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Review: Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble starts season on enthralling note

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 12:03 a.m.
Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble
Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble
Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble

Despite a weak start, the first concert of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble's summer season ended up being an acoustically enthralling experience on July 12 at City Theatre on the South Side.

Two patterns were at play in shaping the program. Artistic director Kevin Noe, who did not conduct, said he wanted a dusk-to-dawn progression. In addition, the program began with two percussionists, who were joined by two pianists for the centerpiece before playing the finale without the percussionist.

Sean Connors and Ian David Rosenbaum opened the concert by playing David Lang's “Table of Contents” set up the way the composer intended — with the percussion instruments on a table, rather than suspended as they often are. The table was placed not onstage but amid the audience — in the center of the fourth row of seats.

Nevertheless, the performance left much to be desired, such as a quicker tempo and dependable ensemble between the two players that is essential for the music's coherence.

Most of the instruments are unpitched, such as small shakers, small tambourine and wood blocks. “Table of Contents” uses only four pitched notes — too few to avoid monotony. And, given the performance, it's no surprise the shortest piece on the program also felt too long.

“Music for a Summer Evening” by George Crumb, which followed, is a large-scale work lasting about 40 minutes. It featured Daniel Spiegel and Conor Hanick, playing amplified pianos, and the two percussionists, who also were amplified.

The composer called the piece a “cosmic drama,” at the center of which is “The Advent (including Hymn for the Nativity of the Star-Child).” The music has sweeping and emotional power which was well projected.

The performance benefitted from a beautifully adjusted sound system. Percussion instruments, which include pianos, all produce sound that fades, but the amplification helped keep the sound alive for a long time — which contributed to the moods of the music.

All four performers reveled in Crumb's sound world. The second movement, “Wanderer Fantasy,” begins with the two percussionists playing slide whistles into the bodies of the pianos. One piano is mainly played normally, with the keys. The strings of the other are plucked by the pianist, and when the keys are used, one hand is inside the piano to dampen the notes.

John Adams' “Hallelujah Junction” brought the concert to a rousing climax. The title is the name of a truck stop in eastern California near the Nevada border. The word “junction” applies to the interlocking style of the two piano parts. The four syllables of Hallelujah provide rhythmic elements.

Spiegel and Hanick gave a mesmerizing performance that made the most of the driving rhetorical grandeur of Adams' final pages, which are dominated by the rhythm hal-le-luh-jah.

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