Visiting percussionist enjoys pushing boundaries
PGH New Music EnsemblePNME returns to South Side for month of weekend performances

Visiting percussionist enjoys pushing boundaries

Ian David Rosenbaum, who is performing in the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble this month, doesn't limit himself to performing with just traditional percussion instruments.

Ian David Rosenbaum, 31, from Brooklyn, is participating in the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Ian David Rosenbaum)
Ian David Rosenbaum, 31, from Brooklyn, is participating in the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Ian David Rosenbaum)

For Ian David Rosenbaum, playing percussion for a living is a dream come true. Despite the long hours away from home and the relatively low compensation, Rosenbaum, 31, says he cherishes every minute of it.

“I love what I do so much and I really couldn’t envision myself doing anything else, so in that way, my job is the most fun thing that I would ever do,” he said. “When I wake up in the morning, I get to go to a rehearsal or go practice.”

“And that is an amazing gift,” he added.

Each July, Rosenbaum and close to a dozen other musicians from around the country descend on the Steel City to take part in the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, a group devoted to performing modern classical music.

The ensemble holds a series of weekend concerts throughout July, all at the City Theatre on the South Side. The small blackbox theater seats only 254, facilitating an intimate setting in which the divide between the audience members and stage nearly evaporates.

Since 2001, PNME has seen huge growth — more than 600 percent — in attendance, and added more concerts to its schedule to accommodate the increased interest. In Rosenbaum’s view, the ensemble’s success can be attributed to its shift towards a more “theatrical” lens.

“Rather than just putting on these concert programs that many other folks do, we started to build these theatrical programs,” he said. “So we perform in a pure, sound design, and lighting design and what we try to do is sort of stitch together existing pieces into a connected, unbroken, theatrical evening…in such a way that it forms a kind of composed narrative over the course of the evening.”

PNME was established in 1976 by the late composer and conductor David F. Stock, whose compositions were played by symphonies around the country. In 2001, Kevin Noe took over as executive director and began to take the ensemble in a new direction, facilitating the inclusion of more modern elements, such as video, to its concerts.

Since its inception, the ensemble has commissioned hundreds of pieces, giving composers around the country a chance to showcase their works.

PNME’s opening concert of the season last Friday, called the “Human Experience,” featured the world premieres of three pieces, the result of a nearly two-year-long competition to find the best original compositions in the country. More than 400 composers submitted their works, with David Biedenbender, Rufus Reid and Jun Yoon Wie emerging victorious.

The performance incorporated visual elements, adding an interesting component to the largely somber and downtempo music. Rosenbaum provided a refreshing beat for Reid’s piece on the xylophone.

Rosenbaum, who calls himself a “secular” Jew, is an up-and-coming star in the musical world. In 2012, he joined the Chamber Music Society Two program at Lincoln Center in New York as only the second percussionist in its history. Alumni of the group include pianist Lang Lang and violinist Hilary Hahn. Rosenbaum also recently released his first solo album, called “Memory Palace.”

Rosenbaum, who resides in Brooklyn, N.Y., performs and teaches with a myriad of different groups. In 2011, he founded a quartet called Standbox Percussion that performs around the world.

“And then outside of that, I’m just sort of a freelance player,” he said.

In addition to traditional percussion instruments, Rosenbaum has sought to expand the horizons of what is possible and acceptable. For instance, he pours water to different levels in a row of beer bottles for one piece. Blowing air into the bottles produces a “beautiful flute-like sound,” he said, similar to that of a wind instrument.

“People are treating all kinds of things, all kinds of objects, that you wouldn’t normally think of as real instruments, they’re treating them as instruments,” Rosenbaum said. “Whether it’s something that we think of as a real instrument, like what you might see in the symphony, or if it’s just an everyday object, like a piece of trash or a piece of junk-metal, that we can turn into an instrument, to fit that moment.” PJC

Jonah Berger can be reached at

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