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New Music Ensemble presents two premieres

| Monday, Aug. 5, 2002

After spending the last full week of July in Boston, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble returned to town to present two world premieres Saturday night at the North Side's Hazlett Theatre.

The group originally had intended to travel to Toronto for a concert and recording sessions, but passport problems encountered by one of the musicians forced a change of plans. The recording took place instead at the Boston studio of Gil Rose, who was briefly the ensemble's music director two seasons ago.

The New Music Ensemble's winning redesign of the concert experience makes the Hazlett a fun place to be — word that's obviously spreading, based on the large audience in attendance. While the quality of music was widely varied Saturday night, the evening was an oasis of musical stimulation in summer's doldrums.

Roger Dannenberg's Fanfare No. 4 was a resounding success. Trumpeter Chris Carrillo's tones were computer-processed to produce bell tones in the distance, with his most chromatic line an acoustic last word.

Although there has been a definite Texas bias in programming, reflecting artistic director Kevin Noe's academic center in Austin, the inclusion of the six-minute "Derive" by Pierre Boulez — one of the most important figures in music today — was a welcome one. The technical excellence of the players was important to achieving the precise intentions of Boulez, which could be heard not only in fundamentals but also in nuances of articulation and dynamics.

The first of the "intermedia" used between longer pieces, the finale of Reza Vali's Folk Song Set No. 9, was a high point of the evening. The Carnegie Mellon University-based composer finds continuing inspiration in the folk music of his native Persia. The music heard Saturday night was a duo, opening with cellist Jakub Omsky bowing an ostinato while drumming with his left hand. Flutist Alicia DiDonato began on piccolo, and also played tambourine. Vali's melodic and rhythmic exuberance and the virtuosity of the performance earned cheers.

Composer Stefan Freund and librettist James Stevens introduced the world premiere of their "The Line," described in the program notes as "an illustration of organization and logical deduction giving way to panic and paranoia, eventually leading the speaker to experience a crisis of perception." The young men, who have been friends since third grade, were charming. Unfortunately, their piece was not persuasive. Freund's music was the major disappointment, in some places embarrassingly obvious and simple-minded.

Vache Sharafyan's "The Four Seasons" was the significant world premiere, including Armenian poetry as a prelude to each of the four movements. The ensemble's executive director, Michelle Greenlaw, was the reciter, but she failed to distinguish between the two couplets of the opening verse: The first is the expression of a boy in flowery seduction; the woman's reply should have been emphasized as a different voice.

Sharafyan's language includes remarkable solo writing for saxophone, brilliantly played by clarinetist Michael Norsworthy and flute, performed with notable sensuality by DiDonato. The composer is not afraid of dissonance, and the furious intensity he achieves serves clear narrative intent, including real satisfaction.

"The Four Seasons" required extra performers, including the first Pittsburgh residents to play with the group this season: violist Paul Silver and bassist John Moore from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and percussionist P.J. Gatch.

Soprano Tracy Rhodus, who sang offstage in the Sharafyan piece, performed John Corigiliano's utterly banal "May You Be Forever Young" as an encore, with sure pitch while mainly unaccompanied by piano.

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