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Revamped New Music Ensemble’s season ends |

Revamped New Music Ensemble’s season ends

Mark Kanny

Despite inherent and unpredictable challenges, the second season of the revamped Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble was successful in many ways.

Last season, the group changed the timing of its offerings from a series of concerts spread throughout the winter to a concentrated six-week summer residency at the Hazlett Theater on the North Side. It also presented a different concert format that tries to keep the audience continuously engaged, eliminating “dead time” between pieces of music. The result would provide standout fun even at the height of the regular music season, but during the summer drought of local concerts, the ensemble is indispensable.

Yet in addition to the difficulty of maintaining creative momentum during a second year, the group experienced a change in its top administrative officer as Jeffrey Nytch replaced Michelle Greenlaw, coped with the sudden unavailability of baritone Timothy Jones close to the beginning of its season, and faced news that the Hazlett, which it finds so congenial, will be closed.

Pittsburgh music lovers have responded to the new ensemble, turning out in larger numbers than last season. Beyond the increase in attendance, the group’s members say that last season’s audience numbers were puffed up by a large number of “comps” — free tickets. Nytch says the group didn’t keep exact figures last season, but that nearly everyone who attended this year paid for their ticket — averaging 155 per concert. The biggest house, 276, was on July 26.

Nytch also reports an increase in individual donations, approaching 10 percent of this season’s $144,000 budget.

The quality of the concerts varied, as is inevitable with music often being heard for the first time. Artistic director Kevin Noe selected pieces often high in theatrical content, equally prone to music of dark or humorous nature. Sometimes, the addition of dramatic elements to a composition made it more enjoyable than previous straight performances. Joan Tower’s “Petrouchskates” benefited from a simple staging that was thought-provoking.

Drama was inherent in many pieces, such as Ross B. Williams’ “Spirit,” Eve Beglarian’s “Landscaping for Privacy” and Roger Dannenberg’s “The Watercourse Way.” The ensemble drew on its administrative staff and volunteers to augment musicians in dramatic roles.

Several of the most memorable pieces presented this season had minimal or no musical content at all. Michael Lowenstern’s “But Would She Remember You” used music as a background to a sketchy drama about the importance of women. The performance of “The O-Filler” was simply a reading of the poem by Noe accompanied by still pictures of retired ensemble founder David Stock as the man with too much time on his hands.

The most impressive of the purely instrumental compositions was Yannick Plamondon’s “Autoportrait sur Times Square.” He showed the courage to begin with ugly string sounds but also had the sustained creativity to carry the audience to a strong and appealing conclusion.

The group achieved an impressively high musical performance level, especially considering the new pieces were being presented only once. Every musician showed impressive flair as well as skill. Both Noe and associate conductor Brett Mitchell, neither of whom uses a baton, provided assured and vital leadership.

Nevertheless, the success of ensemble’s format raises troubling issues. Although new music is a famously tough sell, the new format reduces the importance of music by changing the tint of the experience toward entertainment. The concerts were fun to attend even when, as at the first concert, most of the music itself was unremarkable.

Ensemble musicians are called upon to provide other performance skills, including acting and various forms of movement approaching dance. This breaks expectations and shows other sides of the artists themselves. Flutist Lindsay Goodman’s comic gifts and cellist Jakub Omsky’s colorful personality were unquestionably delightful to experience.

Nevertheless, it was a crucial step for music as an art when musicians were freed from being jugglers and clowns and could become more professional. And although the members of the group are multitalented and witty, some of their nonmusical efforts were weak. One of the videos the second week was feeble, but then so are some of the skits on “Saturday Night Live.”

Nytch and Noe are optimistic about next season, and are in discussions about possible performance sites to replace the Hazlett. The group is working toward commissioning eight to 10 new works a season, and wants to increase the salaries of its musicians.

Now, if there were only a way we didn’t have to wait nearly 11 months to enjoy the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble again.

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