Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble opens season in fine style
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Minimalism gave repetition a name. Not necessarily a bad one, but naming a style usually has unfortunate ripples. One certainly is that anything with a repeating motif is still viewed as an offshoot of the movement. Post-minimalistic? More a cop-out than a description.
A case in point came in the opening concerts of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble at City Theatre on the South Side. Always a bright spot in the classical music calendar, the best of Saturday's concert came with three works in which motivic repetition served as gravity for the rest of music. To be sure, works such as Joseph Schwantner's brilliant "Taking Charge" are organized harmonically and had some large-scale varied repeats, but the measure-by-measure advance of motivic repetition was the engaging element and driving force.
Artistic director and conductor Kevin Noe, a creative programmer, called the performance of "Taking Charge" its "professional premiere." That's because it was commissioned by Northwestern University to celebrate retiring flute professor Walfrid Kujala. But a peek at a video from that premiere performance in June shows one major issue. The work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer is a trio for flute, piano, and percussion, but the Northwestern performance had two percussionists. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. But having a professional musician perform the entire part, as Scott Christian did, lent it a cohesiveness despite the mad rush to navigate the vast array of instruments.
Few composers write as lyrically for percussion than Mr. Schwantner (who was in attendance), and Mr. Christian displayed that with artistry.
But the centerpiece here was PNME stalwart flutist Lindsey Goodman. Reading music off her iPad (about time all musicians start kicking printed parts to the curb!), she arrived first with tambourine in hand, framed by Mr. Christian and pianist Bobby Mitchell. She then launched into wicked runs and a mimicking of perpetual motion that gave credence to its title, "Fast Forward."
In the middle movement, "A Voice from Afar," Mr. Schwantner created a meditative space with piano and percussion (both men also playing mesmerizing gongs) within which Ms. Goodman offered gentle variations of bird song on piccolo. It was captivating; it was potent. Actually, so much so that the finale, highlighted by Ms. Goodman's vivid tone and Mr. Christian's warm vibraphone and shining crotales, felt to me more like a coda.
No other work made such a mark, but Christos Hatzis' "Fertility Rites" also entranced with repeats of motifs. This work again featured Mr. Christian, this time performing the marimba, accompanied by an arresting guttural sound on tape as well as recorded notes with which the adept percussionist had to be in sync.
Along the same line was Alex Shapiro's "Deep," a slow current of low notes that Kevin Schempf uttered on his contrabass clarinet to a murmuring recorded track.
Less successful to my ears were Fred Lerdahl's sprawling "Fantasy Etudes" and Bruno Maderna's shrill "Piece pour Ivry," the latter performed by violinist Nathalie Shaw. But all in all it was a concert that was worth, well, repeating.
Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through July 28; solo recital by pianist Bobby Mitchell, 7 p.m. July 18
Where: City Theatre, South Side
Tickets: $15-$30, free if first-time patron. 412-431-2489 or pnme.org
First Published July 9, 2012 12:00 am