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On the Frontiers of Virtuosity

New York's Speculum Musicae ensemble is here to help young composers learn and expand the limits of technical possibility in an intense workshop.

July 07, 1996|Justin Davidson | A composer and graduate of Columbia's School of the Arts, Justin Davidson is classical music critic at Newsday

They also won the first Naumburg chamber music award in 1972 and made some landmark recordings, including Donald Martino's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Notturno," in which quiet taps, scrapes and whistles coalesce into a passage of eerie, nocturnal beauty. (The recording, released by Nonesuch in 1974, has not been reissued on CD.)

The group has not lost its competitive edge in 25 years, even as its members have gotten older or left (all three founders have since moved on), new ensembles have challenged its supremacy and some of the works it championed have become familiar repertoire, to musicians, if not to audiences. But the times have changed, and so has the image reflected in the mirror of music.

About the same time the Berlin Wall came down, some of the musicians in the ensemble began agitating for more catholic programming. Recently, the music of David Lang, a thirtysomething standard-bearer of the "downtown" school, has been included in Speculum programs, and today, the group's membership is even said to have divided opinions about the music of Milton Babbitt, the king of complexity and one of Speculum's chief protectors.

"We still want to be known for playing the most difficult music, but we don't seek out music because it's difficult," said violinist Curtis Macomber, a member since 1989. "We play any good music."

Even so, these musicians, who work hard on each piece they perform, do not mind asking audiences to do likewise: "I'm against the dumbing-down of an audience by [playing] easy-listening stuff that is just graspable immediately without any effort or any listening background," Macomber said. "Maybe that's the Speculum ethic--playing music that might take a couple of hearings to appreciate."

Nor has the group's almost messianic devotion to new music dimmed, even as its budget has shriveled by 25% in the last six years, thanks to funding cuts by both public agencies and arts foundations. If anything, the penury in which the arts in general, and music in particular, find themselves these days has heightened the urgency of their crusade. A few years ago, when the group simply ran out of money, the players decided to forgo their fees rather than cancel any concerts.

"I feel a strong responsibility to American music," Blustine said. "Especially as the candle grows small and the flame grows thin, it becomes important to keep that fire alive."


SPECULUM MUSICAE, Daniel Recital Hall, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach. Dates: Wednesday and Saturday (separate programs), 8 p.m. Prices: $10-$15. Phone: (310) 985-7000.

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