Rediscovered Masterpieces: The Music of Robert Owens at UNO


September 28th, 2017

Omaha, NE—Robert Owens, prominent African American composer born in 1925 passed away just this year, but he was relatively unknown in the states until the last decade. Using the GI Bill after serving in World War II, Owens studied music in Paris and settled in Munich, Germany, maintaining a career as a television actor, concert pianist and composer. He wrote an opera, Culture! Culture! and chamber music—many of the pieces set to poetry, particularly that of Langston Hughes.

Dr. Jamie Reimer, associate professor of voice at UNL discovered Owens’ song cycle “Heart on the Wall” in 2006, but nothing else to speak of. Taken by the music, she sought to find Owens and spread his work, but when she finally reached him-

“He told me no,” Reimer said, “[And] that he didn’t want an academic to dissect it. And I’m not easily dissuaded so I went ahead and I performed the song cycle that I was first introduced to, and I sent him the recording and I said, ‘I love the music. I don’t want to dissect it I want to share it with more people,’ and when he understood what my purpose was in asking him questions and talking to him about his music, he was on board one hundred percent.”

Their relationship led to the North American premiere of Culture! Culture!, the preservation of his published work at UNL, and cooperation between Owens and students.

Tonight at UNO, Reimer along with pianist Stacie Haneline, cellist Karen Becker, and violist Clark Potter will perform Owens’ work—three American premieres of chamber music, and four pieces written recently by Owens for Reimer, and some selections from Owen’s major influences.

“So his compositional influences are primarily Schubert and Schumann, so for anyone who is fond of their art song, they’re going to hear a lot of similarity and Robert’s music. But how he developed what I call that ‘Owens Sound’ is that he uses intervals of seconds and fourths and sevenths in a very unusual way. He will linger with a seventh in the chord which typically would be resolved to something that sounds to an ear more final, but he doesn’t make the resolution.”

The discovery and revitalization of Owens’ music is without a doubt an important moment in contemporary classical music.

“As a whole, the African-American classical music community is under represented, and I think our opportunities to hear work by African-American composers are far too few. Here is an opportunity where an entire concert is devoted to music by this remarkable man who had such a full life and such a beautiful view of the world that if you ever wondered what this kind of music would sound like, or if you’re a fan of chamber music, this is a brilliant opportunity to hear something that was composed in the past five years, and it’s still fresh and bright and alive.”

“Robert’s music really for me speaks to a quieter part of our being. We’re surrounded by so much noise in the world. He has a way of condensing these two, three, four, five minute moments that bring terrific clarity to the human condition, and I am so thrilled to be able to share that with our audience.”

Hear Dr. Reimer perform the work of Robert Owens tonight at 7:30pm at the Strauss Performing Arts center on UNO’s campus. For more information, search “UNO concerts and events” online.




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