A History of the Society
Adapted from Larry Allen's article for EMN
The Southern California Early Music Society was founded in 1976 as the non-profit Harpsichord Society of Los Angeles. A membership organization, the Society's purpose was to provide a source of information and expertise about early keyboard and other music performance practices to its members and the public at large ("early" refers to music composed before c. 1750). From the beginning, the Society has been an all-volunteer organization. At the first, the Society concentrated on presenting musicological and historical lectures and workshops. The primary vehicle for the presentations was the monthly meeting of the Society, in those days held the third Saturday of each month.
Under the leadership first of Joseph Spiro, and then Nancy Sartain, the Society presented lectures whose subject matter ranged from keyboard practices of 18th-century Italy and 4-comma harpsichord tunings, to the affinities in world outlook between J.S. Bach and Johannes Kepler.
In the beginning, the Society's concert presentation efforts were restricted to the monthly meetings. In its first years, operating from a small membership base, the Society presented but two formal concerts with "name" performers: Gustav Leonhardt in spring 1978 and Igor Kipnis in the fall of that year.
In 1979, with the election of Joseph Spencer as president, the Society's focus began to change. In 1980 the Society's membership voted to include "Early Music" in the name in recognition of its de facto concern with all areas of historic performance practices. In 1982, the Society's Newsletter was expanded from what had been a copied sheet containing meeting announcements to a multi-page booklet format containing articles on subjects of interest, announcements of concerts throughout the Southland, record reviews, etc.
Also during Mr. Spencer's tenure, the Society became much more active in presenting formal concerts; the SCEMS concert season usually accommodated four to six events. The Society concentrated on performers and groups specializing in historically accurate performance practices on period instruments. Many of these were major artists who were yet relatively unknown to the Southland concert-going audience (often making their first Los Angeles appearances). The value of these concerts in promoting an appreciation of the values of authentic performance practices was vastly augmented by tie-ins with Mr. Spencer's radio show on KPFK, Chapel Court and Countryside.
The highlight of the early 80s was the Society's Festival of Early Music. This weekend-long extravaganza was presented in February 1982 at Mt. St. Mary's College, and featured lectures, recitals, receptions, concerts (including the first Southland appearance by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra), and displays by dozens of exhibitors, including early music instrument makers, suppliers, music and book publishers, and retailers. This, too, was done solely by volunteers, with major effort contributed by Jean Spencer, Joseph Spencer, and Margaret Weiss, with aid from scores of member and non-member volunteers.
During the remainder of the 80s, under the successive presidencies of Mr. Spencer, Ms. Weiss, Alexander Ruggieri, Laura Brodian, and Ms. Sartain, the Society increased its concert offerings (up to as many as ten per year), reinstituted the workshops (ranging from An Evening with Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley to a two week-long Monteverdi Choral Workshop with Sergio Siminovich), and initiated an annual Feast of ye Five Senses. The feasts, featuring multi-course meals, period music and costumes, and lasting four to five hours, were first suggested by Tracie Brown, who became the master chef for the first several. Niles Duncan, and later Howard Reed and Jim Stehn, were instrumental in these productions.
By the 1990s, the Society could reflect upon considerable success, foremost among which was the widespread acceptance of the idea that playing early music on period instruments was not merely an academic preoccupation, but was necessary to a fully realized aesthetic appreciation of the genre. As evidence, we noted that early music groups were routinely booked into major concert venues in the Southland, and that there were many early music chamber groups and one Baroque orchestra in the area. During this decade the Society responded with a gradual shift away from concert production to an emphasis on outreach to those less aware of early music and the development of synergies between the Society and a burgeoning early music community.
As the Society entered the 21st Century, the focus came full circle, returning to the presentation of musicological and historical lectures, workshops, and other educational programs. Seasons included bimonthly and quarterly lecture-demonstrations for musicians and non-musicians alike; a month-long introductory Early Music 101 lecture series; and concert-demonstrations for secondary students though SCEMS Early Music in the Schools program. The Society also sought to increase early music awareness though its web site at , which provides free public online access to the comprehensive early music event calendar compiled for the Society's flagship Early Music News publication.
Approaching the 40th anniversary of the Society, we reflect upon the strength of the members and volunteers, and their enduring support of the early music community. We look toward the future with dedication to the aesthetic values to be found in the performance of our heritage of music from the 10th to the 19th centuries on instruments and practices appropriate to each piece.
Larry Allen, a past president of SCEMS, has been a member of the Society since 1976 and is currently on the organization's board of directors.