Week 3 of Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble’s 2018 season was graced by the practically perfect performance entitled To love and be loved, a collection of art songs compiled to create the story of a woman’s journey into and out of love.
Staged by artistic director Kevin Noe, To love was a delight, featuring the pristine soprano of Lindsay Kesselman in collaboration with pianist Oscar Micaelsson, cellist Norbert Lewandowski, clarinetist Eric Jacobs, and flutist Lindsey Goodman.
On entering the theater, the audience was presented with a somber, somewhat mysterious setting created by visual artists Val M. Cox and Linda Price-Sneddon and lit by Andrew Ostrowski. The art installation-cum-set design was simply long 2-3 feet wide hanging panels painted in varying sized stripes of different colors, hung intermittently around the stage and flowing onto the stage floor. A piano was placed in the center of the space, and a cellist’s chair was placed down audience right. The stage space was inspiring to the imagination, with the negative space feeling as important as the space filled with instruments and performers. It was a simple, effective visual world, made even more evocative by the masterful lighting of Mr. Ostrowski, whose palette perfectly highlighted the art panels and whose simple use of area lighting delicately supported the different phases of the song cycle. I particularly liked the bands of light used to both delineate playing spaces, as well as serve as “walking lanes” for the singer at crucial moments in the show.
All of the artists involved in To love gave passionate, precise performances, but the concert really served as a showcase for Ms. Kesselman’s astounding voice. Her soprano is the picture of perfect intonation and general mastery of vocal technique. My experience of her performance as a whole was more cerebral than emotional, but deeply satisfying either way.
The compositions chosen for the performance were lyrical and accessible, with some fiery piano playing by Oscar Micaelsson underpinning it all. The song cycle evoked a woman alone, the first moment of infatuation, the ecstasies of physical passion, the mundane vicissitudes of a long-term relationship, the disintegration of that relationship, and, finally, the sorrowful aftermath of a love ended.
All of the pieces were beautifully performed; highlights for me included Amy Beth Kirsten’s in-the-throws-of-passion “yes I said yes I will Yes,” with text from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Cellist Norbert Lewandowski joined Ms. Kesselman on stage for this, and he proved to have some vocal skill himself, providing humming accompaniment, along with a percussive use of his cello.
My favorite piece of the evening was “I carry your heart” by Lee Kesselman with text by e.e. cummings. It was the perfect intersection of wonderful poetry and lovely music, with a terrific sense of both modernist aesthetic and traditional styling.
Another highlight of the evening was Jeffrey Nytch’s wordless composition, “Covenant.” This haunting piece was filled with exquisitely sustained notes performed with that precision that marked the whole concert by flutist Lindsey Goodman and clarinetist Eric Jacobs, and often doubled or harmonized by Ms. Kesselman’s own humming.
The evening ended with the simultaneously mournful and hopeful “The Country Wife” by Kieren MacMillan. As Ms. Kesselman’s voice floated and soared, whispered and shouted, as she sang Dana Giola’s text – “The night reflected on the lake, The fire of stars changed into water,” the world of the stage slowly darkened and filled with the reflection of stars, until Ms. Kesselman was simply alone, in the dark, moving through the stars into the unknown. It was a beautiful final moment.
Ms. Kesselman and crew returned to the stage for one final song, treating the audience to a song version of “Goodnight Moon,” which every parent needs to own and play to their sleep-bound children. (I actually scored a copy of Ms. Kesseman’s “If This World Could Stop” CD, thanks to Kevin Noe; I didn’t get “Goodnight Moon,” but I did get “i carry your heart.”)
The bad news is To love was only performed last weekend. The good news is Ms. Kesselman, along with Kevin Noe and the musicians of PNME, can be heard in this coming weekend’s performances of The Gray Cat and the Flounder, a shadow puppet show created by Mr. Noe and Kieren MacMillan, inspired by “The Gray Cat and the Flounder” by Joseph Newcomer.
Mr. Noe and sound designer Nick Drashner are particularly excited to introduce their audience to a new, high-tech microphone system and will provide each audience member with headphones with which to experience the performance. Mr. Noe explained to TribLive, “The binaural approach is not just about putting the audience in headphones. It is about exploring the role proximity and location and movement in sound add to inherent properties of expression.” Mr. Noe and I disagree about the need to mic small intimate performances in small intimate spaces. I say “nay” to such practices, and considered the miking of To love to have been superfluous to the performances; in fact, I found myself trying to listen past the slight reverb added to the sound to hear the pure, warm, natural tones of the singer and the instruments during the show. I found the miking distancing. But that’s just me. Mr. Noe argues passionately and persuasively that the miking adds intimacy and immediacy and just a better sound experience for the audience. I am excited by this perspective, because, though I don’t currently agree with it, I am willing to be persuaded. After all, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble is just that – a new music ensemble, whose job it is to explore music in new ways. And it’s my job as an audience member to listen and see how it affects me.
So, I encourage everyone to see The Gray Cat and the Flounder this weekend. The musicianship is guaranteed to be terrific, and you can weigh in on your experiences with the headphones. For more information and tickets, visit www.pmne.org.
Photos by Joshua Brown
Categories: Archived Reviews