Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

Just as its name implies, a musical term meaning to repeat from the beginning, the Da Capo Chamber Players‘ approach to new music was that repetition makes the heart grow fonder. “After repeated hearings,” says flutist and founding member Patricia Spencer, “the loose threads usually fall together.”

That approach fell into place right with their first concert in 1970 at Carnegie Recital Hall, when they played both Charles Wuorinen’s Second Trio “Piece for Stefan Wolpe,” and Seymour Shifrin’s In Eius Memoriam twice during the course of the evening, broken up with pieces by Anton Webern, Milton Babbitt and Mario Davidovsky.

“There was a thrill of being close to the creative forces, and to keep that feeling open for the audience,” recalls Spencer, whose initial partnership with fellow founder Joan Tower evolved out of a series the pianist/composer managed at the Greenwich House Music School from 1966 to 1979.

Beyond that, there was direct lineage to the Group for Contemporary Music (founded in 1962), where Tower had begun performing as a percussionist in its very first season. “As a player, what I learned about the acrobatics required to perform this music was quite phenomenal,” says Tower. Spencer, who first discovered the Group in 1966, came to the same point, but from the opposite direction. “There’s a sense of history here,” she says. “Musicians do influence the repertoire, and we liked putting ourselves in the same tradition as Mozart writing for his drinking buddies.”

Joined at the beginning by clarinetist Allen Blustine, violinist Joel Lester and cellist Helen Harbison, Tower and Spencer won the Walter W. Naumburg Chamber Music Award in 1973. Subsequently, clarinetist Laura Flax and cellist Andre Emelianoff joined the group in 1976, and pianist Sarah Rothenberg replaced Tower in 1985. The current roster features Spencer and Emelianoff, plus Eva Gruesser, former first violinist of the Lark Quartet, plus clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg, a member of Musicians Accord, and pianist Lisa Moore who is also a member of the Bang On A Can All-Stars.

With well over 70 chamber music pieces having been written especially for them, the Da Capo Chamber Players divides its time between New York City and Bard College, where the ensemble took up residence in 1982. Beginning in the early 1990s, the ensemble began making a conscious effort to juxtapose new music and old music. Their series, inaugurated in a concert entitled “Breaking the Time Barrier,” makes a compelling case for Mozart sharing a beer with Babbitt.

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox