Arlene Sierra’s music is performed more in her native USA than in the UK where she now lives. Let's hope this is about to change because the first performance of her Nature Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Ludovic Morlot gave us an intriguing and enjoyable work.
The three movements of Sierra’s Symphony have subtitles. The first is Mountain of Butterflies. According to the programme notes this refers to the “site in Mexico where monarch butterflies complete their migration and form a literal mountain of beautiful ancient insects”. In it the composer builds on an earlier piece, her piano trio entitled Butterflies Remember a Mountain. From the opening notes a remarkable sound-world is created with a large orchestra often being handled very delicately. Moments with piano and harp glistening over a large body of shimmering strings were particularly striking.
The second movement is entitled The Black Place (after O’Keefe) referencing the work by American painter Georgia O’Keefe of black hills in New Mexico. This atmospheric and often hypnotic movement made me think of some Bartók’s "night music". Bee Rebellion refers to the behaviour of bees in a hive and to game theory. Listeners aware of this might expect something dauntingly intellectual, but instead we had a build-up of melodic fragments with the focus shifting from one group of instruments to another – and some bee-like buzzing.
I am somewhat sceptical of the evocation or representation of the human or natural world in music but for me the Nature Symphony was memorable for its creation of wonderful sounds from a large orchestra, ever–changing rhythms, ear-catching snatches of melody, contrasts of mood and a feeling that it all came together as a satisfying whole as a symphony should.