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This Kansas City Ensemble Proves Including Music By Women Composers Isn't So Hard

Emma Lou Diemer

Performing music by women is trickier than it would seem.

For centuries, women were discouraged or forbade from composing, their works relegated to salons and home audiences, and rarely published. In many cases, once a composer died, her oeuvre was abandoned and forgotten.

Helping to right that historic wrong is the Midwest Chamber Ensemble, presenting its fifth annual concert of women composers this weekend (the ensemble was founded in 2011).

“As an organization, we feel like we have the opportunity to give these women a voice and so we do,” says pianist Jessica Koebbe, who coordinates the series. “We're choosing with this concert to make that a point of celebration, but we certainly don't see that as being the only thing we can do.”

Each year’s concert also features a composer who is local or has local ties. Past seasons included work from L.V. Wood, Stephanie Berg, Ingrid Stölzel and Chen Yi. This year, the concert features music by Emma Lou Diemer.

Diemer, who now lives in California, was born in Kansas City in 1927. At the age of six, she was already composing short works on piano; at age nine, she performed for an audience of 500. She knew at age 15 she was going to be a composer, though she continued to perform as a pianist and organist. She earned degrees at Yale University and a doctorate from Eastman School of Music, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, among other honors, and, after retiring in 1991, is professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Here is video of Diemer at the piano, though (in what is perhaps an all-too-fitting metaphor) the camera angle obscures much of her performance:

Diemer’s evocative “Homage to Poulenc, Mozart, and MacDowell” for flute, cello, and piano, from 2004, begins with a high-energy first movement fusing melodic nuggets and robust chords, while a pensive second movement weaves together lines from the flute and cello. The exciting ending hides a secretive moment within the piece’s frenetic rush.

“I wanted to write a mostly cheerful, even rather fun, somewhat humorous piece. There is so much gloom and doom in the world, and I usually don’t feel like adding to it,” Diemer explains, saying that she wrote it to be a “friendly addition” to the repertoire.

“Composers like Mozart have written upbeat music even in the direst of times,” she adds. “Isn’t that why we have music — to lift our spirits? So Mozart and his lightness came to mind. And Poulenc, whose melodic grace and appeal are on display, not being shamed of actually writing melody and expressing an air of innocence.”

Credit Emma Lou Diemer
Emma Lou Diemer now lives in California.

The second movement is based on motives from Edward MacDowell's piano piece, “To a Wild Rose,” popular and familiar to piano students. The piece, Diemer says, was “rescued from the waste basket by MacDowell’s wife, Marian, and thus found its way into piano literature.”

It's one of those pieces, she says, that “one learns early and never forgets. It’s simple, short, and sweet. That movement is a little melancholy, the furtherest I go in that direction. Tragedy, depression, darkness don’t inspire me.”

For the rest of the concert, Koebbe has developed an intriguing program, going beyond simply collecting works by women composers to make connections across genres and centuries.

Madeleine Dring’s 1968 Trio for flute, oboe and piano also draws on the influence of French composer Francis Poulenc. Dring, an English composer and actor born in 1923, wrote many chamber works featuring oboe (her husband was an oboist), as well as work for voice and piano, which she performed privately and was published posthumously by her husband.

Venezuelan Teresa Carreño, born in 1853, moved to the United States as a young child and had an international career as a virtuoso pianist, including a performance at the White House for President Abraham Lincoln. Her string quartet, written in Berlin in 1896, received considerable praise, but disappeared after World War I before resurfacing in the 1970s.

The program also includes the 1918 “Lullaby and Grotesque,” two duets for viola and cello by Rebecca Clarke, an English composer and violist born in 1886. She is recognized as one of the first female professional orchestral players. Her work was generally well received during her lifetime, but fell to obscurity after her death in 1979. In 2000, there was renewed interest in her music and an effort to republish her work.

Credit Jessica Koebbe
Pianist Jessica Koebbe coordinates the Midwest Chamber Ensemble's annual concert of music by women composers.

In each case, the composer, a talented and respected musician, lamented restrictions placed on their acceptance throughout their life and career, chiefly because of the societal expectations for their gender.

“We can talk about this and we can do something about this,” Koebbe says. “In my opinion, to not do something about it would be dismissing the privilege that we have as an organization.”

However, organizations do sometimes face criticism for how such programs are presented.

“We started this concert series five years ago, so in some ways it's like, ‘Wait, we've been trying to have this conversation,’” Koebbe says of widening criticism that orchestras are not performing music by women. “We are constantly reevaluating (our programming) and trying to figure out how we can highlight it without trying to make it obvious in a negative way.”

Programming one or two pieces by women could be seen as tokenism and trying to justify diversity initiatives, as opposed to programming based on artistic merit.

“We also understand that relegating this certain group of people to one concert series could be seen as marginalizing,” Koebbe says.

Some people believe making distinctions based on gender is more hurtful then helpful; others believe it’s a way of connecting to, even elevating, the artists.

“We don't think that by having this one concert we can pat ourselves on the back and think that we made a huge contribution for the recognition of women composers,” says Koebbe. “If that's all we did I think that would be kind of tactless, but we program works by women composers during our other concert series throughout the season as well.”

In those cases, the ensemble does not distinguish pieces by men or women, billing the works equally on the program.

Midwest Chamber Ensemble presents “Celebration of Women Composers,” noon on Saturday, October 6, at the Kansas City Public Library, 14 W. 10th Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64105; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, October 7, at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, 9100 Mission Road, Prairie Village, Kansas 66206.

KCUR contributor Libby Hanssen writes the culture blog Proust Eats A Sandwich. Follow her on Twitter, @libbyhanssen.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.
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