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Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble's concert richly rewards patience of overflow crowd

| Monday, July 28, 2003

A striking array of contemporary music in compelling performances and a large, enthusiastic audience made Saturday night's Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble concert an exhilarating experience.

The concert began a bit late, as the main seating area at the Hazlett Theatre was filled and the final audience members to arrive were directed to the rarely used balconies on the sides of the North Side performance space. The audience, though, was quiet and attentive -- but then those qualities go together.

Canadian composer Yannick Plamondon's "Autoportrait sur Times Square" provided a bold and satisfying start to the evening. The Quebec native's musical career began in heavy metal before he studied composition at the Quebec Musical Conservatory. The piece heard Saturday night won the 2002 Jules Leger Prize for New Chamber Music and is included on a CD of Plamondon's music released by Radio Canada.

The composer comments in his program notes that the neon lights and huge video screens in Times Square -- "headlights of consumption, leveling and stupidity" -- provided transfiguration of an unintended kind because he didn't succumb to mass culture. "Was this renewed integrity a product of my imagination. ... It was still possible to be whole, to be one's own."

"Autoportrait sur Times Square" begins with ultra-ugly sounds from the strings, which are instructed to make a scrunching sound by using too much down pressure and too little lateral movement of their bows. But after less than a minute, the flute and clarinet sing a beautiful phrase from an "entirely different world."

Plamondon has an impressive imagination, creating strong contrasts that are convincing in the moment and also create the expressive movement that makes the music's journey rewarding.

Associate conductor Brett Mitchell led with devoted assurance, and paced the score more in accord with the composer's directions than does the Radio Canada recording.

The evening's amusing entertainment was provided by music director Kevin Noe, who so enjoyed editing a video from last season's concerts that he created a video to illustrate his recitation of "The O-Filler" by Alastair Reid. The amusing poem is about a man who fills in the letter "o" in books in a library. Although the credits facetiously identified Clint Eastwood as the man in the video, nearly everyone in the audience recognized him to be David Stock, the founder of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.

Although past PNME concerts have offered three- to five-minute unannounced pieces to fill the time while the stage is reset, pianist Jason Hardink on Saturday night played Jason Eckardt's 10-minute "Echoes' White Veil." The influence of piano sonatas by Pierre Boulez was apparent. The music feels like an improvisation, but its sometimes intricate layers of cross rhythms are carefully notated. Hardink's performance was brilliant, with vibrant finger work and massive chords. And Hardink wasn't thrown by the loudly amplified pop music from a nearby celebration that seeped into the Hazlett.

"Obsessive Nature" by Kevin Puts provided a lively but tragic end to the first half. Although rhythms in the first part of the piece were obsessive, it was the extremely loud bass drum and brake drum interruptions that ultimately silenced the experience. In between, violinist Ines Voglar was especially impressive in a lyrical idea of Straussian richness.

The concert concluded with the world premiere of "The Watercourse Way," an ambitious 20-minute multimedia work by Roger Dannenberg. The composer describes it as "an invitation to reconsider the experience of sound, light and movement." Music was provided not only by the musicians. Dannenberg sat at a mixing board, controlling computer-generated sounds both from the musicians and from waves in a shallow pool created by dancer Rudolfo Villela. The waves were also visually projected on screens behind the performers. Ambiguity was part of Dannenberg's intention and achievement.

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