New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: indie classical

A Strikingly Accessible, Dynamic Solo Album from Mivos Quartet Violinist Olivia De Prato

Olivia De Prato is a founding member of the perennially fearless Mivos Quartet and one of the most highly sought-after violinists in new music. Her technique is stunning: depending on the needs of a piece, she can deliver flash, nuance, lyricism or the kind of acidity that one often finds in the edgy kind of repertoire the quartet specializes in. And all of the above, as does throughout her new solo album Streya, streaming at New Focus Recordings. She’s playing the album release show on March 13 at 7:30 PM at the second-floor space at 1 Rivington St. at the corner of Bowery. Cover is $20.

The opening number, Samson Young’s Ageha.Tokyo gives De Prato a vast playground to air out her extended technique and effects pedals: crunching lows, enigmatic microtonal swoops, jarring scrapes, twinkly electronics, rhythm-shifting loops and subtle variations on a disarmingly simple central theme. You could call parts of this cello metal – although it’s not played on one.

The title track, a diptych by her Mivos Quartet bandmate, violist Victor Lowrie is a fragmented study in extreme dynamics: whispery harmonics, caustic close harmonies, brooding lyricism side by side with splashes of pizzicato and austere washes. Playing this to open the quartet’s show last month at the Miller Theatre, De Prato didn’t make it look easy, but clearly relished the challenge of Lowrie’s constant gear-shifting. The second half is calmer and disarmingly catchy.

Ned Rothenberg’s Percorso Insolito is a picturesque, shapeshifting pastorale that De Prato builds from a quasi-stroll to cheerily soaring flights as the sun lights up the hillside. Taylor Brook’s slow, methodically crescendoing, microtonally rich Wane is constructed out of cleverly assembled multitracks: what appear to be echoey, furtive glissandos are actually simultaneous smeared notes from the five individual voices, each in a different tuning. There’s more reverb on this piece than the others, amping up the wash of delicious overtones.

In its jaunty octaves and variations, Reiko Fueting’s Tanz.Tanz rather obliquely references both the chorale riffs woven into the famous Bach Chaconne, and also the Haruki Marakami novel Dance Dance Dance. The final piece is Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin, based on her intense, dramatic chamber work Vespers For a New Dark Age. But aside from the arresting, opening echo phrases, this electroacoustic work is considerably different, mournful motives leaping and lingering against a somber deep-space backdrop. Either De Prato is singing vocalese here, or she’s running her violin through a vocal patch. Spin this colorful mix for any curmudgeon who might dismiss avant garde music as shrill or pointless.


A Lavish, Ambitiously Orchestrated Twinbill at Symphony Space Last Night

“How many of you have been to a classical concert before?” Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner asked the packed house at Symphony Space last night. From the response, it didn’t appear that many had. Which makes sense if you consider that the average age at the big Manhattan classical halls is 65. But what Wasner’s band were playing, bolstered by the Metropolis Ensemble and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wasn’t the kind of classical you’d typically hear at those venues. It was a brand new kind of music: epic post-minimalist sweep matched to rock edge and attack.

Wasner spoke of being humbled in the presence of eighty other musicians of such a high caliber, but she has fearsome chops herself. She began the show on bass and proved herself more than competent, then moved to guitar and gave a clinic in shiny, emphatic, shimmery phrasing. Drummer Andy Stack pushed this mighty beast with a supple drive, shifting constantly between tricky meters. At one point, Wasner suddenly realized that her bass had gone out of tune, then didn’t miss a beat or a note, hitting her tuner pedal and then fixing everything even as the tempo and syncopation changed in a split second behind her. Tuning while playing is a rare art; it’s a whole other thing to tune and sing at the same time!

Throughout the show, whether singing her own material or William Brittelle’s restless new song cycle Spiritual America, there was considerable contrast between Wasner’s cool, concise, understated vocals and the orchestra’s leaps and bubbles. Guitarist Ben Cassorla added flaring cadenzas and carefully modulated sheets of sustain. frequently playing with an ebow. When Wasner was on bass, Metropolis Ensemble bassist Evan Runyon frequently teamed with her for a pulse that wasn’t thunderous, but close to it. Keyboardist Erika Dohi added warpy, new wave-flavored synth, wafting synthesized strings and on a couple of occasions during Brittelle’s suite, wryly blippy, EDM-tinged flutters.

In a context as orchestrated as this was, Wasner’s songs came across as very similar to Brittelle’s, Both songwriters’ lyrics are pensive, direct and don’t follow either a metric or rhyme scheme. Likewise, they both gravitate to simple, frequently circling phrases that went spiraling or bounding from one section of the ensemble to the next. Brittelle’s big crescendos tended to be more flamboyant, and more evocative of 70s art-rock like Genesis or Gentle Giant, with the occasional reference to coldly bacchanalian dancefloor electronics. Wasner’s tended to be more enigmitically reflective if no less kinetic, and more influenced by 80s new wave pop. Are both fans of Carl Nielsen’s playfully leapfrogging symphonic arrangements? It would seem so. 

The night’s coda, Wasner’s cynical I Know the Law, was a study in the utility of self-deception as well as its pitfalls. As with the rest of the material in the night’s second set, the chorus punctuated the music’s many splashes of color with steady, emphatic, massed polyrhythms and occasional moody ambience. Wasner joked that one of Brittelle’s more nostalgic numbers would be something that these kids would understand in about ten years, which could prove true. What they will remember is being on this stage with a hundred other musicians, and getting a huge standing ovation from an audience of their peers.

Metropolis Ensemble don’t have any upcoming New York concerts for awhile, but their violinist – and Mivos Quartet co-founder – Olivia DePrato is playing the album release show for her auspicious solo debut album, Streya, at 1 Rivington Street on March 13 at 7:30 PM. Tix are $20/$15 stud.

Laurie Anderson at the Town Hall: Perennially Relevant and Hilarious

Mohammed el Gharani was a teenager when he was captured by Pakistani bandits and then sold to Bush-era army troops for five thousand dollars. His case mirrors many if not all of the prisoners in the American Guantanamo gulag. In 2013, Laurie Anderson beamed his image onto a mammoth, Lincoln Memorial-esque setting at the Park Avenue Armory.

Beyond the complications of a live projection from Chad, where el Gharani returned after worked to secure his release from prison, what Anderson remembered most vividly from the installation was how audiences reacted. She recounts the story in her new book All the Things I Lost in the Flood, whose release she celebrated with a solo show at the Town Hall last night. In a surveillance state, “Crowds have become very much aware of where the camera is,” she reminded.

Those who moved to the front, where their images would be transmitted back to Chad, were mouthing the words “I’m sorry.” It was the one moment in the performance where Anderson appeared to be close to tears. Considering that the book title references the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy flooding on her basement archive, and also addresses the loss of her husband, Lou Reed, her usual deadpan stoicism in this case carried even more weight than usual.

Anderson’s work has always been intrinsically political, if not in a doctrinaire or sectarian  way. Over and over again, this mostly spoken-word performance reaffirmed that fearless populist sensibility. Her work is also usually outrageously funny, and this greatest hits show of sorts reflected that as well. An archival clip staged in the back of a diner, Anderson musing about the merits of the Star Spangled Banner versus alternative, less stressfully arpeggiated national anthems was as funny as it was back in 1980. More soberingly, she contemplated how Aristophanes’ The Birds might serve as a metaphor for the current administration.

Otherwise, Anderson shared a lot of remarkably candid insight into the nuts and bolts of staging provocative multimedia installations around the world. Homeland Security didn’t waste any time putting a stop to the idea of beaming in images of US prisoners serving life sentences – although the Italian government had given its stamp of approval to that same concept, which eventually springboarded Habeas Corpus, the installation el Gharani appeared in. That’s another typical Anderson trope: more often than not with her, plan B works just as well as plan A.

And she has a way of staying relevant: she allowed herself just a single moment to bask in that, recalling how she’d played her one big radio hit, O Superman, at the Town Hall right after 9/11 and found crowds resonating to it as much as they had during the Iranian hostage crisis twenty years before.

Her musical interludes, played solo on violin with plenty of pitch-shifting effects and layers stashed away digitally, only amounted to about ten uneasily wafting minutes. The stories, one after another, were very revealing, especially for an artist who ultimately doesn’t give much away about herself. As a “burnt-out multimedia artist” in Greece around the turn of the century, she recalled getting up the nerve to ask her Athens guide – a curator at the Parthenon – what happened to the country that invented western civilization. His response? That the Parthenon became so filled with tchotchkes that Athenians took their praying and philosophy private. “You can’t pray in an an art museum,” he explained.

Anderson pondered that and found it shocking. It was just as provocative to be reminded how she’s equated prisons and galleries over the years – both are heavily guarded and meant to keep what’s inside from leaving. On the lighter side, she recalled a late 90s project whose laser-fixated curator staged what could have been “group eye surgery” for extra shock appeal along with the pyrotechnics he’d mastered in the Israeli army.

At the end of the show, she sent out a salute to her husband with a brief tai chi demonstration, reminding how much she missed the banter of 21 years of marriage to a similarly legendary raconteur. One can only hope that if they ever recorded any of that, it survived the flood and future generations might be able to hear it someday.

The Telegraph Quartet Channels a Hundred Years of Vigorous, Dark, Relevant Revelry

In their sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall last night, the Telegraph Quartet took one of the richest sources in the history of music and traced how profoundly it could resonate in the here and now.

They started in the middle, then leapt into the precarious present with the world premiere of Robert Sirota’s harrowing String Quartet No 3: Wave Upon Wave. Closing with Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor might have been the respectful thing to do – or simply a decision to end the night with equal amounts fun and fire. Either way, the cutting-edge thread that Schoenberg first spun off with that 1905 work gave the group a strong seam from which to weave their magic.

As the night went on, commonalities among the works broke the surface forcefully: tonalities, riffs, humor and sarcasm. All that, and an intuitive camaraderie within the ensemble, as well as the quartet’s close attunement to the music. From the first smoldering cello notes and then the snarling introduction of Leon Kirchner’s riveting String Quartet No. 1, they had come to conquer.

It’s a shattering piece of music, and a showcase for chops, whether the slithery harmonics of violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, Chin’s plaintive tradeoffs with violist Pei-Ling Lin, or cellist Jeremiah Shaw’s deep washes of grimness and sometimes sheer wrath. They made a case that eerie close harmonies, subtly wafting microtones and an elegant roller-coaster ride through its dynamics were to be reveled in rather than shunned for their harshness and relentlessness.

Sirota’s quartet was just as relentless, and drove the vector home – he studied with Kirchner, and Schoenberg was Kirchner’s mentor. Of the three works on the bill, it was the most chillingly cinematic. Terror growing amidst bustling crowds, a sinisterly marching fugue of sorts, lingering funereal ambience and a cruelly reharmonized snippet of a Presidential anthem brought to life Sirota’s search for hope within the human soul in an era “rife with threats of tyranny, environmental catastrophe and the human potential for evil,” as the composer’s liner notes put it. The incessant dynamic push-pull and inventive pairings between voices mirror Kirchner’s work: he would be proud of this. It doesn’t have the sheer terror of Sirota’s unforgettable Triptych, his 9/11-themed first string quartet, but it’s close.

Schoenberg’s quartet came across as a sardonic celebration of a paradigm shift – and maybe an audience being dragged against their will into it. What a crushingly sarcastic piece of music…or at least that’s how the quartet played it. Proto-Shostakovian faux-pageantry and a mockery of a dainty minuet were highlights, but hardly the only moments when the group seemed to be saying, “To hell with these antediluvian conventions: let’s party!” In their hands, even the surprising calm of the final movement seemed tacked on, an afterthought: “After all you’ve been through, ok, you deserve a little lullaby.” The long procession through precise, expertly coordinated contrasts between serene and agitated, stolid placidity and the ache to bust loose more than validated that unlikely payoff. The crowd rewarded them with three standing ovations.

Repartee and Revelations From Young Concert Artists on the Upper West

Is it fair to a duo act to say that the highlight of their show involved only one of them? In this case, that’s a reflection of the material on the bill rather than the performance. The piece was Tonia Ko’s mesmerizing Waves and Remains for Solo Violin; the player was Benjamin Baker, at Merkin Concert Hall this past evening.

The composer introduced it as an illustration of how clouds passing across the sky metaphorically reflect the transitory nature of home, and whether it’s actually possible to go back. Strumming, she explained, reminds her of her Hawaiian childhood, and that’s how Baker opened the work, tersely, then shifted to steady, circling phrases that interpolated pizzicato accents within them. The device can be maddeningly difficult to play, cleanly – Baker made it seem effortless. Ko’s increasingly uneasy series of waves and echo devices rose to a very amusing, atonal paraphrase of a well-known nursery rhyme at the end.

Baker and his frequent tourmate, pianist Daniel Lebhardt, also had great fun with Britten’s Suite for Piano and Violin, Op. 6. Their playful jabs during the call-and-response of the opening march segment were matched by the more lingering, lyrical camaraderie that the composer artfully shifts to in the second movement, and also in the third, almost a parody of a minuet.

There were two other pieces on the bill as well. The duo opened the show with the slow upward trajectory of Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, D. 934, Lebhardt attacking the recurrent series of rapidfire, tremoloing phrases with remarkable restraint, leaving the floor to Baker for a display of pensive grace and silken, high harmonics. And yet, Baker couldn’t resist sliding just a hair toward the feral blue notes of Hungarian folk music when Schubert’s faux-Romany dance kicked in.

They closed with the predictable High Romantic angst of Elgar’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in E Minor, a post-World War I reflection that’s hardly the match for, say, what Bartok or Ullmann had to say about it, but the crowd enjoyed the whole thing. The takeaway from this show, staged by Young Concert Artists, seemed to be “these guys are going to do pretty much everything a classical musician is required to do in 2018.” This performance ultimately revealed as much about a professional friendship as it did the two musicians’ formidable chops.

The Young Concert Artists series has helped launch the careers of a similarly formidable list of players, including but not limited to Pinchas Zuckerman, Richard Goode and Dawn Upshaw. Ko happens to their latest composer-in-residence: based on this piece, they chose spectacularly well. The next performance on this season’s schedule is at the Morgan Library at noon on Feb 7 with oboeist Olivier Stankiewicz and pianist Jonathan Ware playing an all-French program of works by Poulenc, Dorati, Saint-Saens and Sancan; cover is $20 including museum admission.

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

Otherworldly Pan-Asian Transcendence From Jen Shyu

Over the span of less than a year, Jen Shyu lost two dear friends: Taiwanese nuclear scientist and poet Edward Cheng, and Javanese wayang (gamelan shadow puppetry) master Joko Raharjo, known as Cilik. The latter died along with his wife and infant daughter in a car crash; their other daughter, Naja, age six, survived. Shyu’s latest suite, Song of Silver Geese – streaming at Pi Recordings – is dedicated to those friends, and imagines Naja encountering a series of spirit guides from throughout Asian mythology, who give her strength.

The result is a hypnotic, otherworldly, sometimes harrowing  narrative. Shyu is performing her characteristically theatrical, solo Nine Doors suite at the Jazz Gallery on Jan 24, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $25. She’s also at the Stone the following night, Jan 25 at 8:30 PM as part of pianist Kris Davis’ weeklong stand there; the band also includes Ikue Mori on laptop percussion samples, Trevor Dunn on bass, Mat Maneri on viola and Ches Smith on drums. Cover is $20.

The suite is divided into nine “doors” – portals into  other worlds. Shyu plays Taiwanese moon lute, piano and the magically warpy Korean gayageum, singing in both English and several Asian vernaculars. She’s joined by the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss, percussionist Satoshi Takeishi and flutist Anna Webber.

Shyu opens solo on moon lute, with a stark, direct vocal:

I am no longer able to recount
In the tale, the story of my life…
When now it is twilight
And there is so much silence…
From the east to west
All you see in between
That deep black sky
Is everything…

Door 2, World of Java is a hauntingly suspenseful nightscape, cautious flute underscored by a low rumble of percussion. Door 3, Dark Road, Silent Moon rises methodically from pensive, allusively Asian solo flute to an astringent string quartet interlude that reaches toward frenzy.

Shyu’s stark, plaintively melismatic vocals slowly build and then soar over spare gayageum and moon lute in Door 4, Simon Semarangam, the suite’s epic centerpiece. The flute flutters and spirals as the strings gain force and then recede for cellist Victor Lowrie’s brooding, cautious solo against sparse piano and percussion. Dingman and Morgan interchange quietly within Shyu’s plucks as the she segues into Door 5, World of Hengchun, her dreamy vocals contrasting with gritty lute, striking melismatic cello, an acidic string canon and the lush sweep of the full ensemble.

Door 6, World of Wehali (a mythical Timorese warrior maiden) begins with a furtive percussion-and-gong passage and crescendos uneasily, with flitting accents from throughout the band: it’s the suite’s most straightforwardly rhythmic segment. The segue into Door 7, World of Ati Batik arrives suddenly, an insistently syncopated chant shifting to a thicket of sound with scurrying piano at the center

Door 8, World of Baridegi (a Korean princess who made a legendary journey to the underworld) is the dancingly explosive, almost tortuously shamanistic coda where Shyu imagines that Cilik’a family is saved. Her narration and then her singing offer a closing message of hope and renewal over spare accents in Door 9, Contemplation. Nocturnes don’t get any more surrealistically haunting than this. 

James Ilgenfritz’s Richly Textural Album Pushes the Limits of What Solo Bass Can Do

James Ilgenfritz’s second solo album, Origami Universe – streaming at Bandcamp – transcends the concept of solo bass, both in terms of performance and composition. He’s a ferocious improviser with daunting extended technique. Yet the album comprises four new compositions by major New York composers who date from an era when the downtown scene meant black-box former shooting gallery spaces instead of tourist bars.

The espionage-inspired Annie Gosfield’s mini-suite Rolling Sevens and Dreaming Elevens opens the album, juxtaposing stygian bowing, elephantine snorts, oud-like reverberations, allusively jaunty, overtone-spiced harmonic riffs, gently bowed cello motives, swoops and dives galore. It’s catchy despite itself.

Miya Misaoka, classical Japanese koto virtuoso who’s taking the instrument to new places, contributes Four Moons Of Pluto. also a multi-part piece. Dark lows give way to uneasily hovering, insectile close harmonies and then slowly shifting, oscillating ocean liner diesel chords.Then Ilgenfritz ends it with a stately series of climbing variations.

He approaches the epic Xigliox, by master of the macabre JG Thirlwell, with a similarly ominous, matter-of-fact pacing. With its slowly crescendoing horror-film stroll and brooding bowed themes as it winds out, it’s both the most predictable and funniest piece here. When Ilgenfritz finally hits his first foreshadowing tritone early on, the effect packs a quiet wallop.

Guitar shredmeister Elliott Sharp’s Aletheia serves as a richly obsidian-toned coda that gets more mysterious as it goes along. Harmonics glisten and flicker against a cumulo-nimbus drone that fades to almost white noise and eventually a series of droll percussive oscillations. Thirlwell isn’t the only guy here with a sense of humor. In this piece and elsewhere, it’s amazing what a spectacular variety of timbres and textures Ilgenfritz creates without the use of any effects other than what appears to be a healthy amount of natural reverb.

Ilgenfritz gets around. He’s playing as part of guitarist Eyal Maoz’s fearsome Hypercolor trio with percussionist Lukas Ligeti at Spectrum on Dec 14 at 8. The Admiral Launch Duo – Jennifer Ellis on harp and Jonathan Hulting-Cohen on sax – headline at 9. Cover is $15.

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

A Captivating World Premiere and Two Playful, Relevant Works in Progress Wrap Up This Year’s Sounds of Arts Festival

This year’s Sounds of Arts Festival in Long Island City, staged by arts organization Multicultural Sonic Evolution, featured a variety of performances from jazz to dance to indie classical music. The final program was an auspicious trio of works in progress by Chinese-American Alicia Lieu and Japanese composer Yui Kitamura along with a world premiere commission from Mayalsian-born JunYi Chow.

The highlight of the first night was Chow’s colorful, dynamic partita The House of Smells and Noise. Inspired by a story about a boy’s experiences with Nyonya (Chinese Malaysian) culture in Lee Su Kim’s book Sarong Secrets, it was replete with tensions and dichotomies: tradition versus modernity, calm versus bustle, humor versus solemnity. Percussionist Maiko Hosoda really got a workout, beginning with a stroll around the back of the theatre, clanging her cymbals. From there she took charge of the rhythm on a variety of instruments, including the dreamy microtone-laced plink of a Malaysian kalimba.

Austere call-and response gave way to somewhat more expansive passages that bordered on carefree but never quite went there, played with care and restraint by an impressively unorthodox ensemble of violinist Michael Mandrin, cellist Jay Tilton, oboeist Kevin Chavez, flutist Chrissy Fong and harpist Margery Fitts.  The electroacoustic ending packed a subtle emotional wallop and is too good to give away.

Kitamura’s brief suite, from a forthcoming opera, was sung with expressive power in Japanese by soprano Hirona Amamiya. The text explores the struggles of the daughter of famous 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika, widely credited with much of her father’s work since art in Japan at the time was a career essentially closed to women. Asian melodies were alluded to rather than stated outright; themes ranged from a poignant waltz that recalled Belgian musette, to more sweeping, distantly angst-fueled, cinematic passages.

To close the night, a quartet of singers delivered the first part of Lieu’s comic opera Unwrapping Fortune, exploring cultural and parent-child tensions in a Chinese-Jewish New York family. Not to spoil a good and relevant plot, but a chow mein sandwich is involved. A quartet of singers – sopranos Caroline Miller and Estabaliz Martinez, baritone Brian J. Alvarado and tenor Stephen Velasquez – brought drama and sardonic humor to the narrative over pleasant, baroque-tinged melodies.