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PNME performance features various composers

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Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 1:09 a.m.

The Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, which has presented about 290 world premieres and commissions since it was founded by David Stock in 1976, began the final concerts of its current season on Friday night with yet another first performance.

The program included two young composers, another in his prime and an iconic master.

There was much to admire in Sean Neukom's “Analogies,” which was commissioned by the ensemble. It is five movements lasting about 16 minutes, is scored for the full ensemble – violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano and percussion – and was conducted by artistic director Kevin Noe.

“Analogies” shows the young composer's gifts for writing music of specific personality, with arresting melodic material and a fine ear for color. In this piece his harmony is almost entirely horizontal – in the unfolding of the melodic lines.

The second movement, “Vienna,” had some of the tension of the second Viennese school rather than the cozy emotions of waltzes, and took an unexpected to turn to jazziness. The third movement, “Disease,” was feverish and manic rather than weakened by illness.

Only the finale of “Analogies,” “Concession,” disappointed. The drum set part seemed too loud, covering beautiful slower moving music being played by other instruments. Since percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum had shown great sensitivity and control in soft playing earlier in the piece, one wondered if the balance was the composer's intention. Sure enough, it's what he asks for in the score. However the part doesn't have either the energy or the power of rock drumming. It merely muddied the waters.

Nico Muhly is two years younger than Neukom, but is already receiving the recognition of major commissions, including one from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. But “Pillaging Music,” written when Muhli was 24, made a slighter impression, apart from its fluency, than the Neukom. Pittsburgh Opera will present his opera “Dark Sisters” in January 2014.

“New York Counterpoint” by Steve Reich was a tour de force for clarinetist Kevin Schempf. Reich and John Adams were the two composers who first made the big breakout from minimalism to a richer musical language including minimalism. Schempf pre-recorded 10 of the 11 clarinet parts and performed the other one live from a small balcony on the back wall of City Theatre's stage. Reich's music was the only dense texture of the evening, one enlivened internal variety and by angular and rhythmic motifs.

The slightest music was Vicki Ray's “Jugg(ular)ling,” but was a rewarding part of the show because it serves as accompaniment for a silent film she edited of some amazing juggling routines.

Noe appeared in an extra role before the final piece. He performed Alistair Reed's amusing “The O-Filler,” a poem about a man who goes through library books with a pencil filling in all “o”s he encounters.

Kevin Puts' “And Legions Will Rise” brought the concert to a rousing conclusion. Noe, whose resignation as the ensemble's artistic director was announced on July 25, is justly proud of championing Puts, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012.

“And Legions Will Rise” written in 2001 when the composer was 29, is an optimistic piece about the spirit within us. Violinist Nathalie Shaw was outstanding in both lyrical sensitivity and brilliant fast playing. Schempf also sang memorably. And Rosenbaum was a model of fine musicianship in the shape he gave to the wide ranging marimba part.

New music ensemble leaders, facing ongoing and severe financial challenges, have said they are cautiously optimistic about the group's future. Friday night's concert was a reminder that it makes an essential contribution to Pittsburgh's artistic life.

This concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Aug. 2 at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. Admission is $20 to $35. Details: 888-717-4253 or

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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