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Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble returns for the summer

"It feels a little like a holiday, but only if you can think of something like fat camp as a holiday."

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Each year, Kevin Noe and a small group of musicians from around the country spend July in Pittsburgh — but it's not exactly a summer vacation. They comprise the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, which presents a season of contemporary compositions throughout the month, at City Theatre on the South Side.

"It's sort of an artistic vacation," Noe, the ensemble's artistic director since 2001. "But it's some of the hardest work we do all year. It feels a little like a holiday, but only if you can think of something like fat camp as a holiday. You feel great about the result of it, at least."

This year's series begins this weekend with a concert July 6 and 7, the centerpiece of which is Joseph Schwantner's "Taking Charge." The piece has only been performed once before, at Northwestern University. Schwantner, a Pulitzer-winner, wrote it as a dedication to Walfrid Kujala, a flute professor there. (PNME's flutist Lindsey Goodman studied under Kujala.)

One of PNME's hallmarks is the way the group integrates visual aspects of performance into its programs — not theatrics, exactly, but more choreographed movement than one might expect.

"Our programs flow in a way that's different from, say, the symphony," Noe says. "That takes an enormous amount of planning, and you wind up having to deal very much with the visual presentation. We want to pull focus to where it ought to be and away from where it shouldn't." Lighting, designed by company member Andy Ostrowski (the group's only full-time Pittsburgher), is one way to achieve that; onstage movement is another. 

In addition to the regular programs (four in total, each weekend in July), a special program takes place Wed., July 18, when guest pianist Bobby Mitchell plays Frederic Rzewski's "The People United Will Never Be Defeated." 

"Bobby is coming all the way from Germany, and he asked if there was any way to make more money, since travel itself will use up most of his pay," explains Noe. "He told me he could play ‘The People United,' and I said ‘Oh, I'm not gonna miss that!'"

Editor's note: We learned after this story went to print that executive director and sound designer Chris McGlumphy is a full-time Pittsburgher as well; our apologies for attempting to strip him of his 'Burgh cred.

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