A few months ago at a panel discussion at a major cultural institution, a nice mature lady in the crowd asked a famous podcaster – such that a podcaster in the 21st century serious-music demimonde can be famous, anyway – what new composers she should be listening to. Given a prime opportunity to bigup her favorites, the podcaster completely dropped the ball. She hedged. But if she’d thought about the question, she could have said, with complete objectivity, “Just go see the Momenta Quartet. They have impeccable taste, and pretty much everything they do is a world premiere.”
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the annual Momenta Festival, and the fifteenth for the quartet themselves. There was some turnover in the early years, but the current lineup of violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, violist Stephanie Griffin and cellist Michael Haas has solidified into one of the world’s major forces in new music. Opening night of the 2019 Momenta Festival was characteristically enlightening and often genuinely transcendent.
Each of the quartet’s members takes a turn programming one of the festival’s four nights; Griffin, the only remaining member from the original trio that quickly grew into a fearsome foursome, took charge of the opening festivities. Each festival has a theme: this year’s is a retrospective, some of the ensemble’s greatest hits.
In a nod to their trio origins, Shiozaki, Griffin and Haas opened with Mario Davidovsky’s 1982 String Trio. Its central dynamic contrasted sharp, short figures with lingering ambience, the three musicians digging into its incessant, sometimes striking, sometimes subtle changes in timbre and attack.
The night’s piece de resistance was Julian Carrillo’s phantasmagorical, microtonal 1959 String Quartet No. 10, a piece the Momentas basically rescued from oblivion. Alternate tunings, whispery harmonics and a strange symmetric logic pervaded the music’s slowly glissandoing rises and falls, sometimes with a wry, almost parodic sensibility. But at other times it was rivetingly haunting, lowlit with echo effects, elegaic washes underpinned by belltone cello and a raptly hushed final movement with resonant, ambered, mournfully austere close harmonies.
In typical Momenta fashion, they played a world premiere, Alvin Singleton‘s Hallelujah Anyhow. Intriguing variations on slowly rising wave-motion phrases gave way to stricken, shivering pedal notes from individual voices in contrast with hazy sustain, then the waves returned, artfully transformed. Haas’ otherworldly, tremoloing cello shortly before the coy, sudden pizzicato ending was one of the concert’s high points.
After a fond slideshow including shots of seemingly all of the violinists who filtered through the group in their early years, conductor David Bloom and baritone Nathaniel Sullivan joined them for another world premiere commission, Matthew Greenbaum’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a setting of Walt Whitman poetry. The program notes mentioned that the text has special resonance for the composer, considering that he grew up close to where the old ferry left Manhattan and now resides across the river near the Brooklyn landing. Brain drain out of Manhattan much?
It took awhile to gel. At first, the music didn’t seem to have much connection to the text, and the quartet and the vocals seemed to be in alternate rhythmic universes – until about the time Sullivan got to the part cautioning that it is not “You alone who know what it is to be evil.” At that point, the acerbic, steady exchange of voices latched onto a tritone or two and some grimly familiar, macabre riffage, which fell away for longer, rainy-day sustained lines.
The Momenta Festival continues tonight, Oct 16 at 7 PM at the Americas Society, 680 Park Ave at 70th St. with works by Harry Partch, Mario Lavista, Roberto Sierra, Gyorgy Ligeti and Erwin Schulhoff programmed by Gendron. How much does this fantastic group charge for tickets? Fifty bucks? A hundred? Nope. Admission is free but a rsvp is very highly advisable.
[for any strange creatures looking for today’s Halloween month piece, this is it: that Carrillo quartet would be perfect for any serious Halloween playlist]