Reviews of BAMA concerts that have appeared in print or online media.

The Birmingham News – May 1997

By Nancy Raabe,
News staff writer

It’s a mystery, when you stop to think about it, why the serious art music of our time has fallen so far out of favor with the general public.

The same fate has not befallen the visual arts. While modern music in this country flourishes primarily in small enclaves within the sanctity of the ivory tower, entire museums are devoted to modern art. Imagine a world where the same was true of music, and any city worth its salt would boast a full-time orchestra, with an array of support organizations, devoted exclusively to the performance of contemporary works.

We are, however, some distance from this ideal state of affairs. It is thus left to visionary organizations such as the Birmingham Art Music Alliance to broaden our horizons and offer us a glimpse into the rich world of contemporary music.

This BAMA did in superlative fashion Monday night, in Hill Hall on the Birmingham-Southern College campus, at its second concert of the season. While many of us have been in our share of new music concerts that seemed both endless and pointless, BAMA’s strength lies in its sure sense of programming. It is a great tribute to the organization that Monday’s widely varied concert was arresting and enlightening from start to finish. One left with a renewed appreciation for the astonishing array of languages that collectively comprise our late 20th century musical consciousness.

Outstanding among the nine works on the program were “The New Yorker Songs” by Samford University’s James A. Jensen, a sensitive and highly expressive setting of five poems published over the past couple of years in The New Yorker magazine. Each poem projected a strong and compelling affect in this performance by soprano Sherry Lawhon, also on the Samford faculty, and pianist Daniel Lawhon.

Equally rewarding was Michael Coleman’s “Room 857” for solo piano, performed by the composer. This brief but memorable work consisted of a simple but deeply affecting exploration of four discrete ideas – a clear, ringing proclamation in the upper register; a gentle and darkly textured arpeggio rising from the instrument’s depths; a resounding flourish in the lower register accomplished by reaching inside the instrument and strumming the lowest strings; and, most remarkably, the eerie effect that Coleman unearthed within the decay of this last sound. As the piano’s lower strings are vibrating, Coleman discovered that by applying the felts to the strings a new set of overtones can be generated, which causes the sound to well up anew. Repeated several times, the effect clearly astonished many of the 75 or so in the audience.

The Birmingham News – May 12, 1999

By Nancy Raabe
News staff writer

One of the many valued services performed by the intrepid Birmingham Art Music Alliance is its custom of showcasing a guest composer. Monday the consortium had the foresight to bring Ben Johnston to town. His humane experimentation with alternate tuning systems through an impressive body of work has earned him a valued place on the contemporary scene.

The New York Times once called Johnston “one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer.” Certainly he is among the most accessible of what can be called the contemporary-music radicals. The most commonly used tuning system in music is “equal temperament,” which divides an octave into 12 equally spaced tones. Johnston uses two purer systems, “microtonal music” and “just intonation,” which avoid harmful adjustments that “equal temperament” requires.

This all may sound forbidding. But Village Voice critic Kyle Gann, a former student of Johnston’s, describes equal temperament as “the musical equivalent of eating a lot of red meat and processed sugars and watching violent action films,” whereas just intonation promotes calmness, passivity and tranquillity.

Johnston has argued along the same lines, noting that our modern tuning system may be partly responsible for a cultural psychology that invests much in action and violence, and relatively little in introspection, contentment and acquiescence.

These last were precisely the qualities that came across in his Ponder Nothing, a series of sensitive variations for solo clarinet (Lori Ardovino) on the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Be Silent,” in the raga Alap for solo bass (based on a 14-tone scale) and in his jazzy, foot-tapping Progression, also for solo bass, both played by Robert Dickson. Notable as well were Jim Jensen’s resonant, assured …before the morning watch for percussion ensemble, Dorothy Hindman’s propulsive Dances for clarinet, marimba, and piano, Charles Norman Mason’s engaging, highly rhythmic Windage and Rob Stanton’s finely lyrical Sonata for English Horn and Harp.

The Birmingham News – January 27, 1999

By Nancy Raabe
News staff writer

In cities less well endowed with initiative than Birmingham, recognition and appreciation of new music lags hopelessly behind that of contemporary art and modern dance.

In academic isolation, composers compose primarily for each other without much hope of a wider audience. The gulf between composer and performer grows. Participation in the art and act of musical creation becomes an increasingly distant concern for the mainstream concertgoer.

Here, though, we have the energetic Birmingham Art Music Alliance to remind us of the vitality of today’s new music scene. Tuesday night another such opportunity was afforded a full house at the Unitarian Church for a BAMA concert presented by Artburst.

True, it wasn’t exactly the same as a sellout at the BJCC. Here “full house” meant perhaps 100 people. But there was no mistaking the warmth, enthusiasm and general goodwill that flowed through the sanctuary. And everyone was safe in coming away with his or her own point of view on every piece, something most people are too timid to do with mainstream repertory. (When did you last hear anyone admit, “Oh, Brahms — I can’t stand his music,” or “The Beethoven Eighth? Sorry, just don’t care for it”?)

Several items on Tuesday’s program met with hearty acclaim. Foremost was Dorothy Hindman’s superbly crafted Songs of Reminiscence, premiered last year at Birmingham-Southern College by tenor David Smith. Author of the texts, Smith sang in this performance with accompaniment by pianist Kevin Grigsby.

Lively, engaging and bursting with bravura, the cycle will find itself much in demand once word spreads.

Monroe Golden’s String Quartet No. 2 and guest composer Dennis Kam’s Sonata for Cello and Piano were warmly received as well. Golden explained that he sought to combine a floating asymmetrical rhythm and simple pitch structure with the process of “phase shifting,” in which phrase units overlap. The attractive result presented the aural image of a stable “pool” of sound whose surface danced and shimmered subtly.

And Kam’s dark-hued work, played expertly by Grigsby and cellist Craig Hultgren, combined structural integrity with an ear for deep sonorities and luminous textures.

Also on the program were “Asi Nisi Masa,” a dazzling soundfile by UAB’s technology master Michael Angell, Donald Ashworth’s sure-handed “Solitude” for solo flute, the amiable “Short Sonata” by Mark Chambers and Philip Schuessler’s pop-influenced “Infinity” for flute, cello and piano.

The Birmingham News – May 6, 1998

by Nancy Rabbe
News Staff Writer

In the realm of modern music, accessibility and integrity are qualities that few have been able to reconcile succesfully.

Composer Emma Lou Diemer may be diminutive and unassuming in person,as those who attended Tuesday’s Birmingham Art Music Alliance concert discovered. But in her music, Diemer, 71, has proven to be one of only a handful of living composers to have mastered that reconciliation of apparent opposites.

Arnold Schoenberg once noted famously that “there’s a lot of music still to be written in C major.” As far as serious composition goes, though, it’s a betrayal of our age simply to write a pretty tune in an easy-going key. To be true to his or her position in the historical continuum, a composer must bring to bear, in some unique way, an acknowledgement of what has come before and where the craft stands at this point in time.

With a substantial legacy spanning five decades and encompassing three symphonies, six concertos, and a wide range of chamber, choral, and organ works, Diemer has done just that in a wide variety of ways.

The two pieces included on Tuesday’s program, written within a few years of each other, were as different in style as night and day. Yet each projected its message clearly and effectively.

When in Man’s Music (1976), expertly sung by members of the First United Methodist Chancel Choir under James Cook, offered a lush setting of Fred Pratt Green’s stirring text, rich in harmony and noble in aspiration. Diemer’s 1973 Declarations for organ, on the hand, draws on strict 12-tone procedures, serialized rhythm and innovative organ techniques. But the virtuosic context in which they’re invoked made this a riveting program closer, especially in Diemer’s dynamic performance. (“This is not a tune that you’ll go away humming,” the soft spoken Diemer warned the crowd beforehand, adding that in fact this might well be only the second public outing it’s had. “It’s published,” she added as an afterthought, “but that doesn’t mean a thing.”)

The well-planned program also included a reading by Lester Seigal and the Birmingham-Southern College Concert Choir of Charles Norman Mason’s 1992 From Shook Foil, one of the rare pieces of “modern music” that one simple can’t hear too often. Richard Perry gave James Grant’s Three Furies for solo tuba an appropriately wild ride. And the vivid aural imagery of Rick Nance’s Between Dog and the Wolf for soundfile, proved a perfect foil for Edwin Robertson’s finely wrought Trumpet Reflection (1972), nicely played by Joseph Ardovino and Cynthia Jones.

The Birmingham News – May 1997

By Nancy Raabe

News staff writer

The Birmingham Art Music Alliance has done the seemingly impossible: It has made it cool to do contemporary music.

On a Tuesday night, no less, BAMA packed ’em in at Samford University’s Wright Center Recital Hall. OK, so the recital hall only holds 250 people. But it was significant nonetheless that, when the hour came for the show to begin, there wasn’t a seat to be had.

Part of the fun is that we’re dealing with fresh material that hasn’t yet had a chance to stand or succumb to the test of time, so quality as we might perceive it tends to be uneven. Opinions will differ, but for this writer Tuesday’s program offered one perfect 10 in the form of Joe L. Alexander’s “Infamy…for Tuba and Tape. Premiered last December in Tuscaloosa, the piece is based on a startlingly percussive computer-generated manipulation of the first line of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Dec. 8, 1941, radio speech. This is overlaid with a darkly mournful line intoned with just the right shadings of vibrato by UA faculty tubist Michael Dunn.

Persuasive as well was Dorothy Hindman’s “I Have Heard…,” a creative and sure-handed treatment of excerpts from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

James A. Jensen’s “Three Choruses from ‘A Lincoln-Whitman Duologue'” showed great firmness of compositional purpose, but one longed for the entire work in its larger original scoring rather than the pared-down version presented rather raggedly here by The Cantors and pianist Brent McWilliams.

Presented by The Cantors, ASFA student Robert Stanton’s rhythmic, tightly constructed “Alleluia” revealed an intriguing undercurrent of musical tension, while Rebecca Remley’s “From All That Dwell Below the Sky” proved a nicely gauged contemporary realization of Isaac Watts’ hymn. To close, cellist Craig Hultgren fearlessly ventured a vivid enactment of Robert Paredes’ theatrical “Small Writing.”

Performance at Montevallo Was Not the Same Old Concert

The Birmingham News – October 8, 1996

By Nancy Raabe
News staff writer

We’ve all been to one too many concerts where the main message was that of sameness. Perhaps it was the same kind of music written in the same style and played the same way, or maybe it was one of those all-Beethoven or all-Brahms programs where sameness, used as a substitute for creative programming, is glorified, even deified.

There are remedies. One is an event like that Monday night at the University of Montevallo, produced by the Birmingham Art Music Alliance, which roused all in need out of the stupor of similarity.

On this occasion, a crowd of about 150 in Montevallo’s LeBaron Recital Hall enjoyed a widely varied, thoughtfully designed journey through different modes of contemporary musical thought.

It began with the relative conservatism of the late Harold Beerman’s lean, carefully crafted “Impromptu” for flute and piano. UM senior Donald Ashworth and staff accompanist Laurie Middaugh gave voice to the work’s modest nobility through close attention to its elegant vertical sonorities.

Progressing toward the more overtly experimental, the evening climaxed with a recreation of Vivian Adelberg Rudow’s arresting three-way dialogue for live cello and decorated cello cases, “With Love.”

Inspired a decade ago by the similarity between a cello case and a woman’s shape, Rudow challenged the observer to decorate two cases in contrasting styles-one as a flamboyant daughter and the other a more conservatively clad mother. With speakers behind each case, she ran “unmarried, spirited” music through the daughter case and, through the mother case, a collage of interviews with 23 people about their own mothers, and mothers with their own thoughts on motherhood.

Positioned between them, the live cellist is called upon to carry on a dialogue with both surrounding characters in musical terms ranging from hyperactivity to blues to a prolonged dreamy ballad. With the skilled contributions of cellist Craig Hultgren, the result on this occasion was at once poignant, whimsical, deeply musical (the spoken words were electronically arranged so as to fit in with surrounding musical rhythms, yet seemed perfectly natural) and outrageously entertaining.

Serving as an appropriate denouement was UM faculty composer Edwin Robertson’s richly atonal “Three Movements for Two Pianos.” In this committed reading by Jane Gibbs and Norma Dean, each of the concise movements advanced a compelling musical argument from start to finish.