Twice as Good

The Music of Emma Lou Diemer and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, presented by the Santa Barbara Music Club

At the Unitarian Society, Saturday, April 30.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter

To whomever thought of it: It was a very good idea to combine the music of Emma Lou Diemer and Wolfgang Mozart, in about equal measure, on the same program. Emma Lou is a child of the 20th century, the Age of Anxiety, and as beautiful as her music is, there is always some residual tension. And no one clears up things and resolves ambivalence like Mozart.

The concert began with Diemer’s Fiesta Prelude for Organ, played by the composer — so sunny and Santa Barbara, with a Spanish accent.

Then we heard Betty Oberacker, an ideal interpreter of Mozart, play his Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 333, a sparkling and silvery effusion, done with perfect lightness and precision, and clearing the air for what I found to be the most significant musical event of the afternoon, Diemer’s Psalms for Trumpet and Organ (1988), performed by the composer at the organ and the astonishingly gifted John Ernest on trumpet. The work takes a fascinating approach to the biblical texts: Instead of setting them for vocalists, Diemer evokes the spirit of four Psalms — which are, most of them, poignant cries for divine aid and moving avowals of steadfast faith. Diemer resorts to no easy musical pieties here, but constructs an austere, Calvinist dialogue between the two instruments. To my ears, the trumpet (human) won.

Oberacker returned to play an Encore, which Diemer had written for her when they were colleagues at UCSB. Though Diemer looks as if she should be pouring out tea in hushed, genteel surroundings, her music — while never crude or sensational — is nevertheless forceful and bursting with life and energy. The Encore is a knockout and Oberacker burned up the keyboard with it.

After the intermission, Nancy Mathison, Tom Turner, and Donna Massello-Chiacos served up Mozart’s ineffably sweet Trio in E-flat Major, K. 498, “Kegelstatt,” the first trio ever composed for clarinet, viola, and piano.

The concert concluded with Diemer’s Homage to Poulenc, Mozart, and MacDowell for Flute, Cello, and Piano (2004), which, as a composition, was pleasantly odd and free-form, and as a showcase for Suzanne Duffy and Goeffrey Rutkowski, rather an eye-opener. Whatever twists and turns the score made, the flautist and the cellist not only went with the notes, but gave them the freshness and vivacity of improvisation. On the keyboard, Diemer provided a confident and generous framework for their soaring, stunning virtuosity.

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