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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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 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