Cohesive Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble promises to challenge itself
Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble 2008's "Just Out of Reach" is one example of the group's innovative performances.
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Lean and Mean.
Not exactly the words one usually uses to describe Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble concerts. No, they generally abound with extra-musical excitement and innovative theatrical and visual treatment of contemporary music. But "lean and mean" is exactly how artistic director Kevin Noe describes the group's month-long season that opens this weekend at the South Side's City Theatre.
With no big, theatrical pieces in this season of the ilk of "Just Out of Reach" or "Drunken Moon," the conductor isn't talking about productions, but of just how hot he feels his ensemble is. For the first time in years, every member returns from the previous year, giving this summer's lineup of eight musicians a continuity and connection that prompted Mr. Noe to ratchet-up the difficulty level of what they can handle.
"It encouraged me to program this way," he says. "There are no weak links in the ensemble, and I have largely picked pieces that would allow us to build our ensemble skills even further than they are. That challenges us to be better."
It's especially important as PNME has once again had to cut out a week of rehearsal due to funding reductions. "Since we are only together for four weeks a season, it is a challenge to have us work together," he says. "But relative to the rehearsal [time], there is no ensemble that outplays us."
The newest members have embraced the craziness because they don't know the earlier time, and Mr. Noe says they are crack musicians. "[Percussionist] David Skidmore is a freak show of a talent who has written a fair bit of percussion music, [violinist] Natalie Shaw is a tour de force of solo violin music and pianist Conor Hanick can play anything." Mr. Skidmore's solo work, "Requiem," will appear in the last concert weekend.
The PNME programming is once again wide-ranging but pulled together by seamless transitions between pieces and theatrical touches that keep the audience on its toes. Sometimes the effects are small, such as Emmanuel Sejourne's "Vous Avez de Feu?" for four cigarette lighters. Sometimes they are spectacular, such as Thierry de Mey's rhythmic "Musique de Tables" for six hands and three tables (both July 23-24). And sometimes they are off the wall, such as Frederic Rzewski's "Lost and Found," which asks for the solo performer to be in the nude (Mr. Noe will be "scantily clad" July 30-31).
The premieres are fewer this season, with Ned McGowan's "Radiance" the most substantial one (July 30-31). "The piece is not technically demanding, but it has a ton of bowed piano -- there are many small tones and many of the other musicians will be doing that with the pianist," says Mr. Noe. "It is a meditative piece that lasts about 40 minutes."
Several smaller new works will help to fill out perhaps the season's most fascinating concert program (July 23-24) when Mr. Hanick performs Gyorgy Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata," a work with 11 movements, each based on an increasing combination of notes, starting with two.
"I thought about how I could make this piece a PNME night and decided to split each movement with insertions of short works that don't have piano," says Mr. Noe. He thought of a few pieces right away that would work, "Musique de Tables," "Vous Avez de Feu," Astor Piazzolla's "Etudes Tanguistiques" among them, but then decided to commission some others, including by PNME founder David Stock and composers Jeff Nytch, Mr. Skidmore and Mr. Noe himself.
The premieres are bolstered by two repeat hearings of important past PNME commissions, Thomas Albert's "Night Music" and Pierre Jalbert's "L'oeil Ecoute."
Yet Mr. Noe is perhaps most excited about a work that is not a commission or a repeat, but is new for PNME, Aaron Grad's "Re: Porter" (July 16-17).
"This was the last piece I programmed," he says. "I was looking for a good piece for [group baritone] Timothy Jones, and I had almost powered my computer down when I noticed this piece out of the corner of my eye on a site. Aaron is a big Cole Porter fan, and he wrote this in the style of Porter, writing the music as well as the lyrics. He is a brilliant lyricist and it is fabulous music, perfect for Jones."
Sounds as if things are not so lean after all.
First Published July 8, 2010 12:00 am