Moler, performed by the Utah Symphony, Conner Gray Covington, cond. January 3, 4, 2020


After intermission, Arlene Sierra’s Moler was heard in its Utah Symphony premiere. Commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, the work debuted in 2012, and was nominated for a Latin Grammy Award in 2014. Its title can be translated as the verb “to grind” and Sierra has described her inspiration for the piece as “bruxism,” which literally means teeth-grinding.

The orchestra brought a deep commitment to its ominous, anxious, and suspenseful moods. The uneasy tensions in this composition conjured thoughts of indeterminacy and unpredictability, not only in individuals but also in environments, as seen currently in the fires raging in Australia.

Sierra’s work culminated in a dramatic abrupt halt, setting up an intriguing contrast with Debussy’s La Mer, which followed to close the evening.

- Kate Mattingly, Utah Arts Review



Bridge Records CD Arlene Sierra, Vol. 3 - Butterflies Remember a Mountain, December 2018-February 2019

When Bridge champions a composer, one needs to sit up and take notice: the series devoted to George Crumb, Fred Lerdahl and Poul Ruders provide eloquent testimony of that. Arlene Sierra, American-born in 1970 but long resident in the UK, is another in the company’s focus and this third volume (the first was released in 2011, the second – of orchestral works – three years later) is a wonderful chamber music issue that enthrals from first bar to last.

The title-work is Sierra’s second piano trio, Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013). The piece has garnered much critical admiration (7/16) and was written for the players performing it here, Nicola Benedetti, Leonard Elschenbroich and Alexei Grynyuk. Many of Sierra’s works derive inspiration from the natural world and its fauna (readers may recall the premiere in 2017 of her Nature Symphony, a part-reworking of this trio), and this is no exception. There is a Takemitsu-like conceit to its title, the three movements titled respectively ‘Butterflies’, ‘Remember’ and ‘A Mountain’, and the music has a Japanese exquisiteness and restrained power.

Sierra’s first trio, Truel (2002 04), is of a markedly different character, a duel between the three players (hence the title), combative and utterly compelling. So, too, is the violin-and-cello duet Avian Mirrors (2013), a fascinating non-Messiaenic triptych on birdsong that lingers long in the memory. Counting-Out Rhyme (2002) and the closing piano duet, Of Risk and Memory (1997), are both beguiling and broaden her frame of reference and instrumental palette. The performances are all first-rate; the recorded sound – from three different locations and dates – is beautifully engineered. Very strongly recommended.

– Guy Rickards, Gramophone

Like many of Sierra's works, these duos and trios draw inspiration from dynamic processes in the natural world, from language and poetry and from strategy and game theory. Butterflies Remember a Mountain refers to the extraordinary annual migration of Monarch butterflies. The three movements reflect the fragility of the butterflies, their determined quest and the riot of colour as hundreds of thousands of them descend on their destination. The music is full of restless energy, and so is Avian Mirrors, which explores the ritualised calls and responses between birds. Insects and birds, with their rapid, trembling, febrile energy, turn up again and again in Sierra's music, their formalized, repetitive motions and ritual behaviours linked to the composer's interest in formal rule-based games with many possible outcomes, like that explored in Truel. This is a three-way equivalent of a duel, which may lead to unexpected results depending on the mismatched skill or perceived dangerousness of the participants (think of the dénoument of 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'). The first movement sets up the parameters of the match in repetitive ostinati, with different characters assigned to the three instruments. Tension rises, then time freezes in the static ostinato patterns of the slow movement. The same gestures finally generate an energetic perpetuum mobile in the last movement. Rhyming games are played out in Counting-out Rhyme, after Edna St. Vincent Millay's eponymous poem; here the repetitions, rhymes, assonances and repetitions of the poem find parallels in the instrumental interactions. Of Risk and Memory requires a virtuosic level of co-ordination between the two pianists, as they throw Messiaenic chords and rapid passage-work at each other, in a thrilling display of alacrity and acrobatics.

Records International

This third volume in Bridge’s invaluable survey of Arlene Sierra hones in on chamber music composed between 1997 and 2013. Cellist Leonard Elschenbroich (who commissioned it), violinist Nicola Benedetti and pianist Alexei Grynyuk provide fierce, poetic advocacy for the title track, Sierra’s second piano trio. Inspired by migration patterns of Monarch butterflies, it’s packed with kinetic imagery and atmospherics carried along by a focus-shifting fluidity owing something to Ravel’s direct impressionism and Tōru Takemitsu’s detached delicacy. Truel, the tense, taut first piano trio, is realised with pugilistic pungency by the Horszowski Trio, Avian Mirrors a mesmerising conversation in birdsong between Jesse Mills’s violin and Raman Ramakrishnan’s cello. The piano duet Of Risk and Memory plunges Quattro Mani into constant peristaltic motion in music of often seething (and not a little disturbing) drama. Counting-out Rhyme is a delightful miniature, played with bright, skittish ebullience by cellist Ramakrishnan and Rieko Aizawa on piano. Excellent recorded sound adds to the pleasure of a disc that merits and rewards repeated listening.

– Michael Quinn, Classical Ear

Contemporary, abstract, somewhat tense works for strings and piano. Play!

– WRUV 90.1 Reviews


ARLENE SIERRA’S chamber music. A fresh breeze that blows new air through time-honored classical procedures and forms. Augmentation (expanding) and diminution (contracting) are old classical tricks that can take a wide variety of applications to music (and other art forms). For Sierra, the first sounds very conversational; the second chirps like birds. Miami-born (in 1970), now London-based, Sierra took her education and degrees at American universities and studied with some of our best-known composers. Previously, she had two orchestral CD releases for Bridge Records, and contributed to Cuatro Corridos, a chamber opera whose subject matter is human trafficking. Arlene Sierra, Vol. 3 includes two piano trios, the frequently performed Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013), inspired by the annual migration of monarch butterflies, and Truel (2004), a game-theory duel in three parts, plus Avian Mirrors (2013) for violin and cello, Counting-Out Rhyme (2002) for cello and piano and Of Risk and Memory (1997) for two pianos. Quattro Mani plays the last mentioned. Truel, at 20 minutes the longest piece on the CD, features the Horszowski Trio. Other musicians include violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk. Sierra has a long list of works of all kinds and enjoys an endless stream of commissions.

– Performing Arts Monterey Bay


MUSIC REVIEW: Standout classical CDs of 2018
American composer’s collection series on Bridge continues with some chamber settings. From the opening piano trio, “Butterflies Remember a Mountain,” these spare, elegant works draw in the listener. Like the best music, recognizable structures float by — Debussy, Webern. Like the best music, it sounds like an original voice too. Boston-area audiences heard a single work of Sierra’s last season with the BSO in 2017-18 ... This voice needs to be heard, regularly, repeatedly.

– Keith Powers, North Attleborough Free Press




Nature Symphony, world premiere by the BBC Philharmonic, Ludovic Morlot, conductor, November 25, 2017


BBC Philharmonic / Morlot review – striking orchestral ideas in new Sierra symphony • Arlene Sierra takes us back to nature in striking new symphony

Ludovic Morlot led a debut of Arlene Sierra’s Nature Symphony, which nods to everything from bees to the dark landscapes of Georgia O’Keeffe

Born in the US but based in Britain, Arlene Sierra is perhaps best known on this side of the Atlantic for her feisty, energy-packed ensemble pieces. But her catalogue also includes a number of orchestral pieces, several of which have been taken up by Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. That made Morlot a natural choice to conduct the first performance of Sierra’s Nature Symphony, which was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic.

The title suggests something programmatic, and the symphony’s three movements all have evocative titles, but there is nothing in them that’s obviously descriptive. The mechanics of natural processes fascinate Sierra and find their way into her music, so it is the idea of endless cycles of migration, year after year, that creates the steadily accumulating loops of the opening Mountain of Butterflies, while the sense of something ominous and threatening in the melodic fragments and ticking ostinatos of the slow central Black Place was inspired by Georgia O’Keefe’s dark paintings of New Mexico.

The finale, Bee Rebellion, is based on the phenomenon of hive collapse that is sometimes seen in bee colonies, when the insect society can suddenly break down into anarchy; it’s music of unpredictable cycles and accumulations, with taunting wind solos, all cut short by a brassy, percussion-driven ending that offers no escape. Lasting just over 20 minutes, the symphony does what Sierra sets out to do with impressive economy and a succession of striking orchestral ideas.

- Andrew Clements, The Guardian



Butterflies, landscapes and bees in Arlene Sierra's new Nature Symphony