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Roberto Sierra's Missa Latina Premiered

Roberto SierraThursday was another world premiere day for the audience at the Kennedy Center. The National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, the Choral Arts Society of Washington (Norman Scribner), and soloists Heidi Grant Murphy and Nathaniel Webster presented Roberto Sierra’s Missa Latina (“Pro Pax”) that had been commissioned by the performing forces. A work based on the Latin Mass as Mr. Sierra remembers it from childhood, a plea for peace (hence “Pro Pax”), it is also a showcase for Sierra’s Hispanic background, “which,” he is quoted in the notes by Richard Freed, “comes across through the fabric of my musical language.” That might just be a bit of an understatement, as it turned out. It’s a Catholic work alright, set to the text of the traditional Latin Mass with the Kyrie (Hello, Carmina Burana!), Gloria, Credo (ever-lasting), Sanctus, and Agnus Dei as well as an Introitus and Offertorium (wild and smashing), but it has more than a shade of Caribbean or South American flair to it; it carries that heritage most prominently on its sleeve.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, The Joyful Noise Of 'Missa Latina' (Washington Post, February 3)

Also on Ionarts:

Charles T. Downey, Díaz Trio at the Library of Congress (world premiere of Roberto Sierra's Kandinsky, February 14, 2004)
A large work for a very large orchestra (everyone on the orchestra’s payroll seemed involved) and a long work, the Missa Latina is rich in ideas and high in promise. The return on these promises is difficult to judge upon first hearing, but there were elements that stood out as distracting from rather than aiding the work. These were, namely, the Hispanic ‘influences’ that were not so much “part of the fabric” but stitched onto it, in screaming colors and very narrowly defined moments. What started and often reverted to a large choral work with soft falls and rises of the musical line, with a powerful swoosh here and there, and in a language that should be accessible to those who know and like their Arvo Pärt (Litany), Morten Lauridsen (Lux Eterna), and especially John Adams (El Niño) was consistently interrupted (not accentuated or enhanced) with Latin ‘effects’ that spelled out “Speedy Gonzales” more than “Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.” The rhythm section’s cabaza and maracas’ ambushes on the music felt alien and cut and pasted atop the music, not part of its core. In the Sanctus, the chorus nearly began swaying in a sort of Caribbean doo-wop to the words “Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua” and quickly again to “Hosanna” only to stop as abruptly as they started. Same at “Lauda, Jerusalem Dominum” (Offertorium) and the “Laudamus te” in the Gloria.

Speedy GonzalesI admit to seeing a connection between text and the added Latin spice, but while Mr. Sierra’s God might shake the Maracas and bang the Bongos, I feel more like Robert R. Reilly (he, precognizant, stayed away), who wrote (albeit about Golijov’s Passion) that “I cannot salsa down the via dolorosa.” The image fits perfectly, because the percussion section’s contributions often felt like a mime dancing in front of the orchestra, hips swinging ostentatiously, pointing out the underlying rhythm in painfully obvious ways. I think that the work might have truly impressed me, were Sierra to have cut the snare drum, bass drum, Cuban timbales, bongos, congas, tom toms, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, tam-tam, gong, crash cymbals, suspended cymbals, hi-hat, cencerros, triangle, maracas, claves, güiro, vibra-slap, and cabaza (all present) out of the score. What are obstructions to and detractions from the music may be highlights to someone else… but there was, despite much beautiful music, another quibble I had. The constant regular musical eruptions and swooping mini-climaxes that lacked – unlike in Bruckner – the grand design of overarching ideas and structure or – as in Mahler – the cumulative power of neurotic outbursts left one with the feeling of impotence, after a while.

Leonard Slatkin conducted with visible enthusiasm and engagement, evidently believing in the work (as he should, of course) and enjoying the many theatrical entries of various loud instrument groups. In the grand final gesture – attended by the trademark ‘Slatkin-hop’ – his baton touched his back before he flung it orchestra-wards one last time. Heidi Grant Murphy (appearing in an intriguing, steel/powder-blue dress) is one of the finest lighter voices of her generation. Her always agile voice navigated through the whole affair with ease and soft and hushed tones were particularly impressive. She was seconded by the young baritone Nathaniel Webster, who offered a performance no lesser than that of his more seasoned and famous colleague.

Repeat performances will take place Friday and Saturday at 8PM.