Sierra’s “Missa Latina” proves less than heavenly at Grant Park Festival

Thu Jun 29, 2017 at 12:51 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Roberto Sierra's "Missa Latina" was performed Wednesday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.
Roberto Sierra’s “Missa Latina” was performed Wednesday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.

Exotic settings of the ancient Latin Mass-exotic at least to the ears of Western classical music lovers–are hardly unusual. Those with long memories may remember the Missa Luba, a setting based on traditional African music composed in 1958 that was a major hit, especially among college students, in the late 1950s and 1960s.

On Wednesday night the Grant Park Music Festival offered a Caribbean-infused setting of the Mass, Missa Latina, written between 2004 and 2006 by Puerto Rican-born composer Roberto Sierra. Guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya led the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in the sprawling work, with soloists soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Takaoki Onishi.

The orchestra bristled with fiery energy, and the chorus, impeccably prepared by director Christopher Bell, provided some celestially ethereal moments. But overall, Sierra’s repetitious dramatic devices—sharp, drum-driven outbursts from the orchestra, the vocal soloists’ unrelenting declamatory style—left one feeling more battered than uplifted.

The work’s subtitle is “Pro Pace,” conveying Sierra’s desire for peace amid “the turbulence and constant state of war in which we find ourselves,” according to his program notes. But moments of peace and reflection were almost entirely missing on Wednesday night.

Running slightly over an hour and composed of seven sections, Missa Latina began quietly with great promise. In the opening Introitus section maracas snapped against mysterious, long-held chords in the orchestra. Rivera sailed a slow, high, sustained melody over the orchestra like a reassuring beam of light in an ominous sky. The chorus emerged as from a mist, singing a hushed Gregorian chant. The mood eloquently expressed the Introitus’s first phrase, “Give peace, O Lord.”

Sierra admirably mixes musical genres and often layers them expertly in Missa Latina. On Wednesday the chorus became a vivid character, sometimes rattling the heavens with raucous power. Singing of God’s goodness in the Offertorium, they were exuberant, even playful as they punched out Sierra’s dance rhythms over the high-spirited, racing orchestra. At various points throughout the Mass, their hushed snatches of Gregorian chant softened the often-hard edges of the orchestra and soloists like a cooling fog.

At first Onishi’s strong, sometimes stern, declarations and Rivera’s clear, focused soprano were emotionally powerful. They conveyed the deep belief that anchors the traditional Latin Mass’s prayers. But as the performance wore on, we craved relief from their unshakable conviction and the frequently hectoring orchestra. Even the Offertorium, the main repository of the Mass’s plea for peace, opened with an imperious eruption of drum, brass and orchestra.

Throughout Missa Latina, Sierra’s vocal lines were often staccato bursts of single, repeated syllables, and Rivera’s voice took on a hard edge as she powered through them. Like a congregation listening to a stern preacher, we felt like we were being admonished. For a piece subtitled “Pro Pace,” more peace and time for reflection would have been welcome.

Missa Latina will be repeated 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Grant Park Music Festival.

Andres Bedoya conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in Sierra's "Missa Latina" Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera
Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in Sierra’s “Missa Latina” Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

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