Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble concert creates musical-theater feeling
The element of surprise is inherent in the appeal of new things. Kevin Noe and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble found new ways to surprise its audience at the opening concerts of its 40th season. It did offer a world premiere, but that’s hardly unexpected for a group which has commissioned nearly 300 pieces.
“The Gray Cat and the Flounder” by Kieren MacMillan was an excellent example of Noe’s Theater of Music productions. The piece was commissioned by Joe Newcomer in memory of his wife, Bernadette Gabrielle Callery, who died in 2012. Both were ardent supporters of the new music ensemble, never missing a concert over the past decade.
The piece draws heavily on the cartoons Newcomer created to chronicle their life together, with Callery as the cat. Many of cartoons were projected on a large screen during the performance, bringing wit and whimsy as a silent extra voice to the spoken, sung and instrumental voices of the piece.
The most surprising aspect of the show was its musical theater feeling. Think Dr. Seuss meets “The Fantasticks.”
Noe was brilliant as the narrator, delivering his lines with perfect pacing and sense of meaning. But it was a surprise to encounter him as a singer. Very sensitive amplification was added to his voice, which was admirable in pitch and time, and as verbally eloquent as his speaking voice.
Another surprise was hearing songs by Stephen Foster (1826-54) at a new music concert. Many of Foster’s songs are remarkably beautiful, featuring deftly spun melodies in perfect harmony with their words. Callery and Newcomer loved Foster. In fact, they sang “Beautiful Dreamer” together when she was on her death bed. The life of the Lawrenceville native is celebrated at the Stephen Foster Memorial at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Beautiful Dreamer” was introduced near the end of “The Gray Cat and the Flounder” by soprano Lindsay Kesselman, then taken up by Noe and built to a big climax in a style familiar from Broadway musicals.
MacMillan’s arrangement of the songs’ accompaniments were fresh, while a quodlibet he wrote combining four songs — “Under the Willow She’s Sleeping,” “Slumber, My Darling,” “Sweetly She Sleeps” and “My Alice Fair” — was not only clever but rang true emotionally.
MacMillan’s original music was apt and appealing. It includes two duets for violin and cello, which were superbly played by Nathalie Shaw and Norman Lewandowski. The first, “Like at First Sight,” occurs early in the show and captures the affinity of Callery and Newcomer with compelling give and take. The second, with muted piano and bass drum, is completely different in style and conveys the stress of a lifelong couple when one is dying.
The impressionist music MacMillan composed for Newcomer’s painting of a stained-glass window is one of the evening’s high points. Its gently angular lines are played by vibraphone and more brightly colored mallet instruments, with piano in the middle of the stage, augmented by sighs in high register from violin and cello at the front and far sides of the stage, and triangles played from the back of the seating area for the audience.
Three spoken texts played important roles in the tribute to Callery, who was a librarian. The first was a droll spoof of the Dewey Decimal system of library cataloging. The second, “Curiosity” by Alastair Reid, was a tribute to her inquisitive spirit. The third was the letter she wrote, to be read posthumously, by her husband.
Saturday night’s performance was sold out, a first for the new music ensemble. While word of mouth about “The Gray Cat and the Flounder” was strong, Friday night’s attendance was said to be nearly sold out.
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Tribe Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].