Jazz Virtuoso James Carter Premieres Roberto Sierra’s Saxophone Concerto in Detroit
Detroit Free Press—13 October 2002
Composer Roberto Sierra chuckles as he recalls his first meetings with James Carter, the Detroit-born jazz virtuoso who will give the world premiere of Sierra’s Saxophone Concerto this week with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Sierra, 49, had been so impressed by Carter’s recordings that he traveled to the Blue Note, a Greenwich Village jazz shrine, to hear him in person. The controlled fury of Carter’s improvisations and his breathtaking technique convinced Sierra that he had found the lead voice for the nascent saxophone concerto that had been winking at his muse.
Still, not all great improvisers can handle the written intricacies of contemporary classical music. So Sierra wrote several samples with very strict rhythms and other challenges for Carter.
“He just sight-read them all like they were nothing,” says Sierra, telling the tale over lunch in the cafe at the Whitney Museum of Art. “It was really amazing.”
The confluence of Sierra, Carter and the DSO is one of the most eagerly anticipated premieres in recent DSO history. The piece has attracted national and international attention, with orchestras in Miami, Germany, Amsterdam and England expressing interest.
The project resonates on many levels, beginning with Sierra — born in Puerto Rico, a leading composer of his generation and part of an emerging group of Latino composers whose music often incorporates Latin-American vernacular influences into a classical aesthetic.
The concerto — whose four movements include allusions to Latin clave rhythms, episodes of jazz improvisation and a surreal boogie-woogie finale — ties into recent trends toward crossbreeding of styles in classical music.
Then there’s Carter, 33, a bona fide star, whose stylistic flexibility and energy have endeared him to jazz critics and fans while his charisma, youth and rambunctious attitude have helped win him a following among the editors and readers of Rolling Stone.
Carter played some classical music when he was growing up, particularly when he studied at Interlochen. Still, he says, learning Sierra’s piece has been “virgin territory” and a “serious challenge.” He’s been touched that Sierra has been a willing collaborator, tweaking certain passages based on Carter’s suggestions.
“I’m very much flattered because there are many other things he could be doing than working on a piece for me,” says Carter.
For the DSO, the Sierra-Carter project reflects the orchestra’s twin goals of reaching out to a broader audience and shaping an artistic identity unique to Detroit. The DSO has expanded its jazz programming in recent seasons to cozy up to the city’s jazz heritage. By signing on to the Sierra concerto as the commissioning institution, the DSO has upped the ante on its commitment.
The idea for the piece, however, originated not as a half-baked marketing ploy in a conference room but as an artistic impulse in the mind of an important composer. In other words, this is no vulgar crossover stunt. That DSO music director Neeme Järvi will be on the podium rather than a guest conductor underscores how seriously Järvi and the orchestra take this project.
Teacher and student
Sierra has a deep resume. He teaches at Cornell University and has served as resident composer with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony. His chamber music is especially well represented on CD, and his recent orchestral work Fandangos has found an ardent champion in conductor Leonard Slatkin, who has taken the piece on tour with the National Symphony Orchestra and programmed it with the BBC Symphony in London.
Sierra’s music is typically splashed with sun-dappled colors, vibrant harmonies, clear melodic direction and percolating rhythms; even when not specifically drawing upon Latino traditions, his music packs a percussive punch. He conjures up abstract textures and dissonance — a reminder that one of the first modern composers Sierra was attracted to was the French mystic Olivier Messiaen and that Sierra spent three years studying with the Hungarian master György Ligeti in Hamburg, Germany, in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
But formalism rarely trumps Sierra’s earthy communicativeness. It surely is no coincidence that melody and harmony were also central to Messiaen, and for all of Ligeti’s brilliant craftsmanship and high-modernist abstraction, his music is rich with emotional expression. Ligeti specifically encouraged Sierra to explore his Latino roots.
“He urged all of us to find our own voices,” says Sierra. “He was fascinated by Latin rhythms, and that also came into his music; even in his biography, he mentions me as one of the students who was important at the time in terms of bringing new languages to him.”
Sierra was born in Vega Baja, where he grew up on mambo records, salsa and other popular forms. At 14, he became fascinated with the family piano and began picking out tunes by ear. He started lessons at 15 and progressed so rapidly that at 16 he entered a pre-college program at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music.
Sierra entered the conservatory as a pianist but later drifted into composition. His training was traditional; the heroic cellist Pablo Casals, a product of the 19th century, was still directing the school. Sierra remembers performing at a birthday celebration for Casals at the master’s home and choosing to play Ravel’s Ma Mere L’oye.
“I think it was music he really hated,” says Sierra. “It was too modern.”
But advanced students did get their hands on canonic music by early modernists Stravinsky and Bartók, and Sierra heard Messiaen on records. Later studies in London and Europe introduced Sierra to contemporary voices like Pierre Boulez, Morton Feldman and Elliott Carter.
Music of the peasants
Today, Sierra says he feels connected to two main traditions: the pluralist mainstream of contemporary American composers and the elder group of Latin-American composers like Argentinian Alberto Ginastera and Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, who pioneered national styles.
But Sierra says he also feels he is a part of a first generation of Latino composers he considers a branch of the American tree; his peers include such composers as Robert Rodriguez and Miguel del Aguila.
Sierra says it’s natural that these composers should assimilate Latino vernacular music; after all, composers as far back as Bach, Handel, Mozart and Schubert transformed folk melodies or dances.
“Even Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is, dare I say, hick music,” says Sierra. “People say, ‘This is Olympus,’ and I say, ‘No, it’s the music of the peasants put in a wonderfully orchestrated and thought-out way and with more complex harmony. But the rhythms and smell of it is the music of the peasants and the German countryside.”