New Music Ensemble engages the senses in tribute to Ligeti

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The Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble serves its piano with a dash of cigarette lighter.

The group punctuated Gyorgy Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata," with seven short, modern pieces in a performance that engaged the ear, eye and mind Friday night at the City Theatre on the South Side.

Before the concert, artistic director Kevin Noe announced that the group wanted to pay tribute to Mr. Ligeti, who died in 2006. Rather than playing a concert entirely of his music, the group did him a much greater justice: making solo piano piece "Musica Ricercata" a true centerpiece both musically and visually.

Pianist Conor Hanick played the Ligeti piece, which begins with two notes and adds one note per movement, at the center of a clock face projected onto the stage floor. The clock's hands moved as the concert progressed, with the other pieces played around the piano in a counter-clockwise formation.

Between movements, the group played short pieces that ranged from a trio played on amplified tabletops to a jazz piece that featured Mr. Noe paying comedic, spoken-word homage to Mr. Ligeti and wielding an axe. During "Vous Avez du Feu?" by Emmanuel Sejourne, three group members switched lighters on and off in a rhythmic, flickering constellation on the darkened stage.

The more traditional intermediary pieces, like David Stock's "Wisp" and Jeff Nytch's "Last Minuteure 2," complemented the piano movements, acted as a calming balance to the unconventional aspects.

The format of the concert was just right. Had they not been anchored by Mr. Hanick's expressive delivery of the strong piano solo, the more experimental pieces would have felt overwhelming or flighty. In turn, staggering the piece gave the audience time to process each of the eleven movements, which deserve to be savored and would have passed too quickly if played in succession.

Most notable was the performance's blend of the musical and visual aspects. The shadows from the colored spotlights, the projected Scrabble board, and the ever-present clock, which rotated during Ligeti's waltzing fourth movement, ensured that the audience was never bored. During the three separated movements of Thierry de Mey's "Musique de Tables," the remarkably precise dancing of the musicians' fingers cast sharp shadows across the amplified tabletops.

The whole performance was geared toward user-friendliness and audience engagement. Upon arrival, everyone received a Scrabble tile, immediately having a tangible connection to the experience and giving the atmosphere an air of playfulness. The words 'return' and 'flight' were displayed on a Scrabble board projected above the stage, encouraging the audience to note the connection between the pieces.

Before the final movement, whimsical rhymes challenged the audience to consider pairs of words and phrases ("A notion or an ocean?" "Erotic or catatonic?") without giving any direct guidance as to what should be taken from the performance.

What it delivered was the idea that music doesn't have to be isolated -- it can be intertwined with other sensory experiences to create something that can't be explicitly defined: art.

Emily Fuggetta: or 412-263-4903.


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