Composer Roberto Sierra wins top Spanish prize

Roberto Sierra

Roberto Sierra, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities in the Department of Music, has been awarded the Tomás Luis de Victoria Prize, the highest honor given in Spain to a composer of Spanish or Latin American origin, by the Society of Spanish Composers Foundation. The prize, which includes an award of 20,000 euros, will be presented to Sierra in the spring in Madrid; a concert of his works will accompany the ceremony.

“Receiving this award has been a real surprise and somewhat overwhelming,” said Sierra. “I work in the privacy of my studio, composing works with the hope that someday they will be heard, without thinking of awards or the applause of the audience.”

The Victoria Prize recognizes a living composer “for his contribution to the enrichment of the musical life of the Ibero-American community throughout his professional career and through his work.” The international award committee cited Sierra for “the quality and variety of his work, which combines current techniques with the essence of Caribbean music and is a personal contribution to all genres of music.”

“I am very interested in expressing who I am, where I come from. I think my work reflects my cultural heritage, my ‘genetics’ as a composer,” said Sierra. “I'm not chasing those fashions that very soon become as old as yesterday’s newspaper. Perhaps this translates into something that reflects integrity and a personal approach to musical expression.”

Sierra came to prominence in 1987, when his first major orchestral composition, Júbilo, was performed at Carnegie Hall by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. For the past three decades, his more than 100 works have been part of the repertoire of European and American orchestras, and have been featured at numerous music festivals.

With more than 100 recordings, Sierra most recently released “Graffiti,” a piece commissioned by the Sigma Ensemble in Chile for the Manuel de Falla International Spanish Music Festival. He is working on dramatic songs about Carmen Miranda for the St. Luke’s Chamber Orchestra of New York, and a cycle for baritone and piano titled “33 Dreams With Poems” by Jan Carlos Garvayo, scheduled to be premiered in Seville in March. In addition, Albany Records released a CD of Sierra’s music for cello and piano performed by cellist John Haines-Eitzen, Cornell senior lecturer in music, and pianist Matthew Bengston.

Born in Puerto Rico, Sierra studied at the Puerto Rico Conservatory and the University of Puerto Rico before receiving his master’s in musicology from the Royal College of London University. He did postgraduate studies at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and studied programmatic composition with Gyorgi Ligeti in Hamburg, Germany. He was dean, then chancellor, of the Puerto Rico Conservatory and became composer-in-residence for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. In 1992, he began teaching composition at Cornell; his interests also include orchestration and analysis.

Sierra’s honors include the Academy Award in Music by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2003 and two nominations for Grammy Awards in the category of “Best Contemporary Composition.” In 2010 Sierra was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Linda B. Glaser is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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