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Good music takes center stage in Saturday night concert

| Monday, July 5, 2004

Nothing serves the cause of new music better than able performances of winning compositions. After two concerts at which theatricality was a dominant element in Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble's focus, the rewards of the music itself made Saturday night's concert truly memorable.

The elements in play varied from composer to composer, but all used their materials well. Theatricality wasn't gone, either. While clarinetist Kevin Schempf played Michael Lowenstern's "Blackbird" to start the second half, musicians walked onstage to place birds mounted on platforms at various places. Conductor Kevin Noe even brought out a live bird in a cage, before conducting Thomas Albert's "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

Such gestures were needed for no more than garnish, because the music compelled and rewarded attention. Joseph Schwantner's "Music of Amber" was the first major composition, a modern classic now more than 20 years old. Associate conductor Brett Mitchell led a superb performance that achieved the composer's creative intentions in part through careful attention to dynamics, both in bold strokes and nuances of blending.

The two movements of Schwantner's chamber piece explore feeling in the context of a forest -- a gentle breeze, mist and dew on leaves, birds singing, and the feeling of sanctuary, with shadows and "the trembling fragrance of the music of amber." The composer creates his shades of color by combinations of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, while the strong feeling of tonal centers lets even casual listeners sense movement and arrival apart from rhythmic energy.

Pierre Jalbert might not be as well known as Schwantner, but his Piano Trio was a big hit, too. Each of his pieces the PNME has performed in recent seasons has been both stimulating and satisfying. And so it was with the Trio. It is in two movements: "Life Cycle" and "Agnus Dei." "Life cycle" welds the irregularly accented rhythmic energy one encounters in music by Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok with Jalbert's own strongly dramatic sense of musical adventure.

Jalbert's second movement is dedicated to Mother Teresa. Before the "Agnus Dei" began, the audience heard a recording of Mother Teresa speaking about the importance of love in the world and starting at home. Then the musicians began playing while the recording continued and then faded after a violin melody over sustained cello accompaniment. The evening's most musically touching moment occurred in this movement, when violinist Ines Voglar played a soft and very high melody with ineffable poignancy, a magical moment that required impressive technical finesse.

Albert's piece is made up of 13 miniatures, each drawing a few lines of Wallace Steven's poem "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The composer's imaginative, purely instrumental setting finds the humor and feeling in the words that inspired each section, while his range of sonority was delightfully fresh.

The shorter pieces were excellent, too, including Lowenstern's "A Simple Memoriam for my Father" -- complete screen projections of nostalgic pictures of going to baseball games -- played by Schempf in memory his own father.

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