, common to salsa music, and frequently associated with the Caribbean. The second and third movements, Habanera and Danzas, are slower and follow popular dance styles of the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, respectively. The habanera is a social dance derived from the English country dance and transformed, in the Caribbean, by the luxurious multi-layered and syncopated African rhythms. The mysterious tone of the second movement is highlighted by winds and violins, followed by an imposing march-like gesture in the brass and percussion that conjures a regal parade. The music eventually dissipates into a thin instrumental texture of long held notes shared between strings and winds. In Danzas, Sierra quotes two danzas by Puerto Rican composer Juan Morel Campos (1857–1896), namely No Me Toques and Si Me Tocas. The danzas, emblematic of national expression, usually include several sections of distinct melodic motifs. The main rhythmic and melodic lines bounce between instruments, especially brass and winds, sometimes in rapid passages with repetitive patterns. The last movement is named after the jolgorio, a revelry of sorts often showcasing groups performing stylized Afro- Caribbean line-dances, which inspired Sierra to capture the spirit of these lively celebrations. In this movement Sierra scores two Caribbean rhythms, the merengue (Dominican Republic) traditionally played by guitars and accordion in rural areas and by larger orchestras in urban centres, and the plena (Puerto Rico), a vocal style of the early twentieth century featuring humorous texts and social commentary, here in instrumental form. This exciting movement commences with the memorable sound of congas in a recurring pattern to which increasing instrumental colours are added. As the music progresses, brief excerpts of Latin rhythms are heard in a modified, fragmented manner, and periodically contrasted with softer atmospheric music. This tension is actually quite fun and catchy, seeming as if two forces were actually in opposition. When the imposing sound of the horns is heard (4’49”), signalling a promising end, a sense of anticipation is established. Merriment wins out. The texture is gradually reduced to a delicate layer of strings and winds which brings back the rhythm of the habanera (5’41”), then at the moment where the work picks up speed and dynamics (6’53”) toward a majestic conclusion.

Based on the Baroque genre of chaconne (or passacaglia)—a repeated bass line (basso ostinato) supporting imaginative melodies in constant variation running above it—Borikén presents this Spanish-derived musical form with a distinct Puerto Rican twist. The Baroque period (roughly 1600–1750) was a time when the orchestral tradition grew in size and significance and, thanks to that innovation, a comprehensive range of instrumental colours became a powerful custom of the concert stage. The marvellous influence of orchestral development, culminating in the early twentieth century, can be observed in the lavish instrumental timbres emanating from Borikén playfully highlighting the cadencia antillana. Alternating between principal textures and supporting accompaniment, the cadencia antillana is a common feature of popular and folkloric styles giving purpose to the title of the piece, Borikén, the original name of the island as used by its indigenous inhabitants and their descendants, the “Jíbaros” or “Boricuas”. At present, when we see a “rediscovery” of the indigenous peoples and its heritage—for ages thought to have been wiped out—Borikén offers a fresh and inspiring way to observe the continuity of the native presence in the lives of islanders. As past records indicate, the language of Borikén was once a hybrid of Spanish with many native vernaculars, offering an insightful parallel as to the potential of creative adaptations in cultural and artistic spheres to preserve local identities while still speaking a contemporary language. Written in 2005 for the 50th anniversary of the Casals Festival (2006), the forceful, accelerating rhythms and adorned percussive touches of Borikén provide for a magnetic and colourful sonic experience.

El Baile (2012) is another orchestral composition that reveals Sierra’s penchant for the use of theme and variation. This type of musical procedure allows for great plasticity and ingenuity by continuously modifying the original idea, in this case a motivic cell spelling out J.S. Bach’s name (b flat, a, c and b natural—corresponding to the letter h in German). The idea behind the motivic cell is constantly developed through pattern alternation: by shifting the notes to a different key, changing the rhythms and duration of the original cell, and also by inverting the notes—playing them in reverse order—among other strategies. The final effect is one of inventiveness within structured order. As with many other works of Sierra’s output, a distinctive cultural marker is imparted by the invocation of Puerto Rican traditional music and dance genres. In El Baile, Sierra kindles the work with a slow foggy introduction of rhythmic structures suggestive of the Afro-Caribbean music and dance of Bomba, common to black plantation communities of the island circa the seventeenth century. Bomba also describes the main barrel-shaped drum utilized in the music. In El Baile one hears the motivic cell peek in at the beginning, followed by a gradual rhythmic escalation with moments of reprieve, only to return with greater strength. The rhythms bounce between the brass section and violins, with percussive accompaniment, reaching a highpoint at the closure ringing in fortissimo unison.

Beyond the Silence of Sorrow (2002), a song cycle for soprano and orchestra, is a musical setting of six poems by N. Scott Momaday (b. 1936), offering a captivating lyrical rendition of texts ranging in scope from birth to love to absence. Momaday, born in Lawton, Oklahoma, to a Kiowa father and part Cherokee mother, left an imprint with his first book House Made of Dawn (1968). The book sparked what some scholars termed a “Native American Renaissance”—the renewal of publication interest in native literature—and earned Momaday a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. Momaday’s poetic compositions often invoke native storytelling and images with complex cultural signifiers, for example in the art of cradle-making for a new child by a relative (sometimes a grandparent), or in the distinctive aspects of tribal courtship (i.e. “he brings my mother glittering beads”), as heard in this song cycle. Sierra resignifies these poems by cross-culturally “translating” them into his own emotive scenarios. For instance, by relocating Momaday’s poems in a civil and human rights context of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Sierra connects his own Puerto Rican heritage to those of diverse backgrounds. Sierra states: “I tried in my settings to portray the vivid imagery of the words, ranging from the playfulness of About Me Like a Robe to the tragic tone of A Cradle for this Child”. Indeed, in a semi-declamatory style, the singer’s melodic contours move in a well-paced fashion allowing the words to ring forth with clarity and dynamism. Brief instrumental interludes between poetic stanzas permit suitable breaks for self-reflection. The masterful orchestral settings add colour and emotional import to special words and cadences, and assist in the development of the ideas being exposed. The entire cycle presents the following songs: Prayer to the Land, About Me Like a Robe, To Tell You of my Love, A Cradle for this Child, Little Newborn, and The Woman Who Walked Here. The cycle ends on a wondering note—“where is the woman who walked here?”—which posed in the composer’s mind (in close relation with Momaday’s own notion of the “past as a journey”) a thought-provoking dichotomy between past and present: “About the many cultures and peoples that are with us, and that preceded us; some forgotten and some in a fragile state of existence.”

Silvia M. Lazo

Close the window