When an ensemble’s existence is predicated upon airing fresh and original material, yet is currently embarking on its 31st season, the idea of what constitutes “new” might not be relative, necessarily, but it is open to interpretation. For the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble’s 2007 season, a part of what’s new is what’s old … but with a twist.
“We’re bringing back a couple of pieces that we’ve commissioned over the last six years,” says artistic director Kevin Noe. “We’ve done over 30 commissions in just the last five or six years and some of them are just mind-blowingly wonderful, and the audience has been requesting that we do some of these things again. But, I’m trying to tune them in such a way that I’m giving them a better light, if you will, to be seen in.”
The first program, which opens this weekend, is a good example. “‘Einstein on Mercer Street’ by Kevin Puts was a piece that was done on our very first concert of the new PNME opening season, which I think was 2002 at the Hazlett,” says Noe. “And we haven’t played the piece since then, even though people have been requesting it a lot. But I wanted to position ‘Einstein’ in a different way on the program … I’m trying to construct a whole concert that essentially leads into that in a really organic way.”
A large part of that organic construction is built upon “Ohio Entelechron,” a piece by Pittsburgh- and Akron-based composer Roger Zahab, receiving its world premiere. “I needed a very flexible kind of piece that would allow us to do a number of different things with it, in order to serve as kind of transitions,” says Noe. “Ideally, it would have a mix of all kinds of elements — visual elements, percussive elements, lyrical elements, spoken theater, film — and this one has it in spades.”
Zahab, who directs the University of Pittsburgh’s orchestra and teaches violin, viola, theory, composition and chamber music, says he wrote “Ohio Entelechron” as “a scenario, a script, music and a conception, all in one package … a multimedia event that can be tailored to anyone’s needs.” Sections can be performed independently or in widely varying combinations; “You could make a movie out of it, you could make video games out of it,” says Zahab. The piece uses musical symbology to explore concepts of identity, community, and — appropriately for a program that ends with “Einstein on Mercer Street” — time-travel. “I think that music is the embodiment of time, anyway,” says Zahab.
The first concert also includes “The Joy of Sextet” by Wang Jie,” “But Would She Remember You?” by Michael Lowenstern and “Clapping Music” by Steve Reich.
The remainder of the season, which runs Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 3-4 at City Theatre, includes the PNME’s stock in trade of new commissions and premieres, such as Jeffrey Nytch’s “Personal Affects,” and works by Steve Mackey, Iannis Zenakis, Matthew Rosenblum and David Stock, among many others. And on Tuesdays in July, PNME will screen four music-related films, including The Devil & Daniel Johnston, as part of its earSHOT series, also at City Theatre.
The season will conclude with a tribute to the music of Pittsburgh-born jazz great Billy Strayhorn alongside the world premiere of “Billy Strayhorn A/K/A,” commissioned for PNME from Toronto-based composer David Passmore.
“Billy Strayhorn was a man of many nicknames,” Noe explains, “so David chose six of his nicknames, and each nickname forms the basis of a different movement.” One of those nicknames was “Strays,” which inspired Passmore to write “a fugue based on some of Billy Strayhorn’s music, and had it ‘stray’ off in different directions, as only a fugue can do.”
The PNME and area jazz musicians will share the stage at the final concert, alternating between Strayhorn’s compositions and movements from Passmore’s piece — a thematic and linear interlacing of the classic and the never-heard-before.
“More than anything, it’s a sense that the music is truly compelling,” says Noe of the types of works PNME seeks to commission and stage. “It’s not about a particular kind of language, certainly not about a kind of harmonic or even orchestrational language. But it is about whether the piece is something that needs to be heard on some level, that carries some kind of emotional weight to it.”
Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. 8 p.m. Fri., July 6. Also 8 p.m. Sat., July 7. City Theatre, 13th and Bingham streets, South Side. $20 ($25 at the door, various discounts). For full 2007 season schedule and to order tickets, 412-431-CITY or www.pnme.org