Professor Roberto Sierra after the recording session at the University of Veracruz in Xalapa, Mexico, with choir members and former students in his Music of Latin America class. From left to right: Jacob Herrera ’16, Andy Dorion ’16, Sierra, Nick Ringelberg ’16, Christian Kelly ’16 and Katie Flood ’16.

Recorded on tour, singers bring Sierra’s music home

The Cornell University Glee Club and Chorus perform on a new CD of works composed by Roberto Sierra, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities.

Combining ancient and modern Latin American influences, “Roberto Sierra: ‘Cantares’/‘Loíza’/‘Triple Concierto’” was released May 22 by Naxos American Classics. It is the first time in decades a Cornell large music ensemble is featured on a release by a major music label.

“Cantares,” in four movements, was originally commissioned by the Glee Club and Chorus to celebrate Cornell’s sesquicentennial in 2015. It premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York City with the American Symphony Orchestra, and was performed during the sesquicentennial celebration in Bailey Hall on campus with the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra. The Glee Club and Chorus are directed by Robert Isaacs, the Priscilla E. Browning Director of Choral Music.

The initiative to commission a major choral work was started by Patrick Chamberlain ’13 and Meghan Burns ’13 when they were presidents of their respective ensembles.

Some of the choirs’ alumni have cited the piece as “a high point of their time at Cornell,” Isaacs said, adding that Don Peck, J.D. ’86, a leading donor during fundraising for the commission, “said that seeing this at Carnegie Hall showed what the Glee Club could do.”

All of the works on the CD were influenced by Latin American culture and history. During a January 2016 concert tour of Guatemala and Mexico, 96 students in the combined ensembles rehearsed, performed and recorded “Cantares” in Xalapa, Mexico.

The Glee Club and Chorus members raised money for the tour and recording on their own. “It was a well-thought-out fundraising campaign, and we were able to make it possible for every member of the group to attend and take part in it,” Isaacs said. “I want to congratulate them on their ambition to succeed with this, with a major orchestra.”

Members of Cornell’s combined choirs during a recording session of Roberto Sierra’s “Cantares” in Xalapa, Mexico.

The recording also features Trío Arbós from Madrid and the Xalapa Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Lanfranco Marcelletti, who also conducted musicians on the Ithaca performance of “Cantares” in 2015.

“At the end it turned out to be a very international project, between Ithaca, Spain and Mexico,” said Sierra, who teaches composition in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Music. “It was a major project but I have to say it came out splendidly. The job that Robert Isaacs and the choirs did is amazing.”

Sierra traveled to Xalapa for the recording session in a concert hall at the University of Veracruz, and a concert performance during the tour. “It was fantastic to hear this group singing my piece,” he said. “It was a very happy moment.”

The choirs were able to bring a top recording engineer, Tim Handley, from England for the studio session, Isaacs said.

“Because Roberto’s music is really complex, it’s a challenge to record,” Isaacs said. “There’s some very colorful writing for the choir, matching the evocative imagery in the text, and the orchestral textures are subtle and deeply layered.”

“Loíza,” a piece inspired by Sierra’s Puerto Rican heritage, was originally commissioned by the Eugene Symphony Orchestra in Oregon. He composed “Triple Concierto,” for violin, cello and piano, with support from a grant awarded by the BBVA Foundation in Spain. Performed by Trío Arbós, it is a contemporary expression of Caribbean music, moving between salsa, bolero and merengue rhythms.

Sierra intended “Cantares” as a whole to evoke ancient sounds from Latin America and the Caribbean. Adapted from 15th- and 16th-century Aztec, Peruvian and Spanish texts and incantations in the Cuban Santeria tradition, it features three languages: Spanish, Quechua and the Afro-Cuban dialect Lucumí.

The Cornell ensembles on the 2016 tour included five students who took Sierra’s undergraduate course, The Music of Latin America, in 2015. He plans to teach the course again this fall.

“‘Cantares’ is, in a way, a byproduct of the research for that course. I had to investigate music I was not familiar with, so the piece came out of my activity as a professor,” Sierra said. “The first piece in ‘Cantares’ is based on an ancient Peruvian hymn. I know a lot of the popular classical music of Latin America, but I wasn’t that familiar with the ancient music.”

The students from the course participating on tour knew some of the history of the places they were performing in, and “they were able to have a different viewpoint by having had this class before,” he said. “Within the framework of Cornell, this links teaching and research, married together because of the nature of the project. And in the transmission of it, you have the students participating.”

Said Isaacs: “It was kind of a wonderful full-circle moment for the academic exploration of music and the creation of new music, and realizing a piece like ‘Cantares’ in its fullest cultural context.”

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Abby Butler