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New Music Ensemble features mesmerizing 'Quartet for the End of Time'

| Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Saturday night at City Theatre, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble artistic director Kevin Noe served only as curator and host of the third week of the group's summer season.

But while he took part in none of the performances, his programming was an effective cumulative experience.

"To the Earth" by Frederic Rzewski began the evening in prayer to mother earth. Percussionist David Skidmore was vocalist and percussionist, playing the musical equivalent of chopsticks upon four flower pots neatly arranged for pitch. The music proceeded from the simplicity of childhood toys to greater complexity and excitement, and was masterfully performed by Skidmore.

The centerpiece of the concert was Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" in a mesmerizing performance. The music was written in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1940-41, with the Catholic composer's religious faith and highly individual compositional style making a perfect marriage. For Messiaen, the end of time meant the beginning of eternity.

The performance was tightly integrated in ensemble and persuasive soloistically. Clarinetist Campbell MacDonald played with deep insight, sterling technique and mastery of the music's silences in the second movement, "Abyss of the Birds." Cellist Norbert Lewandowski created rapturous long lines in his solo in the fifth movement, "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus." And violinist Nathalie Shaw took us up to heaven in the final movement, "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus."

The most controversial part of the concert was John Cage's "4'33" " --which means 4 minutes, 33 seconds. Originally written as a piano solo in which no notes are played, it's a concept piece about silence and ambient sounds. One could jokingly say that it was arranged for violin, cello and clarinet and that the tempi were slow -- running about a minute longer than the title indicates.

But the Cage was an odd choice, conceptually, to follow the "Quartet for the End of Time," because in "4'33" " only time remains, not music. But as a concert experience, the period of silence -- and the audience was very quiet -- was most welcome, given Messiaen's moving and thought-provoking masterpiece.

The silence ended violently with the loud bass drum roll that opens "Idyll for the Misbegotten" by George Crumb. Lindsay Goodman was brilliant playing amplified flute from behind a scrim on a walkway above the stage at the back of the hall. Her musings received powerful counterpoint from three percussionists -- Peter Martin, Skidmore and Christ Carmean -- who were impressive synchronized.

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