Pittsburgh Festival of New Music is tuning up

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The performance will happen over one day, at a supermarket, a park, a bank. It is one show, but the audience members will change throughout the day, depending on who happens to be grocery shopping or depositing checks at any given moment. One scene will take place at night, in a bar.

"So it's kind of a party thing," said Federico Garcia, artistic director of Alia Musica.

Did I mention we were talking about an opera?

Robert Ashley's written-for-TV opera "Perfect Lives" will be one of the highlights of the Pittsburgh Festival of New Music, which will take place around Memorial Day next year. Earlier this month, Mr. Garcia received a $35,000 special grant from the Heinz Endowments to curate the festival, which aims to bring new music, or contemporary classical music, onto the streets and into the ears of Pittsburghers.

Together with a previous donation, the grant gives Alia Musica roughly enough funding to launch the festival. Mr. Garcia hopes to have a total budget of $60,000 that would allow the festival to put into place a comprehensive marketing strategy.

The desire to market the festival is not surprising given the genre of new music, which suffers from a bit of a PR problem.

"Most people don't like new music, but that's not because new music is bad but because those pieces were bad, because most music any time in history is bad," said Mr. Garcia.

Some observers believe new music must be an important component of efforts to invigorate the classical music industry, which in many parts of the country is struggling to stay afloat amid financial woes and aging audiences. Some new musicians like to draw on a metaphor that may resonate with baseball fans.

"Now, the Pirates are winning, but usually the Pirates are bad," said Mr. Garcia, adding, "So odds are they're going to lose when you go to a game, but that doesn't mean you don't like baseball."

Still, he doesn't think it's necessarily up to average listeners to seek out new music themselves.

"The idea of the festival in part is that we expose accidental audiences to new music," he said.

It evolved out of the Hear/Now Festival of New Sounds, produced by Alia Music and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in 2012.

Mr. Garcia is planning some adjustments on that model. In addition to the unusual venues for "Perfect Lives," other concerts will take place in the New Hazlett Theater, where groups will play pieces at several concerts, Mr. Garcia said. Doing so will expose audiences to different ensembles and create the "cross-pollination" he believes was lacking at the previous festival.

The two highlights of this festival will be the opera and "Inuksuit" by John Luther Adams. The massive piece for up to 99 percussionists will take place in Frick Park, Mr. Garcia said.

"A lot of times the setting in which new music happens is not conducive to having fun."

He also plans to collaborate with other local and outside organizations, such as the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the Pittsburgh-based Freya Quartet, the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo and the New York-based Varispeed Collective, which will produce "Perfect Lives."

The collaborations and special performances at the heart of the festival will, Mr. Garcia hopes, encourage listeners to give new music a chance.

"Most of Dvorak's symphonies are bad. And the only way he could write the Seventh ... is by writing six [lousy] ones, and by having people play him, and by having people listen to him. So that's my pitch for new music in general."


Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG.


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