Two-hard-and-fast rules allow the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble to pull off its condensed summer season each year: Work hard and learn fast.
Its musicians have to love contemporary music, too, but that's a given for this dedicated bunch. Members travel to Pittsburgh from around the country, arriving just before an intense week of rehearsals for the opening concerts, often filled with theatrical elements. After the first weekend, artistic director and conductor Kevin Noe reboots the chamber group and they go to work again on a new program for the next weekend.
"We are pushing each of our wonderful players to their max in terms of expression and difficulty," he says. "They will go home sweating this season."
With programs that involve complex modern music infused with acting and choreography, it may be a difficult task for any musician. But PNME concerts -- shows, really -- are a boon for audiences in Pittsburgh who pine for art music of our time. It's also what keeps the musicians returning to City Theatre on the South Side each summer. Those with a passion for new music don't see it as work, even if it takes a lot of practice and gumption to pull it off.
The opening program examines sexuality in "Fertility Rites," for five-octave marimba and tape by composer Christos Hatzis. Other works include an essay on the need for quiet contemplation in Alex Shapiro's "Deep," for clarinet, and famed composer Joseph Schwantner's newest work, "Taking Charge," a trio for flute, piano and percussion.
Mr. Noe is excited to bring back soprano Lindsay Kesselman, "She was brilliant in our production of 'Sappho's Sparrows' last season and is coming back for two works -- Amy Beth Kirsten's spiritually charged 'L'ange Pale,' and a work for ensemble and film I've wanted to do for years by Louis Andriessen called 'The New Maths.' "
Subbing for pianist Conor Hanick (he is finishing a doctor of musical arts degree at the Juilliard School) in the first three weeks of concerts this summer is Bobby Mitchell. He will perform the gargantuan "The People United Will Never Be Defeated." The work by Frederic Rzewski is 36 variations on a Chilean song of solidarity.
The third pair of concerts begins with the statement, "At times meditative, at times deafening, silence can calm us or divide us from each other or ourselves." "The context was inspired by [former PNME member] Jeffrey Nytch's 'Silences,' " says Mr. Noe.
Two works that surround that piece -- Thierry de Mey's "Silence Must Be" and Alfred Schnittke's "Klingende Buchstaben" -- "all speak to a sweet sadness that surrounds the modern lifestyle," says Mr. Noe. This concert will see the return of bass-baritone Timothy Jones after a two-year absence.
The summer season ends appropriately with an encore.
"It is a back-by-popular-demand performance of the 'Quartet for the End of Time' show that we did in 2008," says Mr. Noe. The centerpiece will indeed be Olivier Messiaen's powerful quartet for clarinet, violin, cello and piano written in a German POW camp. Presented in the theatrical approach that has become PNME's calling card -- and that makes it a good fit with its home at City Theatre -- the program explores "the violent relationship between humankind and the earth we inhabit."
"[Our audiences] have been asking for it to come back," says Mr. Noe.
As they do each summer for PNME,