Pacific Ridge: Orchestral Works and Concertos of Emma Lou Diemer

CD Review

Pacific Ridge: Orchestral Works and Concertos of Emma Lou Diemer.

NV5898 (Navona Records)

The Santa Barbara Overture is an orchestral work which contains a richly varied history of American music. Often, though, it is American music as seen through the eyes of Europeans, and–in some cases–transmuted back to the American. Gershwin’s American in Paris is such a work. An American tribute to the City of Light–echoing the work of Les Six among others–it is European until the music evoked is jazz, whereupon it becomes “American” again–still seen through European eyes–yet ultimately realized by an American composer.

Santa Barbara is a place that parallels this sort of musical evolution–a city like Tangier, Morocco. Exotic, temperate, visited by Europeans and Americans (notably Paul Bowles) who took both exotic and European aspects of Tangier and translated them into American prose and music. The fact that Diemer has lived in Santa Barbara for many years helps make this music convincing. Having spent eight years there myself, the music evokes for me my best memories of the eclecticism of that special city.

Concerto In One Movement For Marimba hews into somewhat different territory. The marimba in contemporary classical music has to some extent (at least for this listener) become associated with Steve Reich’s music–as such, it has come to have a supporting role which is almost structural in nature. In this concerto the instrument breaks free, partaking at once of the kind of repeated minimalistic rhythmic “riffs” which it does so well; yet, as the composer states, “the spirit of the work is related to Vivaldi in its use of slow-moving harmonies evolved through figuration”. Although Reich’s work also uses slow-moving harmonies, the marimba role there is largely harmonic. In Diemer’s work, it becomes largely melodic, including complex figurations. At the end of the cadenza, a very Ravelian oboe subject introduces a particularly satisfying contrapuntal section–a Ravel “Chaconne/Passacaglia”. This subject–melodically realized descending major and minor seventh chords–is the kind of “implied harmony in melody” of which Ravel was so fond, and Diemer uses the subject with great contrapuntal skill.

The Concerto In One Movement For Piano reminds me of my early passion for the piano concertos of Prokofiev. It makes me feel that Emma Lou must have had similar youthful reactions to that music, for this work is nothing less than a heartfelt tribute to that music. Diemer adds playing inside the piano to the equation–something that might have appealed to Prokofiev–and had he lived longer and written more concertos such an effect might have emerged in his music, enlarging the already motoric sensibility. In the middle section, the aching displacement of the Russian composer is evoked wonderfully . Pianist Betty Oberacker is well-matched to this music–a pianist of exceptional solidity, especially evident in ostinati, which are almost ferocious but always, always in control.

The fact that Emma Lou is an experienced organist shines through in the orchestral writing in all these pieces. Her instrumental choices are not only coloristically fascinating, but often achieve what Ravel did in his Bolero: casting instruments to play at certain intervals to evoke the partials used in the more overtone-rich stops on the organ.

Gregory Hall