Concert Review: Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble edgy in performance of world premiere

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Char­les Ives was the orig­i­nal mash-up art­ist, ac­cord­ing to com­poser Ted Hearne. Mr. Ives’‍‍ song “The Cage,” writ­ten for pi­ano and voice, was in­spi­ra­tion for Mr. Hearne’‍‍s own mash-up, “The Cage Vari­a­tions,” com­mis­sioned by the Pitts­burgh New Mu­sic En­sem­ble.

Con­ducted by ar­tis­tic di­rec­tor Kevin Noe, PNME pre­miered “The Cage Vari­a­tions” Fri­day night at City The­atre on the South Side. It made for an edgy, un­apol­o­get­i­cally strange and com­pel­ling ex­pe­ri­ence. Like a tour of a mod­ern mu­seum of mu­sic, it chal­lenged lis­ten­ers by ex­pos­ing them to an ar­ray of works that had vary­ing de­grees of ap­peal.

Mr. Hearne cre­ated 12 vari­a­tions on “The Cage” that are en­tirely drawn from the works of other com­pos­ers, in­clud­ing Amy Beth Kirsten, Scott Wollschleger, Molly Joyce, Alex Mincek, Anna Clyne, Daniel Wohl, Mor­ton Feld­man and Robert Hon­stein. While Mr. Hearne lay­ered “shards” and recorded sam­ples of these pieces on top of each other, the pro­gram also weaved in whole ver­sions of the sam­pled works. Thus, the pro­duc­tion was as much a test of Mr. Hearne’s con­cept as it was an op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence these new works on their own terms.

It was a sonic trip that made for an ever-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Some ex­am­ples:

Ms. Kirsten’‍s “Pir­ou­ette on a Moon Sliver” was the­at­ri­cally and de­mon­i­cally ren­dered by Lind­sey Good­man, who breathed, laughed and sang into her flute, blend­ing the tim­bres of voice and in­stru­ment.

In the be­gin­ning, bass-bar­i­tone Tim­o­thy Jones acted out the text of “The Cage” and of­fered pure and fresh per­spec­tives on the song through­out. Most in­ter­est­ing was when his voice was son­i­cally ma­nip­u­lated in Cage 7.

Vi­olin­ist Nathalie Shaw gave a stir­ring per­for­mance in Ms. Joyce’‍‍s “Blue Swell,” ten­der­ness rep­li­cated by or­gan-like me­lod­i­cas that ap­peared in Mr. Wohl’‍‍s “Fluc­tu­a­tions” and else­where.

Mr. Hearne re­warded lis­ten­ers when works fea­tured in their orig­i­nal form were quoted in later vari­a­tions.

The pro­duc­tion was en­hanced by the col­or­ful hues of­fered by light­ing de­signer An­drew David Ostrowski.

Some as­pects were rough around the edges. For in­stance, the am­pli­fi­ca­tion was some­times grat­ing; the pro­duc­tion felt too long; works per­formed in their en­tirety were in­di­cated in diz­zy­ing su­per­ti­tles that had a cou­ple of ty­pos.

Still, this was mu­sic on the fron­tier of mod­ern com­po­si­tion and played at a high level. In push­ing the bound­aries of art, col­or­ing out­side the lines is in­ev­i­ta­ble.

Con­cert re­peats at 8 to­night.

Eliz­a­beth Bloom: ebloom @post-ga­ or 412-263-1750.

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