After a year marked by change or near-change, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble is doubling down on an artistic vision that has made it one of the city's most cutting-edge music organizations.
Last July, artistic director Kevin Noe, whose vision of a "theater of music" has shaped PNME's artistic approach, announced his resignation for reasons he did not disclose at the time. Separately, executive director Chris McGlumphy also stepped down from that role, staying on in a reduced capacity. It was unclear when or if the organization would hire replacements; PNME said the musicians would guide the 2014 season.
That period of uncertainty seems to have subsided. A year later, Mr. Noe is back, Mr. McGlumphy is returning as the group's sound designer, and the organization is continuing under the leadership of its new executive director, Pam Murchison. Every summer musicians from across the country and Europe come together to perform four programs of contemporary classical music enhanced by theatrical and multimedia elements. The ensemble's 39th season opens Friday at City Theatre on the South Side.
Why did Mr. Noe leave, and what prompted his return? He said he had concerns that the organization was not working toward long-term audience development. Rather than use a broad marketing strategy, he preferred that the ensemble personally get to know audience members and nurture a community of concertgoers.
"If you do that kind of work for five years, I think the organization is in a very different place," he said.
Those efforts have already begun. The musicians came to Pittsburgh a week early (and without pay) to meet with arts administrators, musicians and other organizations.
"It's a very personal, grass-roots effort," Ms. Murchison said.
This summer, PNME is continuing its "First Limers" program -- free tickets for first-time audience members -- and will offer discounts, free tickets or prizes for veterans who bring them.
So the upcoming season will likely feel familiar, even if it took some apparent soul searching to get there. It opens Friday with "The Lost Traveler," featuring works by Martin Bresnick, Kevin Puts, Iannis Xenakis and Vinko Globokar.
The program is similar to one PNME produced in 2007, which was built around Globokar's "?Corporel." A shirtless percussionist (here, Ian Rosenbaum) plays the solo work on his own body. The program seeks to take listeners on a journey to the interior of the self. A person's exterior "crust" is shed over the course of a concert that concludes, with "?Corporel," in an "embryonic state, totally raw and original," with Mr. Noe said.
The second program features the world premiere of Ted Hearne's "The Cage Variations," a PNME commission. The piece is 12 variations on Charles Ives' "The Cage" and makes references to works by Anna Clyne, Morton Feldman, Amy Beth Kirsten and other composers.
"It's all derivative of other material," Mr. Noe said.
On July 23, violinist Nathalie Shaw will present a recital with music by Pittsburgh composers David Stock and Roger Zahab, among others. On July 25 and 26, guitarist Mattias Jacobsson joins the ensemble for "Guitar and Voice," a program that features a world premiere by Ryan Anthony Francis and pieces by Christopher Cerrone and local composer Amy Williams.
The season ends with what PNME says is one of the most popular programs in its history, "Drunken Moon." The concert includes Kieren MacMillan's piece of the same name and Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire."
"I can certainly say ours is as unique as anyone's," said Mr. Noe of PNME's take on the Schoenberg piece. Sung in English, the ensemble's version has two vocal parts rather than one, thereby maintaining the He/She alter-egos introduced in MacMillan's work.
During the previous presentation of the program, in 2006, the pieces connected so seamlessly that many audience members didn't realize the concert was over, Mr. Noe said. (At PNME performances, music is generally presented without pause or intermission.) He said the ensemble hopes to take the program to the Luminato Festival in Toronto in coming years.