Review: Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble opens season with energy

| Sunday, July 13, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The opening program of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble's 2014 season was a characteristic blend of excellent music combined with an over-arching vision for the entire experience.

Artistic director Kevin Noe selected four pieces, which he presented in unusual ways to explore themes of life, death and the search for the “true self.”

“Living Frescoes,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts, began the program. It was one of four pieces commissioned for a project called “The Arc of Life,” inspired by Bill Viola's art installation “Going Forth By Day,” a phrase taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Fortunately, Puts' “Living Frescoes” is thoroughly compelling in musical terms. The first movement, “Fire Birth,” unfolds with gentle elaboration of a short phrase. One of the qualities that makes Puts so rewarding as a composer is a feeling of freshness created by the individuality with which initial ideas are varied as they unfold.

The invention continues through to the final measure of the entire piece, in which a slowly ascending scale turns unexpectedly chromatic as it gets softer. This is no resolution at all, rather a disquieting transition to another world of which we catch no glimpse.

“Living Frescoes” received a magnificent performance from violinist Nathalie Shaw, cellist Norbert Lewandowski, clarinetist Kevin Schempf and pianist Amy Williams. The pianist, an assistant professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and an active performer, played with exceptional poise, beauty of tone and sensitive phrasing. The clarity of texture and rich tone when the clarinet and cello played together softly in their low registers was also quite remarkable.

Sadly, the performance was Schempf's last as a member of the ensemble. He's decided he should spend his July with his young children.

Puts' music was performed with interpolations — the two parts of “Rebonds” for solo percussionist by Iannis Xenakis, the great and highly individual Greek composer who died in 2001. His music, like Puts' though totally different in method and feeling, is exceptionally compelling in the moment to moment development of its ideas.

David Rosenbaum played “Rebonds” with staggering energy and accuracy.

The ensemble's regular pianist, Conor Hanick, brought his clarity and power to “The Dream of the Lost Traveler” by Martin Bresnick. It's part of an unusual series of compositions called Opera della Musica Povera (Works of a Poor Music).

Bresnick's unsettling piece is powerfully built out of unmemorable ideas. It includes a brief vocal solo of lines from William Blake's poetry, which inspired this piece. The ensemble's flutist Lindsey Goodman proved to be a soprano of uncommon precision. She was positioned high up on the back wall of the stage.

The Bresnick was Hanick's final performance with the ensemble, too. He's leaving to be part of the summer music program at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif.

The concert was designed to be capped by French avant-garde composer Vinko Globokar's unsettled and unsettling “?Corporel,” composed in 1984. It is written for solo percussionist but is a theater piece that uses body percussion as part of its vocabulary.

Rosenbaum began by undressing down to his shorts, carefully folding his clothes as though finally at home for the day. The audience then experienced the final moments of a deeply troubled man's life. He hits himself in the head, sometimes very hard. He scratches his hair. He assaults his body. His only words are to say it's important to disprove the idea that all of life is “a synonym for the same word.”

A series of new clarinetists and pianists will perform with the ensemble for the final three programs of the season.

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

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