New Music Ensemble plays skillfully and honestly

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Kevin Noe, artistic director and conductor of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, has the endearing habit of holding up the musical score of the piece the group has just played during applause. It's his way of reminding the audience, his players and himself that nothing happens without the composer's hard work, and the ineffable inspiration that the muse grants. It might seem like only a nice gesture, but he did something extraordinary Friday night that revealed the uncommon -- and utterly sincere -- respect he has for music.

At the end of a well-played evening of diverse music at the City Theater to open the PNME season, the ensemble performed Thomas Albert's "Night Music." Commissioned by the group and premiered in 2006, it is a fascinating, seven-movement work that takes multiple looks at music's nocturnal roles (from soothing to energizing to haunting). The piece wound its way through these vignettes on the backs of vibrant playing, from sumptuous Coplandesque chords in the three nocturne movements to flutist (here on the piccolo) Lindsey Goodman playing the role of a feisty bird in another. The piece ended, a little shorter than I remembered, and the group took bows. But as the musicians were coming out for a curtain call, Mr. Noe interrupted the clapping to announce that the group had made a significant error in the last movement, Nocturne 3, and that they would perform that movement again. They did just that.

Wow. To get an idea of how extraordinary this act was, think on this: This wasn't a work by Beethoven or another well-known composition. Very few in the audience would have even known that PNME had erred at all (apparently it was a missed entrance that threw off the group). Mr. Noe's conscience and his reverence for music caused him to put aside his ego in the name of doing right by the music -- even though it risked making the group look bad in a live performance. Such commitment to the artform is rare.

Prior to this incident, PNME had already shown it was more than capable of handling the most difficult of compositions, beginning with Joan Tower's "Petroushkates." This gem by Ms. Tower, who will be the Pittsburgh Symphony's composer-of-the-year this season, transforms Stravinsky's "Petroushka" and the power and grace of figure skaters into shimmering music for flute, piano, violin, cello and clarinet. For a group that only had a one-week period to rehearse this program due to an unfortunate funding shortfall (but you didn't hear Mr. Noe use that as an excuse in the Albert), the cohesiveness was solid, but not solidified -- there was plenty of flexibility for short solos and dynamics.

Speaking of dynamics, sound designer Christopher McGlumphy used a dynamic effect processor to a colorful means in David Lang's "Little Eye." He sampled sounds by cellist Norbert Lewandowski and other members playing percussion (while rubbing metal on car wheels), and sent them to speakers surrounding the audience. Mr. Lewandowski's ability to carry a mahogany tone across the perpetual motion of his part greatly impressed.

If Mr. Lang's work used musical effects to a musical end, I felt that Ted Hearne's "One of Us, One of Them" for pianist and percussionist did so more for show. Pianist Conor Hanick and percussionist David Skidmore played their roles well in a "battle" between rhythm and timbre (with the latter ambushing the piano by strumming its strings and striking its sound board). But it was more theatrical than musical.

A more traditional work, Aaron Jay Kernis' "Delicate Songs," found Ms. Goodman's flutes sometimes singing, sometimes soothing, entwined with the gossamer strains of violinist Nathalie Shaw and Mr. Lewandowski. At times, the music was almost too exquisite to bear.

I can't say if this lineup of PNME played Mr. Albert's "Night Music" better than that of 2006, but the piece really spoke to me Friday. From its unabashed tonal moments in the nocturne movements to post-modern nod to Wolfgang Mozart and Stephen Sondheim to a play off of Joseph Lamb's "Ragtime Nightingale," it is simply an enjoyable work to hear on the surface, while also stirring up emotions with dark undercurrents. A second hearing of a new composition can make a huge difference, but it was the third that made this concert special, and made me respect Mr. Noe even more.


Andrew Druckenbrod: adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Blog: Classical Musings at post-gazette.com/music.


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