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.