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Review: New Music Ensemble presents 23 short pieces

| Sunday, July 27, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Concerts by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble are shrewdly programmed, as a rule. However the third week of its 2014 concerts was afflicted by a rare miscalculation because it opened with 23 short pieces by two composers.

The program, heard July 26 at City Theatre on the South Side, opened with “First Lines” by Amy Williams for flute and piano. The piece is Williams' response to the first lines of 11 poems by women poets.

The pieces vary in length, though all are miniatures, and make smart use of expanded techniques for both flute and piano. The composer also arranged the sequence of the first lines, which were projected on a screen at the back of the stage.

Williams shows her gift for instant characterization, always tested by writing miniatures, as well as purposeful use of non-traditional tone production in “First Lines.” At the end of the piece about not waking a grandmother, we're left with the sound of grandma's steady, sleeping breathing — through the flute. Lindsey Goodman was at her virtuoso best in smoothly integrating the special sounds with normal tone production.

The final miniature, about the surprising stillness of water, also was the most beautiful. Built of simple musical ideas, it includes a harmonic tease at the end, leaving us wondering about where the rest of the poem goes and what the composer's response to it might have been.

The concert continued with the world premiere of “Guitar Album” by Ryan Francis, featuring guest artist Mattias Jacobsson. It is made up of 12 short numbers, each roughly the length of a pop song. Jacobson played very well, with excellent ensemble and lovely harmonics.

Ensemble artistic director Kevin Noe prepared the audience, many of whom are likely to have heard and enjoyed the previous pieces by Francis, for something completely different.

“Guitar Album” is minimal, if not minimalistic music. The music is simple and mild, as are its contrasts. On first hearing, the pieces sounded like introductions or accompaniments. I kept hoping for musical ideas with more personality to take the lead — whether by instrument or voice.

The hour-long concert concluded with “I will learn to love a person,” a song in five parts by Christopher Cerrone to a poem in contemporary American vernacular by Tao Lin. Soprano Lindsay Kesselman gave a beautiful performance of Cerrone's excellent music.

The one reservation concerned the amplification, which peaked badly in the mid-treble for both singer and instruments.

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

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