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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

This Year’s Momenta Festival, Installment Three: Fun Night!

Even by the rigorous standards of the string quartet world, the Momenta Quartet have to assimilate an enormous amount of material for their annual Manhattan festival. Never mind the kind of stylistic leaps and bounds that would drive most other groups to distraction. This year’s festivities conclude tonight with a free concert at 7 at West Park Church at 86th and Amsterdam put together by violinist Alex Shiozaki. The centerpiece is Per Norgard’s mesmerizingly dark String Quartet No. 8, and reportedly there will be free beer. But the music will be better than the beer. What’s better than free beer? Now you know.

Each member of this irrepressible quartet programs a single festival evening. Violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron was in charge of night one, which was reputedly challenging and entertaining – this blog wasn’t there. Night two, assembled by violist Stephanie Griffin, was harrowingly intense and had enormous political relevance. Last night’s bill at Columbia’s Italian Academy auditorium, devised by celist Michael Haas, was the fun night – although the fun promises to continue tonight as well.

Last night’s theme was a tourists-eye view of Italy. Haas took that idea from the evening’s one world premiere, Claude Baker’s absolutely delightful Years of Pilgrimage: Italy. Baker found his inspiration in Italian-themed works by Liszt, Berlioz and Tschaikovsky, and there were jarring episodes interpolating snippets of some of those themes throughout an otherwise distinctively 21st century work. It wasn’t the easiest, segue-wise, but it was riotously funny. Otherwise, the piece didn’t seem to have much to do with Italy, from austere, minimalist insistence, to all sorts of allusive, enigmatic ripples and rises, a daunting and uneasily captivating microtonal interlude, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek glissandos and other only slightly less ostentatious uses of extended technique. The group had a great time with it: every string quartet ought to play it.

The party ended on a high note with Tschaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the quartet bolstered by their former teachers Samuel Rhodes and Marcy Rosen on second viola and cello, respectively. It was an unabashedly joyous, conversational performance: to the extent that this music can swing, the group swung it, through beery, punchy Beethovenesque riffage bookended by familiar Russian gloom.

It was as if Tschaikovsky was reassuring himself that it was ok to cut loose and have some fun. And did he ever. That buffoonish brass fanfare midway through, transposed for strings – whose doublestops and rat-a-tat phrasing are brutally tough to play, by the way? Check. That ridiculous faux-tarantella at the end? Doublecheck. Otherwise, the group reveled in nifty exchanges of voices as the mood shifted back and forth.

They’d opened with Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, which was more of a vehicle for individual members’ technical skill than anything else. Gendron spun silky filigrees while Haas and Shiozaki  provided elegant, precisely pulsing pizzicato alongside Griffin’s plaintive resonance. But ultimately, the piece – a late work based on Britten’s 1973 opera Death in Venice – didn’t really go anywhere. Obviously, the group can’t be faulted for the composer electing for a “this is what I look like when I’m sad” pose over genuine empathy. That the opera is based on the Thomas Mann novel explains a lot.

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October 4, 2017 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