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Review 'Cage Variations,' performed by Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, takes the long way around a short subject

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Sunday, July 20, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The second weekend of Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble concerts was devoted to the world premiere of “The Cage Variations” by Ted Hearne, which won the group's Harvey Gaul Competition.

Hearne's new piece takes inspiration from the song “The Cage” by pioneering American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954). The composer's program note explains: “It's an homage to composers who continue to make noise and to struggle toward individual expression, and to Ives, who was never afraid to mine, pillage and decontextualize the music of his time.”

“The Cage Variations” is mostly assembled from the works of composers who were born within 10 years of Hearne, who was born in 1982. His own writing in this piece uses “shards” of borrowed music.

The ensemble's excellent bass-baritone, Timothy Jones, sang the Ives song several times during Hearne's piece. During two of the run-throughs, his voice was modified by a computer program to shift octaves, generate extra voices and introduce noise elements. The piece ends with the most straightforward performance of the song. Hearne instructs the singer to perform it as though sight-reading it, going through it for the first time.

“Pirouette on a Moon Sliver” by Amy-Beth Kirsten employed an impressive array of alternative techniques for the flutist. Kirsten calls on the flutist to sing, breathe without tone into the flute and produce other sound. More importantly, the composer welds in lively and jagged lines. Flutist Lindsey Goodman gave a virtuoso performance of this disquieting music, the most impressive component of “The Cage Variations.”

Two violin pieces by composers at the extreme of the generation range Hearne included required contrasting styles from violinist Nathalie Shaw. “Blue Sell” by Molly Joyce, the youngest of the composers, features sustained lines accompanied by harmonies produced by an electronic keyboard. “For Petr Kotik” by Alex Mincek was very angular in both the violin and piano parts.

All the instruments were amplified, to which Hearne added electronically generated sounds.

“Rapture” by Anna Clyne has a well-proportioned clarinet solo, rising to a big climax. It was superbly performed by guest clarinetist Spencer Prewitt in an environment of such loud electronic sounds that the solo part could sometimes just barely be heard.

At 80 minutes, “The Cage Variations” felt much too long. Nor did it provide much perspective on Ives' song.

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

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