Group for Contemporary Music
Outside the din and glitter of pop culture and camp followings stands Columbia's Group for Contemporary Music – aloof, seemingly past any ambition aside from through-out and responsible musicianship, salon sans heroics. A program of theirs, as was the case on March 20th . is apt to open with a pre-Baroque find or two written by some lesser-known composers in peculiar modern orchestration, followed by four or five chamber works by deserving but lesser-known modern composers. A Stravinsky, a John Cage, a Samuel Barber piece would probably not show up here. A Stefan Wolpe, thank God, would, and the Group's unique service to chamber music is about such composers as Wolpe who can reach to the shelf and, at will, pull down neglected but wonderful scores such as the Quintet with Voice that represented Mr. Wolpe last Monday.
One of the most distinguished gatherings of new musicians is the Group for Contemporary Music at Columbia University, presided over by Wuorinen and Sollberger.
Haydn had this accord with his Esterhazy players and singers, and Rossini and Donizetti with their Neapolitan companies. Britten had it with the English Opera Group, and Stockhausen has it with his performing “family” of daughter, sons and companions. The nearest New York equivalent is probably the Group for Contemporary Music, founded by Charles Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger.
The Columbia University Group for Contemporary Music's January 17 concert . . . was distinguished by the usual high calibre of performance and the presentation of several fine compositions.
The Group for Contemporary Music, an ensemble unique in terms of musical membership and motivation, appeared at the Baltimore Museum of Art yesterday afternoon in the third event of the season sponsored by the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore. Theirs was a series of offerings sophisticated in content and masterful in execution. The organization is unique in that it is one of the rare contemporary music ensembles directed by composers – Harvey Sollberger and Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Wuorinen. And it is unusual also in that they – the creators of the music – are also its performers. The implication therefore is that their presentations – like those of the composers of the Baroque who also participated in and supervised the playing of their own works – cannot be challenged for their authenticity, their qualities of insight and stylistic identification.
Columbia University's Group for Contemporary Music began its sixth season with its October 30  concert, and attending was something like returning home to those strict and laconic parents whom you had missed during your mad travels, because you suspected that somehow their sober counsel about discipline were best after all. Yet, once there, you have a certain malaise. You wish for more evidence of the carefree. You are less tolerant of mistakes here than at, say, Judson Church or the Gate Theatre.
For the rest of the program, his excellent piano partner was Charles Wuorinen. Mr. Wuorinen and Mr. Sollberger are the guiding spirits behind the whole excellent Columbia [Group for Contemporary Music] enterprise: they are both talented composers and both play like demons.
Everything heard was on the serious, concentrated side. There was no playing with camp or chance. To say that the shadow of Webern loomed over four of the five works is not to imply that they are imitations, but merely to narrow their location in the contemporary sweep.
There is no musical law of diminishing returns with regard to the concerts presented by the Group for Contemporary Music. Monday night's concert at McMillin Theater – the fifth in the series – was an extraordinary affair. What made it so extraordinary was the superbly prepared premiere performance of Stefan Wolpe's Piece for Two Instrumental Units, another one of this composer's astonishing recent compositions.
Some of the most brilliant individual mechanical and musical virtuosity has been evident in the Columbia Group for Contemporary Music's performances at McMillin Theatre of works by middle and younger generation American composers. . . the group's most impressive achievements arise from its tightly integrated ensemble work and high individual responsibility, such as can be achieved only when long rehearsal periods are possible, and which can sometimes result in performances wherein the usual residual impediments to transparent projection of sound-image and continuity seem to have disappeared, leaving the performance almost a bodiless medium between composer and listener. Its performance of Milton Babbitt's Composition for Four Instruments was a revelation from this point of view, since it is characteristically a work whose special coherence will emerge only through the precise balancing, weighting, differentiation and connection of every sonority.
Monday night's concert by the Group for Contemporary Music at McMillin Theatre, was an unusual one in at least one respect: there was not a single piece on the program which inspired one to turn one's face away and privately mumble obscenities, and there was not a single example in evidence of the faceless music of the current avant-garde Academy, the type of music which makes us remember that the twentieth century also possesses its Hummels, Pepusches and Martuccis. What we did hear were four examples of the output of gifted living composers, whose music possesses personality and profile. The quality ranged from really striking to really exasperating, but at all times one was aware that the authors knew their own minds, and were capable enough and honest enough to lay these minds bare for scrutiny, even if there was a super-abundance of musical axe-grinding in evidence. . . The real star was Raymond DesRoches, the Group's wild and wooley, and terrifyingly virtuosic first percussion player, who, when called for, really laid into those bones. The sounds from his corner of the stage really turned me on.
Everyone, but everyone, who is concerned with the directional trends of today's music should avail himself of the concerts given by the Group for Contemporary Music at Columbia University. . .
Columbia University's Group for Contemporary Music, an ensemble of professional musicians sponsored by the university and its Alice M. Ditson Fund, began its second season last night in high style. The playing was of an order almost high enough to make one forget the gross discomfort of McMillin Theater, and that's a lot of playing. . . . They are all splendid musicians, in whose hands the contemporary repertory is safe and secure.
One of the most significant and rewarding musical evenings in Columbia and New York history was experienced last night with the first concert presentation at McMillin Theater of the extraordinary Group for Contemporary Music. The program consisted of three world premieres and three first New York performances; and the emotions generated by a number of these compositions had an absolutely startling effect. . . . The Group for Contemporary Music is one of Columbia's proudest claims, all the more so nice since it is unique, being, as far as I know, the first University-centered repertory group devoted to the carefully rehearsed performance of serious contemporary music. In only its first program, it provided us – as it will continue to provide us – with some of the most forceful and expressive musical compositions being written anywhere in the world.
20th -CENTURY MASTERPIECE: The Group for Contemporary Music's recent concert at the 92nd Street Y was one of the best-presented evenings of 20th-century works I have heard in many years.
The brilliant performances of these explosive scores sizzled with excitement and moved a large audience to cheers – so much for the Group's reputation among downtown avant-garders as a dowdy purveyor of gray, academic drivel that no one wants to hear.
These are instrumentalists of the highest rank, and you'll seldom hear works of this nature played better. The interplay in the Babbitt and the Wuorinen was marvelous, and the musicians continually injected vitality into the notes, keeping everything intense and cohesive.
Before Speculum Musicae, before the New Music Consort, before Parnassus, before the New York New Music Ensemble, there was the Group for Contemporary Music. Founded by the composers Charles Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger while they were both graduate students at Columbia University, the Group for Contemporary Music - or GCM, as it is customarily abbreviated – will begin its 25th anniversary season Tuesday night at the Merkin Concert Hall.
A quarter-century ago, two young composers, Charles Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger, distressed by inadequate performances of new music, took matters into their own hands and formed “the Group” to solve the problem. Wuorinen, a pianist, and Sollberger, a flutist, had the assets of active performance skills and the ability to inspire hard work, and their musicians were prepared to put in long hours to bring complex new music to life. To the founder's delight, within a few years the Group had trained a nucleus of specialists who could handle unprecedentedly complex music; some of these players later formed their own ensembles.
Given the above list of players from the Sollberger/Wuorinen axis, the performances should be considered definitive. Sollberger provided CRI with a kind of “house ensemble” in the 1960s and 1970s with the Group for Contemporary Music, which he co-founded with Charles Wuorinen and Joel Krosnik in 1962. This music (a CRI CD of Sollberger's works) is very difficult; to hear such great commitment brought to bear on this and so many other recordings from CRI that involve these groups keeps one's hopes in American new music high.