Kiskadee, Illinois Philharmonic, Stilian Kirov, cond. February 24, 2024

Review: Illinois Philharmonic serves up high-stepping Gershwin and a Sierra premiere takes flight

The composer Arlene Sierra, born in Miami and resident in England, has concentrated her music on various nature phenomena, as with the Northeast wind in Aquilo and butterflies in her Nature Symphony. More recently Sierra has written music inspired by our featured friends—most notably her Bird Symphony, which was commissioned and premiered by the Utah Symphony in 2022.

Kiskadee is Sierra’s latest avian-inspired work and received its Chicago-area premiere by the IPO Saturday night. A consortium commission by the League of American Orchestras, this concise work uses a transcription of the title bird’s call as thematic material along with environmental sounds. The kiskadee is threatened by the competing song of the troupial but reasserts itself and emerges triumphant.

Sierra’s treatment of the kiskadee theme is no gently lilting birdsong... Emphatic and aggressive, the three-note motif is punched out in strident brass, piano and winds. The vying repeated-note troupial theme is first heard in a solo violin and the two themes collide and do battle before the kiskadee has the emphatic final word.

Kiskadee is a superbly crafted work and a compelling listen. Sierra packs a lot into [an eight]-minute span and her scoring is assured and stylish with an edgy brilliance to her writing for brass, winds and percussion.

Kirov and the IPO musicians gave this local debut first-class advocacy, with playing of impressive bite and precision, skillfully balanced and scrupulously prepared by Kirov.

- Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review



Ballistae, Grossman Ensemble, Brad Tubman, cond. September 30, 2023

Review: Under Brad Lubman, Grossman Ensemble Takes the Breath Away

The breathtaking highlight of the evening was Arlene Sierra’s Ballistae, which featured a modified Grossman lineup that included Jackson on double bass. The work put to music the firing of a ballistae, which is a Roman artillery piece. It is essentially a large version of a mounted crossbow that hurled heavy rocks long distances.

Sierra called on the various instruments to imitate the sounds of firing this weapon. Rhythmically, it started as a trot and accelerated to a canter. By the end it was a gallop. When the rock hit its target, everything stopped in a gasp. The Grossman’s precise playing allowed the sound to build up, but Lubman’s conducting made it rock.

- Louis Harris, Third Coast Review


of Risk and Memory, Voices of Change, Dallas. April 24, 2023

Review: Dallas’ Voices of Change explores modern chamber music from 1938 to 2022

One of the heftier selections was the 1997 Of Risk and Memory, for two pianos, by Arlene Sierra. Twelve minutes long, it alternates ruminative, harmonically ambiguous music suggestive of Alexander Scriabin with edgy passages of repetitive patterns studded with syncopations. The ending is almost desperately brilliant. Hurtado and Liudmila Georgievskaya were the superb pianists.

- Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News



Urban Birds, New Music Biennial, Coventry. April 22, 2022

New Music Biennial review – a broad-minded mix of genres and styles
On its 10th anniversary, the biennial featured 10 new pieces and 10 revivals, from Paul Purgas’s pulsing tape piece to Arlene Sierra’s touching work for three pianos and birdsong

And in Drapers’ Hall, the pianists Xenia Pestova Bennett, Sarah Nicolls and Eliza McCarthy returned to Arlene Sierra’s Urban Birds from 2014. Sierra overlays samples of the songs of three familiar British birds – the blackcap, skylark and cuckoo – with the sounds of the three pianos, percussion and disklavier, so that the birds become part of the musical fabric in an utterly unpretentious and in the end rather touching way.

- Andrew Clements, The Guardian



Bird Symphony (world premiere), performed by the Utah Symphony, Thierry Fischer, cond. April 15, 16, 2022

Sierra’s “Bird Symphony” soars in a rich Utah Symphony program

World premieres of orchestral works are sometimes fraught with mishap, and worse, indifference. Where a new piece is tucked away between Beethoven and Shostakovich, it is sometimes under-rehearsed, misinterpreted, or under-appreciated by an audience.

Fortunately, in Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony, Arlene Sierra—the orchestra’s composer-in-association—had the privilege of premiering her Bird Symphony with a conductor, ensemble and audience who know her work well.

After hearing her Nature Symphony last week and her tone poem Aquilo earlier in the season, it was thrilling to hear her apply her distinctive voice to a powerful new piece that provided a triumphant capstone to her season-long collaboration with the orchestra.

Music director Thierry Fischer programmed the Bird Symphony this week as part of a progressive musical meal that began with Haydn’s Symphony No. 11 for 20 instruments and gradually added more until culminating in the full sound of Elgar’s triumphant tone poem (Alassio) In the South. Along the way, the audience was treated to Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto featuring soloist Anthony McGill.

Sierra’s Bird Symphony shares many similarities with her Nature Symphony, including its motivic development and use of layered ostinati to imitate natural processes. In the new work, most of the motivic material came from actual bird calls, but Sierra developed them into something new, ecstatic, and far from its avian inspiration

The first movement, “Warblers,” began with an urgent energy, its source material sounding like a bird sensing danger. As the call ricocheted throughout the orchestra in a series of layers and loops, Sierra created a completely alien soundscape. It was as if we were seeing a frightening world through the warbler’s eyes or perhaps the warbler had flown us to a strange and uninhabited planet. Aided by four percussionists—including both xylophone and marimba—the orchestra built to an intense rhythmic climax.

In “Hermits and Captives,” (second movement), the orchestra responds to a recording of a Hermit Thrush call with transcriptions of birdsong from finches and canaries. Over a drone in the cello and mournful tones in the piano and double bass, a plaintive melody in the flute rose and spread to the strings, where it dissipated into pizzicato. As in the second movement of the Nature Symphony, Sierra used sustained low notes to create a dark, atmospheric mood. In the Bird Symphony those notes are a slowed-down bird call, which spread to horns and low brass, creating a powerful sense of motion, and transforming the movement from merely atmospheric to something more substantial and profound.

Driven forward by the marimba, Sierra’s trademark ostinati were at their most mesmerizing in the third movement “Female Birdsong.”

The finale “Utahraptor” created an infectious rhythm that took the audience on a primordial journey from birdsong to whatever noise its dinosaur ancestor might have made. The rhythmic motives were particularly effective when they spread to the bassoons, creating a unique and delightful sound, and led to an exciting, unique climax.

About a third of the audience gave Bird Symphony a standing ovation, which is quite a feat for a 25-minute long, sometimes discordant piece.

- Rick Mortensen, Utah Arts Review



Nature Symphony (US premiere), performed by the Utah Symphony, Thierry Fischer, cond. April 8, 9, 2022

Utah Symphony conjures nature in extremes with Arlene Sierra and Hilary Hahn

Through repeated motives and ostinati — layered on top of one another and providing a backdrop to irregular swoons and swells — Nature Symphony imitates the inevitable but chaotic processes of nature. Listening to it unfold provides a fascination similar to watching birds or insects and puzzling over their behavior.

The first movement, “Mountain of Butterflies,” flutters frenetically and occasionally swoops without warning. Though atonal, the piece has a strong rhythmic drive and a captivating sense of motion, and it creates tension and resolution in the development of its three and four note melodic cells. Fischer’s sense of counterpoint and transparency served this movement well, as he highlighted each layer of counterpoint and gave the piece a sense of urgency. The brass and percussion were particularly effective rising menacingly above the rhythmic churn.

The second movement, “The Black Place,” is named after a desolate landscape painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. It is slow, ominous, atmospheric and dark. In the program notes, Sierra noted that O’Keeffe’s iconic location in New Mexico is now a fracking site, and existential dread permeates the piece. Melodic fragments repeat and evolve slowly over a sustained single note that ascends and descends one step, and occasionally splits into an unsettling minor second. Fischer and the orchestra captured the movement’s dark, contemplative mood and gave shape to the swells in the strings.

The final movement, “Bee Rebellion,” is inspired by the phenomenon of hive collapse, where a colony’s worker bees will revolt and abandon their queen. Using oboes, bassoons, flutes and, in the end, all sections of the orchestra, Sierra evokes bees buzzing busily and somewhat angrily. On Friday, a motive consisting of four eighth notes ascending and descending a minor third ricocheted through the orchestra, as if signaling the rebellion that would eventually destroy the hive. As they did with “Butterfly Mountain,” Fischer and the orchestra mastered the frenetic energy of “Bee Rebellion” and highlighted the many interlocking melodies. The movement — and apparently the hive — ended with an increasingly forceful repeated figure in the low brass.

- Rick Mortensen, Utah Arts Review



Aquilo (US premiere), performed by the Utah Symphony, Shiyeon Sung, cond. November 19, 20, 21, 2021

Employing the orchestra in a wholly original way, [Aquilo] evoked the fearsome mystery of the wind as it might have appeared to the ancient mind… At other times the mood was ethereal, and still at others fierce and angry. Sung had an astute sense of the piece and conducted it with clarity and lucidity, never losing sight of the melody as it ricocheted through the orchestra in odd combinations.

- Rick Mortensen, Utah Arts Review



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