Music Review: New Music Ensemble delivers great concert -- and more

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Call it the Pittsburgh New Music Experience.

Simply put, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble is outperforming its own name. Each concert is a seamless event, with short films, music, poetry, theater, humor and more interwoven into an intriguing event. One enters hungry for a concert of new music and leaves artistically satiated by much more than that. Its season-opening "concert" Friday night at City Theatre showed again PNME's multi-disciplinary performances make for some of the most pleasing the city gets each year.

It's been fascinating to witness the metamorphosis of this seven-musician group under artistic director Kevin Noe. For five years he has been slowly streamlining the concert experience while expanding its scope.

New music is still at the core of the ensemble that composer David Stock founded in 1976, but Noe has rendered it all the more accessible by dispensing with intermissions, spanning the breaks between works with short pieces and video, melding works into each other and more. It's brilliant and creative, but also a dose of common sense. Every arts manager in the city should be taking notes. Even when Noe does program a difficult or severe work, he makes it accessible by incorporating some other medium.

That was certainly the case with the sole premiere of the night, Pitt composer Roger Zahab's amorphous "Ohio Entelechron," part of a larger, ongoing work.

With a duration described as "between one minute and an evening," this work clearly is not easily described. A sprawling piece of performance art, with music only one part, the "plot" is that of a bumbling politician stumping in a small Ohio town at its major employer, the fictitious company "Entelechron." Actor Paul Ford played the thinly veiled George Bush character with perfect ironic sincerity. His speeches were rife with gibberish and the misapplication of English, such as promising to "eradicate problemness" and spawning a "Decider Canon" for four singers.

Indeed, Zahab's texts were more central than the music. They were set to song in "Lullaby," sang hauntingly by guest vocalist Robert Frankenberry to sensitive piano accompaniment by Daniel Spiegel. They were reflected in a trio, "Return to Bedford Square." And they were turned into a repeated skit, on stage and on video, of five people discovering a time portal.

No, seeing it live didn't make much more sense than the description here, but it was strangely engaging.

Applause, a big part of a candidate's machine, was lampooned throughout the entire piece. But it exploded in a creative performance of Steve Reich's "Clapping Music," in which clapping duos popped up all over the auditorium, including among the audience. Clapping was also a part of Michael Lowenstern's "But Would She Remember You," introducing the piece that layered audio clips of an assortment of men recalling the women of their lives over a sensuous bass clarinet solo by Kevin Schempf.

But, even with all the substantial multimedia, the highlights of the evening were two pieces of music qua music.

Already a strong work when it premiered in 2002, Kevin Puts' "Einstein on Mercer Street" is now beginning to pass the longevity test. It is a modern masterwork, a probing but Romantic setting of the imagined thoughts of the iconic scientist in his twilight years, for baritone and ensemble. Before long, Puts should arrange it for full orchestra and to claim a wider audience (that PNME plans to record it will help).

The full ensemble, augmented by the Pittsburgh Symphony's principal trumpet player, George Vosburgh, offered a vibrant account of the work under conductor Noe. But everyone bowed to baritone Timothy Jones' utter inhabiting of the role. There was love in his eye as he acted out Einstein's own adoration for his loved ones and terror in the singer's continence when the physicist is haunted by the specter of the atomic bomb. Jones' voice -- flowing, flexible, but always with a gorgeous timbre -- sought for and found the nuances of this fascinating work.

Despite a corny title, "Joy of Sextet" by Wang Jie also was compelling. Emphasized by new percussionist David Skidmore, delicate chords unfurled with florid decoration, inexplicably lending the work elements of both stasis and movement. The group functioned almost like an enhanced accordion, surging and pulling back again and again. Perhaps the title is not so corny, after all.

PNME's second program in its summer series will be at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at City Theatre.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or (412) 263-1750.


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