Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Things Go Bump in the Night With the Momenta Quartet

It’s extremely rare that an artist or group make the front page here more than once in a single week. But today, because the Momenta Quartet play such stylistically diverse, consistently interesting music, they’ve earned that distinction – just like the Kronos Quartet have, on two separate occasions, since this blog went live in 2007. Some people are just a lot more interesting than others.

This year’s annual Momenta Festival is in full swing, with its usual moments of transcendence and blissful adrenaline. The Momenta Quartet’s violist Stephanie Griffin programmed night one; night two, violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron took charge. As she put it, the theme was “Lively things that happen at night.” She wasn’t kidding.

Maybe, to provide a little break for her bandmates – who also include violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – Gendron supplied a major portion of the adrenaline with an irresistible romp through Erwin Schulhoff’s rarely performed Sonata For Violin Solo. Throughout its eclectic shifts from evocations of Appalachian, Middle Eastern, Asian and rustic Romany music, she swayed and practically clogdanced at one point, and that vivacity was contagious.

The high point of the night was one of the group’s innumerable world premieres, Roberto Sierra‘s sublimely shapeshifting, relentlessly bustling Cuarteto Para Cuerdas No. 3. Flurrying, almost frantic interludes juxtaposed with brief, uneasily still moments and all sorts of similarly bracing challenges for the group: slithery harmonics, microtonal haze spiced with fleeting poltergeist accents, finally a wry series of oscillations from Haas and a savagely insistent coda. Distant references to boleros, and a less distant resemblance to restless, late 50s Charles Mingus urban noir drove a relentless tension forward through a rollercoaster of sudden dynamic changes. There were cameras all over the room: somebody please put this up on youtube where it will blow people’s minds!

There was even more on Gendron’s bill, too. The hypnotic horizontality and subtle development of playful minimalist riffs of Mario Lavista’s String Quartet No. 2 were no less difficult to play for their gauzy microtonality and almost total reliance on harmonics. Harry Partch’s Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales have a colorful history: originally written for the composer’s own 88-string twin-box invention, the Harmonic Canon II, the Momentas played the string quartet arrangement by the great microtonal composer Ben Johnston, a Partch protege. Part quasi Balkan dance, part proto horror film score, the group made the diptych’s knotty syncopation seem effortless.

They closed with Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1, subtitled “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.” The ensemble left no doubt that this heavily Bartokian 1953 piece was all about war, and its terror and lingering aftershock (Ligeti survived a Nazi death camp where two of his family were murdered). The similarities with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8 – which it predated by six years – were crushingly vivid. If anything, Ligeti’s quartet is tonally even harsher. In the same vein as the Sierra premiere, these dozen movements required daunting extended technique. Which in this case meant shrieking intensity, frantic evasion of the gestapo, (musical and otherwise) and deadpan command of withering sarcasm and parodies of martial themes. All that, and a crushing, ever-present sense of absence.

The 2019 Momenta Festival winds up tonight, Oct 19 at 7 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St., with a playful program assembled by Shiozaki, including works by Mozart, toy pianist Phyllis Chen (who joins the ensemble), glass harmonica wizard Stefano Gervasoni and an excerpt from Griffin’s delightfully adult-friendly children’s suite, The Lost String Quartet. Admission is free but you should rsvp if you’re going.

October 19, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendent Rarities and World Premieres to Open The 2019 Momenta Festival

A few months ago at a panel discussion at a major cultural institution, a nice mature lady in the crowd asked a famous podcaster – such that a podcaster in the 21st century serious-music demimonde can be famous, anyway – what new composers she should be listening to. Given a prime opportunity to bigup her favorites, the podcaster completely dropped the ball. She hedged. But if she’d thought about the question, she could have said, with complete objectivity, “Just go see the Momenta Quartet. They have impeccable taste, and pretty much everything they do is a world premiere.”

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the annual Momenta Festival, and the fifteenth for the quartet themselves. There was some turnover in the early years, but the current lineup of violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, violist Stephanie Griffin and cellist Michael Haas has solidified into one of the world’s major forces in new music. Opening night of the 2019 Momenta Festival was characteristically enlightening and often genuinely transcendent.

Each of the quartet’s members takes a turn programming one of the festival’s four nights; Griffin, the only remaining member from the original trio that quickly grew into a fearsome foursome, took charge of the opening festivities. Each festival has a theme: this year’s is a retrospective, some of the ensemble’s greatest hits.

In a nod to their trio origins, Shiozaki, Griffin and Haas opened with Mario Davidovsky’s 1982 String Trio. Its central dynamic contrasted sharp, short figures with lingering ambience, the three musicians digging into its incessant, sometimes striking, sometimes subtle changes in timbre and attack.

The night’s piece de resistance was Julian Carrillo’s phantasmagorical, microtonal 1959 String Quartet No. 10, a piece the Momentas basically rescued from oblivion. Alternate tunings, whispery harmonics and a strange symmetric logic pervaded the music’s slowly glissandoing rises and falls, sometimes with a wry, almost parodic sensibility. But at other times it was rivetingly haunting, lowlit with echo effects, elegaic washes underpinned by belltone cello and a raptly hushed final movement with resonant, ambered, mournfully austere close harmonies.

In typical Momenta fashion, they played a world premiere, Alvin Singleton‘s Hallelujah Anyhow. Intriguing variations on slowly rising wave-motion phrases gave way to stricken, shivering pedal notes from individual voices in contrast with hazy sustain, then the waves returned, artfully transformed. Haas’ otherworldly, tremoloing cello shortly before the coy, sudden pizzicato ending was one of the concert’s high points.

After a fond slideshow including shots of seemingly all of the violinists who filtered through the group in their early years, conductor David Bloom and baritone Nathaniel Sullivan joined them for another world premiere commission, Matthew Greenbaum’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a setting of Walt Whitman poetry. The program notes mentioned that the text has special resonance for the composer, considering that he grew up close to where the old ferry left Manhattan, and now resides across the river near the Brooklyn landing. Brain drain out of Manhattan much?

It took awhile to gel. At first, the music didn’t seem to have much connection to the text, and the quartet and the vocals seemed to be in alternate rhythmic universes – until about the time Sullivan got to the part cautioning that it is not “You alone who know what it is to be evil.” At that point, the acerbic, steady exchange of voices latched onto a tritone or two and some grimly familiar, macabre riffage, which fell away for longer, rainy-day sustained lines.

The Momenta Festival continues tonight, Oct 16 at 7 PM at the Americas Society, 680 Park Ave at 70th St. with works by Harry Partch, Mario Lavista, Roberto Sierra, Gyorgy Ligeti and Erwin Schulhoff programmed by Gendron. How much does this fantastic group charge for tickets? Fifty bucks? A hundred? Nope. Admission is free but a rsvp is very highly advisable.

October 16, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dynamic, Relevant Grand Finale to This Year’s Momenta Festival

Over the past four years, the Momenta Festival has become one of New York’s most exciting annual events. Each member of the irrepressibly daring Momenta Quartet takes his or her turn programming a night. The festival usually ends on violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron’s birthday. This year’s grand finale, Friday night at the Tenri Institute, happened to be cellist Michael Haas’ birthday: he and the group celebrated by going starkly deep into a program centered around Bartok’s harrowing String Quartet No. 4. As he explained succinctly before the show, it’s a piece he’d been scheming to play ever since joining the ensemble five years ago.  As was the case last year, admission was free, and there was high-grade craft beer afterward, also courtesy of the hosts. What more could a concertgoer possibly want?

They opened with Eric Nathan’s diptych Four to One, from 2011. Interestingly, this was the only contemporary work on the bill. It set it the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the evening, notwithstanding the iconic Bartok quartet immediately afterward. Right off the bat, it became a harried, relentless, microtonal rollercoaster ride, the group holding fast to the counterpoint amidst the storm. Violist Stephanie Griffin’s plaintive assertions were particularly striking, as was Gendron’s turn in the rather cruel spotlight over a menacing wash in the second part. Haas’ cello was also stark yet prominent: it’s not hard to see why he’d want to program this. It reminded a lot of Michael Hersch’s recent, troubling microtonal work.

The performance of the Bartok turned out to be one of the very best of many witnessed by this blog or its owner over the past couple of decades. The persistent sense of doom the quartet parsed with razorwire intensity had particular resonance in this post-2016 election era. Menacingly emphatic gestures leapt from the dark interweave of the first movement, danger drawing ever closer. The circle dance in the second was just as macabre, especially with the exchanges of voices between instruments. Haas’ plaintive cavatina, echoed incisively by violinist Alex Shiozaki, brought the longing and if-only atmosphere of the third to a peak: it was impossible not to think of Shostakovich being influenced by this when writing his String Quartet No. 7. Both the savagery and after-the-battle emotional depletion of the final movement were just as indelible a reminder of the perilous consequences of fascism. The more things change…

Augmented by the Argus Quartet – violinists Jason Issokson and Clara Kim, cellist Joann Whang and guest violist Rose Hashimoto – the Momentas wound up the program with a triumphantly anthemic take of Enescu’s Octet for Strings in C Major. The young composer wrote it at nineteen in a rather successful attempt to outdo Mendelssohn at teenage octetry. The main theme has a suspenseful Andalucian feel, which grew to echo the Ravel bolero in places: together, the group reveled in the dramatic foreshadowing, even if it grew facile in places. A more mature composer might have written it half as long, but even so, when the synopsis of the final movement finally circled back, there was no denying how much of a party this merry band had brought.

The Momenta Quartet are currently on tour: their next gig is tomorrow night, Oct 24 at 7:30 PM playing works by Agustin Fernandez, Roberto Sierra, Eric Nathan, and Philip Glass at Santa Teresa Church in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The Argus Quartet’s next New York show is on Nov 13 at 7:30 PM at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, playing an excellent, diverse program including Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” along with works by Haydn, Ted Hearne, Juri Seo and Christopher Theofanidis. Cover is $25/$15 stud.

October 23, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

December 9, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, children's music, classical music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Stunning, Harrowing, Relevant Night at This Year’s Momenta Festival

Who says music for string quartet isn’t as relevant in the here and now as, say, hip-hop? Who says classically trained professional musicians can’t improvise with the best of them? Could there be a better concert for Halloween month than a program of works written in opposition to tyrants?

Yesterday evening’s second installment of this year’s Momenta Festival at the Americas Society answered those questions decisively.

The Momenta Quartet stages this annual festival at venues across New York. Over the past three years it’s come to be one of the most amazingly eclectic, never mind herculean, feats attempted by any chamber ensemble in this city. Each group member comes up with an individual program. Night one, assembled by violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron, featured a theremin and playful projections to go along with the music – this blog was absent. Last night’s program, put together by violist Stephanie Griffin, was a harrowing, fearlessly political mix of works by Schoenberg, Alvin Singleton, Agustin Fernandez, and one made up on the spot. Tonight’s installment, with works by  Britten, Tschaikovsky and Claude Baker, follows an Italian theme which dovetails with the venue: the Italian Academy at Columbia, at Amsterdam and 116th. Celist Michael Haas came up with that one; violinist Alex Shiozaki takes responsibility for the final night, tomorrow at 7 at West Park Church at the corner of 86th and Amsterdam. Its centerpiece is Per Norgard’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8. Oh yeah – all these shows are free, although an rsvp would be a good idea.

Griffin’s program explored themes including the struggle against tyranny, hope for a more auspicious future, and also the failures and pitfalls of revolution. The quartet opened with Singleton’s Marian Anderson-inspired Somehow We Can, juxtaposing tightly synched, clenched-teeth staccato pedal notes with austere, wounded washes that eventually took on a similar if more muted insistence. With its relentless intensity, it foreshadowed the direction Julia Wolfe would be going about ten years later.

That Fernandez’s String Quartet No. 2 would not be anticlimactic attests to its relentless power, and the group’s forceful focus. Pulsing with deceptively catchy, allusive minor modes, the triptych is a portrait of the 1970 uprising in Teoponte, Bolivia, and also references an ancient Incan curse against the conquistadors. With some otherworldly, challenging extended-technique passages midway through – including a twistedly oscillating interlude for high harmonics – it was the highlight of the evening, if perhaps only because it was the longest piece.

Guest bassist Hilliard Greene provided a deep-river anchor for a lingering duo improvisation with Griffin on the theme of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, viola leading the way toward a resolution that the two eventually sidestepped. Joined by pianist Christopher Oldfather and Cuban rapper Telmary Diaz, the quartet closed with Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte. Over a tireless, viciously sarcastic bustle, Diaz delivered a witheringly unrelenting, knowing critique of a revolutionary who got too big for his britches, via conductor Sebastian Zubieta’s dynamite new Spanish translation of the Byronic lament. As one concertgoer remarked, it was a performance that resonated all the way to the White House – although the chance that Donald Trump speaks a language other than English is awfully unlikely.

What’s the takeaway from all this? That other ensembles should aspire to be as relevant; that the rest of the festival is just as promising, and that this city needs an Agustin Fernandez festival. Maybe the Momenta Quartet can arrange that.

October 3, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mimesis Ensemble Champions Stunning Contemporary Works at Carnegie Hall

If there’s anybody who doesn’t think that the contemporary string quartet repertoire is one of the world’s most exhilarating, they weren’t onstage or in the crowd last night at Carnegie Hall. In a multi-composer bill along the same lines as what the Miller Theatre does, Mimesis Ensemble staged a program featuring works of four current composers – Anna Clyne, Alexandra du Bois, Daniel Bernard Roumain and Mohammed Fairouz – to rival any Shostakovian thrills filling the halls further up Broadway.

These were dark, moody, otherworldly thrills, first from Clyne’s rhythmic suite Prima Vulgaris (meaning “evening primrose”), delivered with verve by violinists Alex Shiozaki and Curtis Stewart, violist Hannah Levinson and cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir. She, in particular, is a player who relishes low tonalities, who’s not afraid to dig in and go deep into the well, taking charge to the point where she was essentially leading the ensemble. Austerity punctuated by pregnant pauses built to hints of an English reel, a long passage that gave Levinson a launching pad for vividly plaintive unease, then a pensive microtonal romp over an ominous cello drone. Tension-packed runs down a memorably uncertain scale set off an increasingly agitated series of variations that ended surprisingly quietly, but no less hauntingly. In its troubled way, it’s a stunning piece of music.

As was du Bois’ String Quartet No. 3, Night Songs, inspired by the journals of Holocaust memoirist and victim Esther Hillesum. As one would expect from a suite inspired by a philosophically-inclined bon vivant murdered at 29 by the Nazis, it has a wounded, elegaic quality. Dread and apprehension are everywhere, even in its most robust moments. It’s less a narrative than a series of brooding crescendos leading to horror, whether sheer terror or heart-stopping stillness. The melody and shifting motifs don’t move a lot, hinting and sometimes longing for a consonance that’s always out of reach. Levinson once again took centerstage with a series of raw chords, setting off a scurrying, pell-mell passage that led to keening overtones and then distantly menacing swoops. Hints of a dance gave no inkling of the considerably different tangent the piece would take as it cruelly but gracefully wound down. The audience exploded afterward.

The program wasn’t limited to string quartets. Roumain was best represented by an intricately woven, lively, dancing, George Crumb-inspired work played by a wind quintet of clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, oboeist Carl Oswald, bassoonist Brad Balliett and flutist Jonathan Engle, with Jason Sugata’s horn calm in the center of the storm.

Fairouz, who amid innumerable projects is reinvigorating the venerable art-song catalog, likes to collaborate with poets (maybe because his compositions tend to be remarkably terse and crystallized). For this he brought along  poet David Shapiro, whose bittersweet Socratically-themed texts were fleshed out by a septet with strings and flute, strongly sung by soprano Katharine Dain and masterfully lowlit by Katie Reimer’s alternately vigorous and murkily resonant piano. Closely attuned to lyrical content, sometimes agitated, sometimes playful insistent, this quartet of songs seemed to mock death as much as dread it.

Mimesis Ensemble are at Merkin Concert Hall on May 4 at 8:30 PM playing a Lynchian elegy by Caleb Burhans, a cruelly sarcastic take on eco-disaster by David T. Little, powerful and historically aware chamber pieces by Fairouz as well as other works. Advance tickets are only $10 (students $5) and are highly recommended.

January 25, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment