Composer Roberto Sierra elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters

Cornell’s J. Meejin Yoon, B.Arch. ’95, and composer Roberto Sierra have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, considered the highest form of recognition of artistic merit in the United States in their respective fields, the academy announced March 5.

Sierra, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities in the Department of Music, in the College of Arts and Sciences, was elected as part of a group of contemporary composers. His four-movement piece “Cantares,” commissioned by the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club to celebrate Cornell’s sesquicentennial, debuted with the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 2015.

J. Meejin Yoon
Martien Mulder/Provided Architect J. Meejin Yoon, B.Arch. ’95, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

Yoon, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, will join the academy’s field of architecture. Her designs examine intersections between urbanism, technology and the public realm, both in the U.S. and internationally.

The American Academy of Arts and Letters was founded in 1898 as an honor society for the nation’s leading architects, artists, composers and writers. Membership is limited to 300 individuals, who are elected for life and pay no dues.

Yoon is co-founding principal of Boston-based Höweler+Yoon Architecture. In addition to her most recent project, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia, examples of her work include Sky Courts in Chengdu, China; MIT’s Sean Collier Memorial and the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the future extension to the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Many people kneeling at a memorial event
Sanjay Suchak/University of Virginia An impromptu “White Coats for Black Lives” gathering on June 5, 2020 – days after the death of George Floyd – at the University of Virginia’s new Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, designed by Meejin Yoon.

“The induction of Meejin Yoon to the American Academy of Arts and Letters is well-deserved,” said architect Billie Tsien, president of the academy and co-founder of the firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. “The work created by Höweler+Yoon places and embeds memory into space and prioritizes the value of experience over spectacle.”

In addition to the positive reception in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers earned the Architect’s Newspaper 2020 Project of the Year, and won its Public and Social Impact category. The memorial honors the 4,000 slaves who built and sustained daily life at the university between its founding in 1817 by Thomas Jefferson, and their emancipation in 1865.

“The memorial is the work of many,” Yoon said. “While it honors the lives and labor of the men, women and children who were enslaved, it also serves as a painful reminder of the legacy of slavery.”

 “Listening to many voices in the community, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers was designed to capture dualities – the experience of pain and suffering, as well as resilience and dignity – and to create a commemorative landscape for active remembrance and reflection,” Yoon reflected.

On being elected to the academy, she said: “It is truly an honor to join this group of ​architects, artists, composers and writers who share an intense commitment to their creative disciplines.”

“As a member of the academy in the field of architecture, I ​share with my colleagues a deep and heightened sense of responsibility to build a better ​and more just world,” she said.

Yoon’s collaborators for the memorial included her partner, Eric Höweler B.Arch. ’94, M.Arch. ’96, architect and associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design; Mabel Wilson, cultural historian, designer and architecture professor at Columbia University; Eto Otitigbe, assistant professor of art at Brooklyn College; Gregg Bleam, a Charlottesville-based landscape architect; and Frank Dukes, lecturer and distinguished fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Engagement and Negotiation, who led the community engagement process.

Sierra released his “Roberto Sierra: ‘Cantares’/‘Loíza’/‘Triple Concierto’” recording, by Naxos American Classics, in spring 2020.

“Cantares” was recorded live during a January 2016 concert tour of Guatemala and Mexico by the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club, directed by Robert Isaacs, the Priscilla E. Browning Director of Choral Music. The Cornell groups performed with the Xalapa Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Lanfranco Marcelletti, in Xalapa, Mexico.

Three people sing in a choir
Xalapa Symphony Orchestra Brigid Lucey '18, Stephany Kim '19 and Collette Roberto ’16 sing with the Xalapa Symphony Orchestra in Xalapa, Mexico, during the concert in which Roberto Sierra's “Cantares” was recorded. It was part of of the 2016 Chorus and Glee Club Latin American tour.

“Loíza,” a piece inspired by Sierra’s Puerto Rican heritage – he grew up in Vega Baja and later lived in San Juan – was originally commissioned by the Eugene Symphony Orchestra in Oregon. He composed “Triple Concierto,” for violin, cello and piano, with support from a grant awarded by the BBVA Foundation in Spain. Performed by Trío Arbós, it is a contemporary expression of Caribbean music, moving between salsa, bolero and merengue rhythms.

“Roberto Sierra’s election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters is the latest of the many distinctions in his illustrious career,” said Ray Jayawardhana, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “It stands as further testimony to his genius and influence on music.”

Sierra was nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award in the category of Best Contemporary Classical Composition for “Missa Latina Pro Pace,” a 75-minute work commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C., to celebrate its own 75th anniversary.

Sierra was nominated for a Grammy again in 2015 for his “Sinfonía No. 4,” recorded by Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony.

In 2008, Sierra was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in music, the same year Junot Díaz, MFA ’95 – a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters – won in the fiction category for “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

“It’s very humbling,” Sierra said of his election to the academy. “Since composition is a such solitary endeavor, it is always wonderful to hear how members of the music community recognize you by election to this very distinguished group.”

Yoon and Sierra join a long list of Cornellians elected to the academy, including Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s founder and first president; Willard Fiske, Cornell’s first librarian; authors Díaz; Pearl Buck, M.A. ’25; Toni Morrison, M.A. ’55; and E.B. White, Class of 1921;  Mike Abrams, longtime editor of “The Norton Anthology of English Literature”; poet A. R. Ammons; historians Carl Becker and Morris Bishop; Steven Stucky, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer; and architect Peter Eisenman, B.Arch. ‘56.

In her election to the academy, Yoon joins architectural icons like Frank Lloyd Wright; Eero Saarinen; Elizabeth Diller; and Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Member Rem Koolhaas designed Milstein Hall; and Thom Mayne designed Gates Hall.

Musicians in the academy include Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and composer Igor Stravinsky, one of Sierra’s personal heroes.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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		Roberto Sierra, sitting at a piano