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

Cutting-Edge, Elegantly Menacing Ben Johnston String Works from the Kepler Quartet

The Kepler Quartet – violinists Sharan Leventhal and Eric Stignitz, violist Brek Renzelman and cellist Karl Lavine – first joined forces to play some of the most amazing, extraordinary music you probably have never heard: the string quartets of microtonal composer Ben Johnston. It’s full of some of the most otherworldly riffs and hooks you’ll ever hum to yourself. The now-nonagenarian American composer should be vastly better known than he is, someone who was decades ahead of his time when he wrote his first string quarter in 1959. Few other composers use microtones – the intervals between the notes in a particular scale – as tunefully, and memorably, and impactfully as Johnston. The work of Per Norgard comes to mind, but Johnston is even more adventurous. A better comparison would be a similarly cutting-edge composer in a completely different idiom, the extraordinary “post-chromodal” jazz saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh.

The ensemble have recently released a three-quartet album comprising Johnston’s Quartets Nos. 6-8, completing the group’s epic cycle of the composer’s ten quartets. The entire project is an astonishing achievement. It’s one thing for a string player to get the western scale into muscle memory on a particular instrument; those who play Middle Eastern or Asian music, or jazz, have the additional challenge of halftones and quartertones, and blue notes. Johnston’s music requires a vast spectrum of variations per pitch, and the quartet have mastered all of them – and the meticulousness of these recordings bears that out.

Not all of these pieces are strictly microtonal: Johnston’s earliest work here draws on the Second Viennese School, and the playful spaciousness of John Cage, but with more dense, disquieting close harmonies. He also has a thing for English folk themes and Gershwin, both influences you would hardly expect to hear in this context. Johnston’s music can be as ethereal as it is rhythmic and balletesque: jaunty waltzes juxtapose with airy, horizontal interludes. He has a penchant for labeling sections as “impetuous,” “nervous, diving” or “vigorous, defiant” and then making good on those themes. Another of his favorite tropes is to diverge very slowly and almost imperceptibly from traditional western harmony, as he does most vividly in String Quartet No. 9, building an atmosphere that becomes grotesque and sometimes downright macabre. The ensemble tackles all of this with expertise, and verve, and gusto: they are clearly having a ball with this stuff, especially when his sense of humor is going full force.

Each of the string quartets here is worth hearing: the two pieces de resistance here are No. 5, from 1979, and No.10, from 1995. The former slices and dices an allusive Scottish folk-tinged ballad theme. Pitches and their doppler doppelgangers go further and further outside, taking on the ambered quality of a brass section. Flurries of pizzicato alternate with calmer gestures that remind of Gershwin more than, say, Beethoven, up to an intense, menacing coda and then a very subtly twisted cello-fueled outro.

The latter is a real stunner, with an ending that’s just the opposite of all the foreshadowing Johnston goes through – it’s far too good to give away here. Otherwise, it’s packed with neat touches: hints of medieval folk tunings, a lustrously dirgey canon, latin-tinged counterpoint, a long, thorny tumble through thickets of pizzicato and an ending that quietly packs more of a wallop than the loudest, most horror-stricken segments here, of which there are many.

Of the quartets on the new album, No. 6 is the most enigmatic, most statically hypnotic and least dynamic – and hardest to pin down – of the lot. A circling, Reichian, hypnotic sense gives way to starkly swaying unease and then a final segment with some ominous narration: “Your way begins on the other side,” Johnston intones. No. 7 opens with a shivery menace, shifting to an extremely devious, dizzyingly waltzing, pizzicato palindrome, then a series of variations, Johnston’s tonalities expanding with characteristic delicacy and a matching, offcenter menace.

No. 8 moves from a twisted minuet to a woundedly steady, canonical march and a scherzo that hardly seems funny, with a hazily swaying conclusion that shifts with somberly cello-fueled counterpoint to an austere, still outro. Much of this can be found on New World Records’ album page.

The cycle also includes dynamic performances of String Quartet No. 1, in a Schoenbergian vein; the stark, sobering, angst-ridden No. 2, a quantum leap in Johnston’s work and otherwise, No. 9, which warps elements of folk, Stravinsky and the neo-baroque; the brief No. 3, balancing spacious horizontality and more jaunty melody; and the windswept, stunningly echoey, harrowingly challenging No. 4. It’s safe to say that its own elegant way, there won’t be anything this wild or individualistic released in 2016, quite possibly for the rest of this decade.

July 9, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment