Speculum Musicae offers uneven opener


October 29, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The Chamber Music Society of Baltimore's season began last night with a splendidly performed concert by Speculum Musicae. This group of New York musicians makes the most challenging 20th-century music sound lucid, if not exactly easy. Last night, the ensemble played one terrific new work and two less successful ones.

The one this listener enjoyed was Mario Davidovsky's "Synchronisms #9 for Violin and Tape" (1988), which was expertly played by Guillermo Figueroa. "Synchronisms #9" asks the violinist to match the tape's contrasts in speed and timbre: This is not a matter of having the violinist make his instrument sound as if it were something else, but of making the instrument create a pyrotechnical display that equals those in a virtuosic solo by Ysaye or Sarasate.

Actually, the violin music that the Argentine-born Davidovsky seemed to have in mind was the music of J. S. Bach. The composer contrasted the violin's highly ordered style with the tape's indeterminate pitches. This work was no collection of sound effects, but a dramatic and witty contrapuntal argument.

Gyorgy Kurtag's Six Bagatelles, opus 14/d (1981) and Rand Steiger's "Trio in Memoriam" (1989) were much less impressive. The Kurtag, which was performed by flutist Jayne Rosenfeld, bassist Michael Willens and pianist Aleck Karis, consists of six short movements with poetic titles. The fourth number, "The Crazy Girl with Flaxen Hair," could have been called "The Revenge of Maurice Ravel upon Claude Debussy." Kurtag takes one of Debussy's most popular preludes for piano and subjected its delicate sentimentality to ludicrous exaggeration that made it resemble the music of Claude Bolling. But several of the other sections were less interesting and the work added up to as little as the actual, trifling, meaning of its title. Steiger's trio for cello, piano and percussion was more ambitious. It opened impressively with a tolling motif played on marimba and piano and with an ardent melody played -- by Eric Bartlett -- on the cello. But this was a short work that was still too long for its ideas. A section in which the percussionist -- the excellent Daniel Druckman -- sawed away with a bow at a vibraphone made one want to reach for a bottle of aspirin.

The concert concluded with Schoenberg's Brahmsian Chamber Symphony No. 1. (1906) in Anton Webern's transcription for piano, violin, cello, clarinet and flute.

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