Attracting a crowd for a concert of new classical music can be a tricky proposition. Performers often use more familiar pieces as bait, a spoonful of Bach, Schoenberg or Cage to help the medicine go down.
But on Friday and Saturday night at the City Theatre, the audience was cut loose from its moorings: the oldest piece on the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble’s program was composed in 2006.
Even if all three pieces were written in the past 10 years, they could not have been more different in texture.
In “First Lines” by Pittsburgh composer Amy Williams, flute and piano flutter around each other, their lines jaggedly interrupted. Ms. Williams was interested in the way that the openings of poems can grab a reader, immersing you instantly in an atmosphere of the poet’s creation, and she wanted to mimic that with each movement.
The most powerful moment in the piece was the sixth movement, inspired by Marilyn Chin’s line, “Shh, my grandmother is sleeping...” Flutist Lindsey Goodman inhaled and exhaled through her flute, creating a haunting arc over the piano line. Listening to it, you became aware of your own breathing, the way your body records the passage of time.
In “Album for Guitar,” Ryan Anthony Francis wanted to create a more blurred sound than the traditional back-and-forth between instruments that was heard in “First Lines.” The piece was commissioned by soloist Mattias Jacobsson and the PNME. Friday night’s performance was the world premiere.
Not only did Mr. Francis let go of the usual relationship between soloist and ensemble; he also eschewed the traditional narrative structure of most classical pieces. Rather than writing movements that propelled listeners through a musical story, Mr. Francis wanted each section to be a tableau with its own color and mood.
A piece without a narrative arc runs the risk of being boring, but the textures and strange rhythms in “Album for Guitar” keep it compelling throughout. Some sections sounded like the intricate pattern of rainfall in a forest. In others, the instruments came together to create a kind of planetary hum.
The last part of the concert was Christopher Cerrone’s “I will learn to love a person.” It is an uncomfortable piece. The music is ghostly and beautiful, but the text, taken from the poetry of Tao Lin, is so baldly emotional that you wonder whether you are supposed to laugh or cry. “I have channeled most of my anger into creating and sustaining an ’angry face,’” sang soprano Lindsay Kesselman.
Even if some audience members may have wished they didn’t understand English, the musicians’ performance was flawless. At times, the vibraphone was played with a bow, creating eerie whistles and creaks that clashed with the clarinet and the piano. Ms. Kesselman’s voice floated effortlessly above it all.
In the end, it was PNME’s fine musicianship that made all three of these pieces come to life.
Eric Boodman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3772, or on Twitter @EricBoodman