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

by delarue

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.