By Lawrence Budmen 

Festival Miami was to have concluded in October with the premiere of Roberto Sierra’s Sinfonia No.2: Gran Passacaglia. Hurricane Wilma canceled that event. 

The University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Sleeper finally performed Sierra’s score at the UM Gusman Concert Hall on Friday. This Abraham Frost Endowment Commission was worth waiting for. 

The Puerto Rican-American Sierra has created a vast catalogue of instrumental works. A pupil of Gyorgy Ligeti, Sierra writes in brilliant orchestral colors. Many of his scores are in the Latin folkloric tradition of De Falla, Carlos Chavez, and Carlos Surinach. 

Sinfonia No.2 represents a stylistic departure for the composer. While the score is replete with the motor rhythms that are a Sierra trademark, the piece is often astringent and dissonant. The whirling polyrhythms recall Stravinsky in his Russian avant garde phase, as represented by Le Sacre de Printemps and Les Noces. 

Set in the form of an expanded Passacaglia, the work is in one movement with four distinct sections. The bristling opening section leads to an eloquent miniature slow movement. Sierra’s searing writing for strings and woodwinds in this section has much in common with the modernist passion of the contemporary German master Hans Werner Henze. A surprisingly light and airy dance like episode leads to a driving, pounding finale. 

With its large scale orchestral patina and dramatic flourishes, Sierra’s score owes much to the American symphonic canon of the mid 20th century. In the manner of Roy Harris, Walter Piston, David Diamond, and the unjustly neglected Jerome Moross, Sierra has created a bold, dynamic symphonic statement.

Sierra’s compact, intense score is remarkably challenging for any orchestra, particularly a student ensemble. Sleeper has long been a persuasive, committed advocate for contemporary music. He roused his young players to a splendid performance. The expanded percussion writing was brilliantly delineated. Sierra’s complex wind and brass combinations proved exhilarating under Sleeper’s commanding baton. Sierra has created a major addition to contemporary symphonic literature. 

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