- The Washington Times - Friday, February 3, 2006

The National Symphony Orchestra, assisted by soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, baritone Nathaniel Webster and the Choral Arts Society of Washington, took a big risk Thursday evening by devoting an entire program to the world premiere of Roberto Sierra’s “Missa Latina.”

Not only do classical music lovers customarily avoid new works like the plague, but a goodly number of concertgoers aren’t highly motivated to attend a midweek performance whose only feature is a setting of the traditional Roman Catholic Latin Mass.

Hence, and not surprisingly, there were a goodly number of empty seats on Thursday night. Too bad. The stay-aways missed the most significant symphonic premiere in the District since the late Benjamin Britten’s stunning War Requiem was first performed in the still-unfinished Washington National Cathedral in the late 1960s. (No, Leonard Bernstein’s disastrous “Mass” doesn’t count.)

Co-commissioned by the NSO and the Choral Arts Society, Mr. Sierra’s new work is, quite simply, shockingly brilliant.

Similar to Mr. Britten, who interpolated British antiwar poetry from World War I into his highly original liturgical setting, Mr. Sierra takes some liberties with the wording and structure of the Latin text of the ancient church that serves as the basis for his composition. Also like Mr. Britten, Mr. Sierra nods in the antiwar direction by subtitling his work “Pro Pax” (“For Peace”).

Yet, unlike the British composer, Mr. Sierra celebrates life in an innovative yet standard Mass setting that unites traditional liturgical solemnity with Hispanic religious exuberance and with telling allusions to the understated “Requiem” of Gabriel Faure. The result: a rich, dense, modernist tapestry splashed with innovative and percussive Latin American colors and excursions in extended tonality.

The work begins not with the traditional opening, “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord have mercy”), but with an “Introitus,” or beginning, that is part of the ancient rite’s structure but generally is not sung. Here, the composer gives to the soprano a prayer of peace that quietly sets the work’s tone, save for a bit too much shimmering percussion that occasionally obliterated Miss Murphy’s voice.

This is followed by an aggressive “Kyrie” and a multifaceted and unconventional “Gloria.” Here and throughout the work, Mr. Sierra takes a page out of Bach or Handel by transforming sets of related words or lines into their own mininarratives.

The longest and most complicated part of the work, the “Credo” (“I believe”) is Mr. Sierra’s personal statement of belief and humanity, and the ebb and flow of its component parts ultimately creates a world that evolves from dissonance into harmony.

The work concludes with the pairing of a festive “Sanctus” (“Holy”) and the traditional “Agnus Dei” (“Lamb of God”). Despite the Hispanic expectations evoked by the work’s title, Mr. Sierra’s Mass often relies on classical European musical tradition. This makes his Latino eruptions all the more unexpected and irresistible — no more so than in this delightful “Sanctus.”

In this section’s “Benedicte,” Mr. Sierra also convincingly breaks the postmodernist taboo against melody, giving his soprano the most achingly beautiful solo we have heard in decades. Chorus, orchestra and soloists then take the “Agnus Dei” to an emotionally satisfying and redemptive conclusion.

A huge bravo to Mr. Sierra for having the courage to invite audiences back to the concert hall by gifting them with something wonderful. Kudos also to the performers — from Leonard Slatkin, who directed a clearly enthusiastic NSO; to both soloists, who performed their difficult and extended parts nearly without a flaw; and to the Choral Arts Society, clearly well rehearsed by artistic director Norman Scribner. Here’s hoping there will be no empty seats for tonight’s final performance.


WHO: National Symphony Orchestra

WHAT: “Missa Latina” by Roberto Sierra

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

WHEN: Tonight at 8

TICKETS: $20 to $79

PHONE: Call the box office at 202/467-4600MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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