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Roberto SIERRA (b. 1953)
Missa Latina, ‘Pro Pace’, for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra (2008): (I. Introitus [5:34]; II. Kyrie [5:59]; III. Gloria [15:14]; IV. Credo [20:57]; V. Offertorium [7:28]; VI. Sanctus [5:27]; VII. Agnus Dei [7:36])
Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano); Nathaniel Webster (baritone)
Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Andreas Delfs
rec. 10 December 2008, Uihlein Hall, Milwaukee, USA.
NAXOS 8.559624 [68:12]
Experience Classicsonline

Here is an early entrant for best new composition of the year - Roberto Sierra’s Missa Latina, or Latin Mass, written in 2008 for the National Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin and here receiving its world-premiere recording. Sierra, originally from Puerto Rico, has a great deal of style-hopping music to his credit; he studied with Ligeti in Europe and has composed works which range in tone from Ligeti’s own experimental sensibilities to folk rhythms and styles of Sierra’s Caribbean homeland. His populist side was previously best illustrated by the Symphony No. 3, appealingly entitled the “Salsa Symphony” - and, indeed, this new mass could be considered the Salsa Mass.

The merger of the salsa and the sacred is signaled by the work’s title, which, as Sierra explains in his helpful but rather terse liner notes, has a double meaning. Missa Latina refers to both Latin - the language of the text - and Latino - the composer’s heritage. Thus much of the work has a strong Caribbean undertow, and the “Latino” side of the work often becomes overt in marvelous salsa-influenced passages with dancing percussion and swinging vocal lines.

The Missa Latina is a big, grand, complex work for soprano, baritone, full chorus, and an orchestra equipped with a large Latino percussion battery. But, despite its length of nearly seventy minutes, this piece is almost never intimidating. The style is eminently approachable, the music is consistently tonal, and generally the work sounds quite attractive. There is a tendency toward the serious and ominous, however, which is sometimes incongruous alongside the salsa elements of this mass - as if Sierra had written two works, one a jubilant hymn to his homeland and the other a troubled work of introspection, and woven them together. It is likely that most listeners will prefer one of the work’s atmospheres to the other; I prefer the down-home joy.

The opening Introitus actually betrays little of the outgoing style of the movements to come; it begins tentatively, the soprano singing with sparse accompaniment. The chorus only joins in halfway through the movement, and, although some of the Latino percussion slithers in near the end, the general mood is dark and uncertain. Heidi Grant Murphy, who sang in the world premiere performance of the Missa Latina, sings with conviction and beautiful tone.

Kyrie is an even more troubled movement, but it also offers a fine example of Sierra’s mixture of the two meanings of “Latina,” since the foreboding, resolutely tune-free atmosphere regularly does battle with spots of folk color - like the delightfully jazzy clarinet line which wends its way through the midsection. At the beginning of Gloria, Sierra finally strikes gold. The newly hopeful - and decidedly nationalistic - atmosphere builds amid Latino percussion and syncopated tunes, up to a truly marvelous passage (“Laudamus te”) for baritone Nathaniel Webster, backed up by a swinging choir and some fantastic orchestral detail (great trumpet licks!). The soprano then answers with a more lyrical interlude, magical in its own right, and the two moods alternate for the rest of this passage, building to a sumptuous close.

The following Credo, however, is the work’s most problematic section. It is, to put things mildly, far too long: frankly, in the twenty-one-minute-long movement I found myself looking at the CD player’s timer to see how much longer it would go on. It could have done with a serious trim, and the Introitus and Offertorium are rather flabby as well. The Credo is the worst offender, though, and when you hear the excessive repetition of the final “Amen,” you will surely agree. That single word is sung, by my count, 26 times!

After a rather undistinguished Offertorium, the Sanctus bursts onto the scene as a triumphant answer to the troubles of earlier movements. This is the heart of the work, a triumphant mix of “Latin” and “Latino” with a dash of Leonard Bernstein for good measure; the final Agnus Dei extends this delight in building to a marvelously affirmative conclusion.

I would hesitate to call the Missa Latina a masterwork. Unlike the best works of its kind - and I am thinking in particular of another distinctively modern, fervently nationalistic approach to the old-fashioned mass genre: Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass - Sierra’s ideas do not always flow organically from each other - they sometimes seem more like one thing after another than a logical development of a central argument. I often yearned to hear ideas elaborated further, only to discover that they never appeared again at all, like Webster’s irresistible melodic line in Gloria or, later in that movement (at 8:02), a truly marvelous oboe solo, which as far as thematic material goes must be counted a red herring. Janáček was not one to give us obvious melodies or a rigidly formal structure, either, but the flow of his music, and the feeling that each event in the score is a necessary consequence of the last, is something lacking in a great deal of the Missa Latina. Take Sierra’s Offertorium: the movement is structured as a gradual transition from darkness to light, just like the Sanctus (“Svet”) in Janáček’s Mass. But, whereas in the Czech work the arrival of light signifies an absolute triumph, in Sierra’s it makes absolutely no narrative sense. It is almost as if a mariachi band has mistakenly barged into a funeral.

That said, some sections of this work are unquestionably great, and I do not want you to get the wrong idea. Nearly all of the Missa Latina is thoroughly enjoyable, and much of it is fantastically written music. The Sanctus in particular is an absolute marvel, and the Gloria and Agnus Dei are not far behind. Murphy and Webster are superb soloists and their parts are consistent delights, the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and Orchestra are superb (especially the terrific brass section), and conductor Andreas Delfs, a longtime collaborator with Sierra, gives us an interpretation which is unlikely to be bettered anytime soon. Nearly everyone will be able to enjoy this work, and Sierra, though not yet expert in creating a strong narrative, has put together some brilliant orchestration here. At Naxos’ price, trying this work out is a simple matter, and unless you are expecting a masterpiece I do not think you will be disappointed. There is much to love about the Missa Latina. If it were twenty minutes shorter, this work would be an instant classic; as is, it is still very much worth anyone’s time.

If I may make a suggestion, however: if Sierra does revise this work for further performance, Deutsche Grammophon would be wise to convince conductor Gustavo Dudamel to present this work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. (They should retain the vocal talents of Murphy and Webster.) This music seems tailor-made for Dudamel and his new band, as is Sierra’s “Salsa Symphony,” which deserves a far wider audience too. Now there is a disc I would love to hear - but until then, this one is very strongly recommended. Fine new music in a truly dedicated performance. The Missa Latina is too long and disorganized to achieve greatness, but that does not stop it from having a marvelous good time.

Brian Reinhart 

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