Arts concert review

Bringing together the old and new: Sierra, Elgar, Dvorak at the BSO

The BSO explores sounds from the Romantic Era and 21st-Century

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Cellist Pablo Ferrández plays the Elgar Cello Concerto.
Photo courtesy of Michael Lutch

Sierra’s “Sinfonía No. 6,” Elgar’s “Cello Concerto in E Minor,” Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 7” 

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Domingo Hindoyan 

Boston Symphony Hall

Mar. 30, 2024 


The old and the new are constantly at odds in music. Performers seek to distinguish their artistic voices from established musicians, but straying too far from standard interpretations runs the risk of displaying poor taste. Composers are both inspired and suffocated by those before them. This much-anticipated BSO concert juxtaposes the old and new, with two works from standard classical music repertoire and one commissioned work written in 2021.

The concert opened with the American premiere of Roberto Sierra’s Sinfonía No. 6. As the concert’s only living composer, Sierra introduced the piece at the start of the concert — an infrequent occurrence in classical music concert halls. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Sierra introduces instruments, rhythms, and melodies of Afro-Caribbean music to the classical concert hall. Sinfonía No. 6 successfully combines influences across centuries and cultures. For instance, elements of the Sinfonía mirror Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”). Along with using conventional symphonic form, Sierra depicts energetic daily scenes (I. Reflexión Urbana, “Urban Reflection”) and a feisty storm (III. Huracán, “Hurricane”) similar to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. 

Sierra’s style grows partly from his studies in Europe with György Ligeti. Likely following in the footsteps of Ligeti’s avant-garde style, the tonal qualities of the Sinfonía are atypical of Western classical music. Contemporary pieces that defy conventional tonal systems often do not resonate with concertgoers, but Sierra’s Sinfonía No. 6 utilizes Puerto Rican dance rhythms to evoke emotions and connect to the audience. The variety of percussion including the guiro, claves, bongos, and maracas spoke to my internal pulse, transporting me with the music as it ebbed and flowed, peaked and diminished. This refreshing piece moved the audience to give a standing ovation, a kind of reception that isn’t commonly found for modern compositions. 

The next piece on the program was the emblematic Cello Concerto in E minor by Edward Elgar. Elgar’s Cello Concerto is synonymous with the cellist Jacqueline du Pre. Despite her great success, du Pre had to cut her career short at the age of 28 and passed away at 42 due to her battle with multiple sclerosis. Her interpretation of the Elgar concerto mirrors the tragedy of her life story, in part leading to the popularity of her rendition. Inadvertently, du Pre’s sorrowful and painful interpretation sets the expectation for what Elgar’s Cello Concerto “should” sound like. 

Yet in this BSO concert, Pablo Ferrández shared a different interpretation of the concerto. His sound was restrained but always tinged with warmth, evoking nostalgia more than suffering. Rather than employing a very expressive vibrato, Ferrández played with the timing of his notes to pull at our heartstrings. For instance, he delayed the resolution of harmonic tension in a few cadences to build a restrained sense of pain. While I thoroughly enjoy du Pre’s interpretation, Ferrández provided a fresh perspective on Elgar’s concerto, showing that the concerto can evoke both agony or mildly sweet nostalgia. 

The other classic work on the program was Antonin Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony. Dvorak was a composer who sat at the crossroads of the old and new. In the late nineteenth century when Dvorak began his career, the Austro-German tradition of classical music dominated the musical landscape. At the same time, however, there was a wave of non-German nationalistic composers who sought to incorporate music from their countries. This included Betrich Smetana and Dvorak for the Czech, Edvard Grieg for the Norwegians, and Modest Muzzorgsky for the Russians, among others. 

While Dvorak’s career was launched by his Slavonic Dances, he had to appeal to Germanic tastes for his music to be sold. Dvorak began the Seventh Symphony in 1884; Johannes Brahms, the great German composer who helped launch Dvorak’s career, had just written a new symphony, and Smetana, the founder of modern Czech music, had just passed away. Would Dvorak succumb to the splendor of Germanic ideas that moved him in a performance of Brahms’ symphony, or would he showcase the Bohemian style even more strongly in light of Smetana’s death? 

In the first movement, Dvorak uses a melody very similar to the cello solo in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, and the general structure and development of the symphony follow closely with the Germanic tradition. Nevertheless, the third movement feels particularly like a Slavic folk dance with its variety of rhythms, and the triple meter was delightful to hear. The last movement (Finale) stood out for the intense tremolo in the strings, which made the energy feel tangible, the whole atmosphere momentous. Overall, I would argue that the Seventh Symphony is one of Dvorak’s more Germanic works as only one movement hints at his Slavic roots, in contrast to his later Ninth Symphony which includes sounds from both Bohemia and America throughout. While Dvorak fluctuated in how much he embraced the old and the new, he always included some Slavic contributions. 

As highlighted by this BSO concert, it has been important both in the past and the present to be open to new music, whether that means new musical ideas, new compositions, or new interpretations. Dvorak helped popularize musical ideas previously not presented in mainstream music at the time. Sierra similarly brought sounds from his culture to the classical music hall in this American premiere of his Sinfonía No. 6. Cellist Pablo Ferrández shared an imaginative interpretation of Elgar’s often-played cello concerto. 

Each piece tickled our ears with exciting sounds, demonstrating the value of being receptive to new music. Programming modern compositions together with more established works can continue to bring fresh works into the spotlight. Expanding the genres of music we listen to can also introduce us to refreshing ideas. So next time you attend a concert or open Spotify, bring a set of open ears and an open heart.