Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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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