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.