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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

The Momenta Quartet Illuminate Per Norgard’s Haunting, Pensive String Works

Per Norgard is iconic in his native Denmark, and deserves a global audience. The lucky crowd at Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House on Park Avenue Friday night got to witness the Momenta Quartet turn in a purposefully flickering, often sepulchral, genuinely transcendent performance of string quartets, a suite of miniatures and a chilling violin/cello duet.

Norgard’s music is minimalist in the sense that everything counts for something, and that his melodies tend to be spare and follow a careful, meticulous path. But there’s a great deal going on, much of it rhythmic: constantly shifting meters, persistent wave motion and all sorts of oceanic and water imagery, unsurprising for someone from an archipelago nation. An unease on the brink of terror often lurks in the background, or in the distance. On the rare occasion that it takes centerstage – as in the coda of the duo suite Tjampuan, inspired by Balinese mysticism and waterways and performed with a hushed intensity by violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – the result can be spine-tingling, whichever way you want to imagine that.

There’s also a mathematical precision that sometimes brings to mind Steve Reich, but with vastly less playfulness and more foreboding. The awestruck terror of Messiaen’s most dramatic works also figures into the picture, if from a somewhat greater distance, as it did during the surreallistic time-warp of Norgard’s String Quartet No. 10. A contrast between calm if not exactly cheery harvest imagery, seemingly loaded with subtext, and a contemplation of time out of mind, it offered violist Stephanie Griffin a rare opportunity – at this concert at least – to vent, if only guardedly. There was no lack of cruel irony in how vexing such a concept can be to mere mortals, and Norgard seized on that.

His String Quartet No.3 – Three Miniatures, dating from 1959, juxtaposed brief, swinging, occasionally carnivalesque allusions with a dirge theme. Likewise, Playground, the suite of brief, flitting pieces, brought to mind a more mathematical, modernist take on Bartok’s Mikrokosmos etudes. The Quartet got to bring the most dynamism to the String Quartet No. 8- Night Descending Like Smoke, a World War I-themed piece based on a Norgard chamber opera, offering an offhandedly savage look at karmic payback to warmongers and their sympathizers. It’s characteristic of the relevance of Norgard’s repertoire, which really ought to be performed with this kind of meticulous attention far more often in this city.

One such performance to look forward to will be on July 29 at 8 PM when pianist Jacob Rhodebeck plays Norgard works at Mise-En Place, 678 Hart. St. in Bushwick. The other is by the Momenta Quartet June 23, with a delicious homemade vegetarian dinner at 6, show at 8 featuring Norgard’s String Quartet No. 3, Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi La Nuit and Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 135 on the fourth floor of 67 Metropolitan Ave. (Wythe/Kent) in Williamsburg. Sugg. don. is $20, BYOB, sharable food/drink are highly encouraged!

June 20, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Momenta Quartet Unearths a Rare Steven Swartz Chamber Work at Spectrum

Indie classical music has a long way to go before it reaches critical mass, but there’s no lack of ensembles here doing new and important work. And no end of New York premieres, and world premieres, many of them one and the same. And while history is full of surprise discoveries, from the Brandenburg Concertos on forward, it’s still quite rare that a worthwhile piece of music by a New York composer would sit in a drawer for thirty-three years before its debut. Such was the case last night at Spectrum, where the Momenta Quartet premiered Steven Swartz‘s Alignment. It’s not a Brandenburg Concerto, but it has an unselfconscious, mathematical beauty and, most importantly, it’s a lot of fun. Swartz, who was present at the concert, self-effacingly told a festive audience that “I think it doesn’t suck.” It’s a good thing it’s out of the drawer at last.

On one hand, it was a trip to hear this time capsule open wide to reveal some very clear, in-the-moment, postminimalist influences. There was Steve Reich, whose what Swartz spent plenty of time with during his postgraduate years. There was also his faculty advisor, Morton Feldman, whose fascination with articulation, attack and decay were also reflected in the roughly forty-minute quartet. One work that came to vividly mind that did not influence Swartz was Philip Glass’ In the Summer House, putting Swartz a full decade ahead of Glass. By the time that was written, Swartz was doing his witty uke-rock project Songs from a Random House.

What did this rescued obscurity sound like? A clever, Reichian rondo. No two bars were alike, and meters changed with each bar, a snazzy trick that hasn’t waned in popularity. A quirky, puckish pizzicato filtered throughout the entire quartet amidst calm, methodical, clockwork gestures, following a very subtle upward tangent. There was a striking and irresistible, rather tongue-in-cheek tempo shift in the third movement, shades of early 1960s Terry Riley. And the ending was very smartly timed: just when the Escher-like cells seemed like they’d go on forever, there was a a trick ending, followed so soon by the real one that the jape was still resonating by the time the second one clicked into place. Asked afterward if a studio recording or future performance of the piece might be in the cards, Swartz explained that the concert made him realize that there were very specific segments that he felt deserved to be revised. It’ll be fun to hear how he tweaks it, although let’s hope that we don’t have to wait another thirty-three years for it. It’s not likely that Spectrum will still be on Ludlow Street – or that Ludlow Street won’t be underwater by then.

The Momenta Quartet’s next New York performances is June 17 at 8 PM at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave. (37/38), with an all-Per Norgard program. Admission is $20.

May 21, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment