New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: 20th century music

Escaping the Nazis with a Quartet for the End of Time

Olivier Messiaen premiered his Quartet for the End of Time in a Nazi prison camp. There’s no way of knowing exactly what he was thinking at the time, but it’s probably safe to say that he considered that maybe this could have been his last concert, and the last piece of music he’d ever write. And while much of it is macabre, there’s a transgresssive subtext: we’re going to make a break for it and get the hell out of here, Messiaen seems to be saying. And he got away with it, right under the Nazis’ noses!

As it turned out, Messiaen didn’t have to go through with an escape plan, and there were no reprisals. Either the Nazis didn’t get it, or they didn’t take him seriously. He would eventually be liberated in 1941 and go on to write lots of other somewhat less creepy music. The new recording of the Quartet for the End of Time by clarinetist Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – streaming at Spotify – is worth owning just for the liner notes. Long story short: new scholarship reveals that the composer didn’t write all of it in the Nazi camp. Like so many other European artists, he’d volunteered to fight the Nazis, but this harrowing suite underscores how much he hated wartime conditions.

There are parts of the new album that sound fast, and others that sound slow, although that perception uptimately proves false. It’s probably due to how intensely Severe and the group – pianist Théo Fouchenneret, cellist Volodia van Keulen and violinist David Petrlik– tackle the piece. The many passages that evoke the songs of the birds that Messiaen loved so much are muted and distant, a taunt to a prisoner who can only hear them. The aching, acidically immersive, apocalyptic rapture of the final movement drags on and on – exactly as the composer persuaded his bandmates to play it the first time around. But the frantic, stormy moments before then are just short of grand guignol. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, left no doubt how sincere his liturgical themes of struggle and salvation were, but here the real-life horror narrative is inescapably, barely concealed amidst the shrieks, sprints and sudden swells.

There aren’t many other pieces of music for such a strange lineup as piano, violin, clarinet and cello, but the group found one: Thomas Ades‘ Studies from his opera The Tempest. These short character sketches – Messiaen-inspired instrumental arrangements of operatic themes – run the gamut from calm pensiveness to brooding melancholy.

 

It’s Been a Typically Eclectic Year at Upper Manhattan’s Home for Adventurous New Classical Sounds

If new classical music is your thing, don’t let any possible twee, gentrifier associations scare you away from the Miller Theatre‘s series of so-called “pop-up” concerts. For almost a decade now, Columbia’s comfortable auditorium at the top of the stairs at the 116th St. stop on the 1 train has been home to an often spectacularly good series of free, early evening performances of 21st century works along with the occasional blast from the past. The name actually reflects how impromptu these shows were during the series’ first year, and while the schedule now extends several months ahead, new events still do pop up unexpectedly. Sometimes there’s free beer and wine, sometimes not, but that’s not the main attraction, testament to how consistently solid the programming here has become.

This past fall’s first concert was a revelatory world premiere of John Zorn’s new JMW Turner-inspired suite for solo piano, played with virtuosic verve by Steven Gosling; that one got a rave review here. The October episode, with indie classical chamber ensemble Counterinduction playing an acerbic, kinetic series of works by their charismatic violist Jessica Meyer, was also fantastic. Various permutations of the quintet, Meyer joined by violinist Miranda Cuckson, cellist Caleb van der Swaagh, clarinetist and bass clarinetist Benjamin Fingland and pianist Ning Yu began with the dappled shades of I Only Speak of the Sun, then brought to life the composer’s many colorful perspectives on Guadi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in a dynamic, high-voltage partita. The most bracing number of the evening, Meyer explained, drew on a David Foster Wallace quote regarding how “ the truth will set you free, but not until it lets you go,”

There were many other memorable moments here throughout the past year. In February, Third Sound played an assured but deliciously restless take of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 along with a mixed bag of material from south of the border. A month later, pianist Marilyn Nonken parsed uneasily lingering works by Messiaen and Tristan Murail.

Then in April, Rebecca Fischer delivered a fascinating program of solo violin pieces along with some new arrangements. The highlight was a reinvention of Missy Mazzoli‘s incisively circling Death Valley Junction. Fischer also ran through an increasingly thorny, captivating Paola Prestini piece, along with brief, often striking works by Lisa Bielawa, Gabriela Lena Frank and Suzanne Farrin.

Last month, Tak Ensemble tackled elegantly minimalist chamber material by Tyshawn Sorey and Taylor Brook. And December’s concert featured firebrand harpist Bridget Kibbey, who played the Bach Toccata in D faster than any organist possibly could, then slowed down for simmering, relatively short pieces by Albeniz and Dvorak among others.

The next Miller Theatre “pop-up” concert on the calendar is next January 21 at 6 PM with violinist Lauren Cauley.

Fresh New Interpretations and Dazzling Technique from Conrad Tao at Carnegie Hall

Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, pianist Conrad Tao delivered a performance that offered a glimpse of an unselfconscious bon vivant sensibility along with daunting, world-class chops and and frequently astonishing insight into a very diverse program.

Tao played with such precision and and evenness of attack that even the night’s most staccato passages had fluidity. He leveraged the thrill factor with an old orchestral trick, beginning pieces or developing themes from a whispery pianissimo so that when things got loud, they seemed even louder. But what was most impressive is that he’d spent a lot of time under the hood with these works, figuring out exactly what makes them purr…or roar.

He opened with David Lang‘s Cage [sorry dude, titles are capitalized around here], a brisk study in single-note counterpoint and a shout-out to the famously silent American composer. Tao’s matter-of-factness and exactitude enhanced the music’s hypnotic feel: others might not have played this as a nocturne, and that’s their loss.

Others also definitely would not have played Bach’s Tocccata in F Sharp minor, BWV 910 with as much spaciousness, and dynamics, and probably with less or even none of the judicious rubato that Tao would return to again and again throughout the evening. But in so doing, he revealed the love ballad at the heart of the work, its fondly jubilant righthand melody cleverly cached amid the composer’s outwardly morphing phrases. Obviously, Bach on the piano is inevitably going to be iconoclastic: this was as rewarding to hear as it must have been fun to play, Tao gritting his teeth and raising his eyebrows as the web grew more complex.

Another work that got even more time under the microscope, as far as extracting every ambitious flicker of modernity, was Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in A minor, Op. 39, no. 2. Harmonically, it’s almost shockingly more adventurous than the rest of those relatively brief High Romantic iano pieces, most of which he wrote in the 1890s. This one dates from 1917, foreshadowing where he’d go with the Third Piano Concerto and its incessantly shapeshifting jazz-influenced rhythms and flourishes.

Tao delivered Julia Wolfe‘s Earring with acerbity and meticulous, often pointillistic rhythm. There seemed to be a man-versus-machine narrative prefiguring her John Henry suite; here, the machine grew more and more human, with a belltone poignancy. To close the first half of the evening, Tao returned to Lang for another 1990s composition, Wed, an increasingly plaintive, restless, frequently carrilonesque ballad written as a salute to a couple who got married while the bride lay dying in the hospital.

The centerpiece of the second half of the program was a breathtakingly expressive and fresh performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Counterintuitively, the high point was also the quietest section, awash in resonant, lingering phrases, the contrast even greater considering how fast Tao had scampered, if not particularly loudly, through the introduction. Lilting cantabile passages stood out amid minor-key unease and a dance that seemed not only rather Russian but almost phantasmagorical, as Tao worked the dynamics up and down, all the way through to a puckish coda.

There were a couple of misfires too. It’s one thing to program a study in spastic/resonant contrasts, but two? At least the Jason Eckart piece eventually wound down to a blackly suspenseful reflecting pool…but getting there, as the rhythm was epileptically jerked around any time the music could have coalesced, was torture. Which is not to say that ugly music can’t be meaningful or impactful, but this could have made its point in a tenth the time, never mind the Elliott Carter piece it was paired with. And the mawkishly inept freak-folk of Daniel Johnston is no less artless or awkward at Carnegie Hall than it would be on open mic night at any grungy, overpriced Bushwick beardo bar.

A Brilliant New Album of Haunting Works by Obscure Composer Edith Hemenway

Clarinetist Nancy Braithwaite‘s new quintet album To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway (streaming at Spotify) isn’t just darkly delightful obscurities. It’s a major achievement, the first-ever recording of Hemenway’s compositions. What an incredible find. While there are echoes as diverse as the French early modernists, Messiaen, Berg and Bernard Herrmann in her work, her sound is unmistakably her own. The thirty picturesque pieces on this deceptively epic album, many of them miniatures, pack a great deal into a little space. They’re accessible but acerbic, often troubled and melancholy, sometimes macabre. To call much of this material Lynchian is an understatement. It is astonishing that such impactful music has been overlooked for so long – and kudos to Braithwaite for having the vision to release it.

Now in her nineties, the Providence-based Hemenway was trained as an organist but gravitated toward art-song and opera. She’s written for both adults and children; her operas have been premiered at popular venues in New York and New England. Pianist Vaughan Schlepp brings dynamic intensity and crepuscular sensitivity to Hemenway’s persistently uneasy tableaux, Braithwaite’s effortlessly dancing phrases and crystalline resonance enhancing their many mysteries. Cellist Robert Stirling and sopranos Claron McFadden and Roberta Alexander complete the ensemble.

The opening suite, Doors: Three Poems by W.S. Merwin, for soprano, clarinet, cello and piano brings to mind Bartok’s Mikrokosmos along with Ravel, Debussy and Amy Beach. From a steady, distantly anxious interweave and strenuous highs from the soprano, to an encroaching menace and finally a troubled waltz that doesn’t quite hit grand guignol, it’s a tour de force.

Questions of Travel for clarinet, cello and piano seems to chronicle a very questionable trip. The centerpiece is Journey of the Ancients, a slow, cinematic, broodingly stairstepping theme that rises to troubled crescendos with echoes of Ravel, Herrmann and early Schoenberg (and a wry Rachmaninoff quote). A waterfall flows down furtively; a siesta is depicted via a brooding canon. The coda is as apprehensive about the return as it is wistful for home.

In the album’s centerpiece, Braithwaite’s clarinet tersely answers and then mingles with Schlepp’s menacing neoromantic chromatics – it’s a David Lynch theme waiting to happen, with a Duet for the End of Time at the end.

The suite A Child’s Garden, for soprano, clarinet and piano is a particularly twisted playground of the mind. Braithwaite’s chilling downward cadenza in the opening sequence may be the album’s high point. Boats ripple anxiously on chilly waves; drafts waft relentlessly through an attic; a little later, friendly Schubertian companionship emerges in the form of a cow.

Asian Figures for clarinet and piano, based on texts by W.S. Merwin are less Asian than the title implies. The steady, four-part sequence, filled with Satie-esque longing, is another of the album’s most striking interludes. The Rachmaninovian, slowly crescendoing If I Could Find Her I Would See Nothing Else has a similar, aching melodicism.

The album concludes with Hemenway’s best-known suite, Four Poems of Langston Hughes: duets for two sopranos and piano, has stately gospel inflections punctuated by disarmingly piercing flourishes. All this makes you wonder how many other Edith Hemenways there are out there, overripe for discovery.

Picturesque Brilliance and Rare Treasures at Vasco Dantas’ New York Debut

“Feel free to create your own story for each of these preludes,” pianist Vasco Dantas encouraged the big crowd who’d come out for his New York debut at Carnegie Hall yesterday. Playing from memory for the better part of two hours, he gave them a panoramic view from five thousand feet. The music didn’t need titles or explanations: whatever was there, he brought out in stunning focus.

The most highly anticipated part of the program comprised a very rarely performed, pentatonically-spiced suite, Portuguese composer Luis de Freitas Branco’s 10 Preludios. Interspersing these World War I vintage pieces with five from Debussy’s 1910 Book 1 might well seem ludicrous on face value. But in a particularly sharp stroke of programming, Dantas had rearranged them so that, at least for those familiar with the French composer, there was never a question as to who was who.

And Branco’s music in many ways is more Debussy than Debussy himself: what a discovery! An Asian influence, often gamelanesque, sometimes mystical, was ubiquitous, as were close harmonies that sometimes reached an aching unresolve. Taking his time to let the narratives unfold, Dantas revealed a lullaby cached inside the ripples of Branco’s first prelude, followed by the vigorously waltzing, chiming incisiveness of the second.

The first of the Debussy works, The Sunken Cathedral, was also a revelation in that the pianist bookended its opulent languor and nebulous mysticism around a sternly rhythmic midsection: this was one striking edifice rising from the depths! Other delightful Debussy moments abounded, particularly the deviously blithe song within a song in What the West Wind Saw, and the momentary fish out of water amidst the sun-splattered ripples of Sails.

The rest of the Branco preludes glittered with minute detail. Spare, wintry impressionism moved aside for sharp-fanged, modally-tinged phantasmagoria and a slightly muted mockery of a march. The most dramatic interlude was in Branco’s Modern Ride of the Valkyries, its grim chromatics bordering on the macabre. The most technically challenging was the Preludio No. 5, Branco’s own relentlessly torrential counterpart to Debussy’s famous hailstorm shredding the vegetation.

Dantas brought equally telescopic brilliance to an old favorite of the Halloween repertoire, Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Yet not once did he go over the line into grand guignol: he left no doubt that this was a requiem. Who would have expected the carnivalesque creepiness of The Gnome to be dignified, and balanced, with just as much quasi-balletesque grace? The Old Castle may be a familiar horror theme, but Dantas’ insistently tolling low pedal notes reminded that this was in memory of a most original friend.

There were a few points where Dantas brought the menace to just short of redline – those were truly mad cows! – but otherwise, this was about poignancy and reflection. Dantas’ unwavering, perfectly articulated, otherworly chattering phrases in Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks were spine-tingling. The contrasts between the elegant Samuel Goldenberg and his lumbering namesake from the boondocks were striking yet sympathetic. Similarly, the grief in Dantas’ vast, desolate interpretation of The Catacombs was visceral, as was the unexpectedly distant horror of Baba Yaga. And he drew a straight line all the way back to Beethoven with the long crescendos and false endings after the whirling, evilly gleeful peasant dance in The Great Gate of Kiev.

After a series of standing ovations, he encored with his own gleaming, moodily Chopinesque arrangement of the Burnay Fado, from his home turf, complete with sparkly ornamentation mimicking a Portuguese twelve-string guitar. Let’s hope this individualistic rescuer of obscure and forgotten repertoire makes it back here soon.

An Ambitious, Politically Charged New Album and a Carnegie Hall Concert by Pianist Conrad Tao

Every year, conservatories around the world turn out scores of hotshot pianists. There’s been a lot of cynical ink spilt over the “sovietization” of how piano performance at that level is all too frequently taught. It’s a career, after all, with endless mutability and speed-reading at the top of the list of desirable assets, right? One of the many problems with that model is that rugged individualists like Lionel Yu, Karine Poghosyan and Melody Fader – all favorites of this blog – don’t fit a cookie-cutter model. Perish the thought that a player with monster technique might actually prefer tunefulness to flash or trendiness.

One of Conrad Tao‘s distinguishing characteristics on his latest album American Rage– streaming at Spotify – is that he goes much more deeply than so many of his contemporaries into the many styles he’s called on to play. The record is all 20th and 21st century compositions, which shouldn’t be a bold move at this point in history – but let’s get real, it is. But lest anyone typecast him as an indie classical guy, he seems to be equally at home in the Romantic repertoire.

Tao gets off to a flying start on the album with the first of two daunting Frederic Rzewski compositions, Which Side Are You On. What’s most striking is how Tao lets the allusive bluesiness in the melody linger, taking his time, parsing the score for plaintiveness and rusticity before the hammering fireworks kick in. When that happens, Tao is there with a stilletto incisiveness, but even then, he backs away as soon as he can for a remarkable resonance, letting those bell-like righthand loops ring out, signaling a changing of the guard – or so it would seem. What an appropriate – and hopeful – piece of music to be immersed in for the first week of the 2019 public Presidential impeachment hearings.

The second of the Rzewski pieces. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues closes the album. The low, low lefthand quasi boogie-woogie is mutedly chilling, vividly evocative of the mechanics of Jim Crow-style exploitation. And although Tao raises the ante a little, he doesn’t relent, looping the lefthand with almost imperceptibly crescendoing intensity as the righthand melody grows more accusatory. The icepick swell to the false ending just a little more than midway through is hair-raising; the sepulchral dynamics at the end are perfectly counterintuitive.

Julia Wolfe‘s Compassion, written in the wake of 9/11, makes a great segue into that work. Again, Tao works the hypnotic and crushing contrasts masterfully, a twistedly chiming funhouse mirror tour of a stalactite cave.

Including Aaron Copland in an album of music inspired by freedom fighters is a stretch, considering his penchant for conveniently folksy music for backwater orchestras…and orchestras in search of a backwater sensibility (for the record, Copland was from New York). But the anxious close harmonies, proto-minimalism and quasi-Mompou belltones of Copland’s Piano Sonata fit in well here. While it doesn’t rise to the invensity of the other two works, Tao’s thoughtfully considered pacing – especially in the rather still final movement – is noteworthy. Tao is playing the album release show at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall on Nov 20 at 7:30 PM, with a wildly eclectic program of works by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Wolfe, David Lang and Jason Eckart; tickets are $25

The Neave Trio Play Transcendent Works by Women Composers at Subculture

Earlier today, was the Neave Trio’s most sublime moment when violinist Anna Williams broke out an aching vibrato during a plaintive solo over a single raptly resonant Eri Nakamura piano chord? Or was it when Nakamura played a savagely sarcastic “charge” motif in the lefthand while whirling through evilly glittering circles with her right?

All that and a lot more happened during their performance of Rebecca Clarke’s 1921 Piano Trio. It’s a shatttering work, as good as anything Bartok or Shostakovich ever wrote at their most translucent. How rewarding it was to discover it on the group’s new album Her Voice, a collection of pieces by women composers. How much more of a thrill it was to see the group play it live at Subculture as part of the ongoing weekly GatherNYC series.

Built around a haunting minor-key chromatic riff, it was the one piece on the bill that gave cellist Mikhail Veselov the most time in the spotlight, particularly when he wove a battlefield haze of harmonies with Williams as Nakamura receded. An unexpectedly puckish coda to the second movement drew spontaneous applause; the danse macabre reprised at the end was even more chillingly vivid.

Likewise, disquiet remained at the forefront throughout most of another work from the new album, Amy Beach’s lushly cantabile Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 150, from 1938. Nakamura’s glimmering phrasing seemed both more crepuscular and muscular than on the album, up to a striking coda to wind up the first movement. The quasi-nostalgic waltz of the second and the echoes of Debussy and boogie-woogie woven into this shapeshifting nocturne at the end also had a welcome vigor.

As an encore, the trio rushed through a burst of Piazzolla, a momentary deviation from the album concept. Before the performance, Williams related how the trio were originally going to title the record 1.8, reflecting the percentage of women composers’ work being programmed by major orchestras  according to a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey. Things may have improved since then, but not enough.

There was also storytelling, a jarring interruption that brought to mind a song by a brilliant female composer who wasn’t on the bill, Americana tunesmith Karen Dahlstrom. The protagonist in the first number on her new album finds herself in a New Orleans bar, sitting across from a guy who unbuttons his shift to show her his scars. She doesn’t say anything, but thinks to herself, “I’ve weathered storms worse than these.”

The Neave Trio’s next performance is Nov 16 at 7:30 PM at the Chandler Center for the Arts, 71 N Main St. in Randolph, Vermont, including these works along with music by Cécile Chaminade and Jennifer Higdon. Cover is $25.

Next week’s installment of the GatherNYC series at Subculture (downstairs from the Culture Project Theatre at the corner of Bleecker and Lafayette) is at 11 AM on Nov 17 with chamber brass ensemble the Westerlies. Seemingly modeled on Lincoln Center’s hourlong Sunday morning “coffee concerts” at the Walter Reade Theatre, there’s java and breakfast snacks (before the show rather than after)…and possibly storytelling as well. Cover is $20.

Cutting-Edge, Diverse Sonics and a Williamsburg Album Release Gig From the Dither Guitar Quartet

The big news about the Dither Guitar Quartet is that Gyan Riley is in the band. He’s the rare scion of a famous western musical legacy (son of iconic minimalist composer Terry Riley) who’s an individualistic artist in his own right. On the ensemble’s new album Potential Differences – streaming at Bandcamp – he makes a good fit with returning members Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes and James Moore. This is the band’s most accessible record to date: fans of psychedelic rock and metal who can handle strange and often troubling tonalies should check it out. Dither are playing the release show at the Frost Theatre at 17 Frost St. in Williamsburg on Oct 27 on a bill that starts at 2 in the afternoon and continues into the night. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but there are a bunch of interesting, individualistic acts on the bill including but not limited to singer Alicia Hall Moran and the Mivos Quartet, sort of a reprise of the New Music Bake Sales in Fort Greene and then Roulette a few years back.

The album’s first track is The Garden of Cyrus, by Eve Beglarian, a 1985 piece pulsing with steady, emphatic echo chords, the group quickly adding polyrhythms that shift in and out of the mix. The variety of timbres, the mix of familiar and odder harmonies and the reverb in the room give it a Sonic Youth vibe.

Riley’s The Tar of Gyu is a strangely shifting blend of buzzy volume-knob swells, delicate toy piano-like phrasing and hardbop. The gently ringing harmonics and rising chromatic menace of Paula Matthusen‘s But Because Without This provide considerable contrast.

The album’s centerpiece, the four-part Ones, by Jascha Narveson, offers comic relief. The opening segment, The Wah One, is a playfully hypnotic mashup of the intros from the Theme From Shaft and Pink Floyd’s One of These Days. Then there’s the distortedly circling The Driving One, The Warped One with its down-and-up tuning-peg goofiness and finally the clock-chime harmonics of The Floaty One.

The group shift from gritty late 70s Robert Fripp-style riffage to eerie spacerock bubbles, austere resonance, wry hints of Eddie Van Halen and back in Lopes’ Mi-Go. Moore’s Mannequin is a desolate, morosely howling soundscape. Candy, by Ted Hearne, takes awhile to get going but eventually develops coy humor and incisively paired harmonies between the guitars.

Renegade, a Levine composition, sets growling, increasingly dissociative menace and shred over a piledriver beat. The quartet wind up the album with James Tenney’s 1967 dronescsape Swell Piece. Many different flavors; this group rock harder than just about anyone in the avant garde.

Things Go Bump in the Night With the Momenta Quartet

It’s extremely rare that an artist or group make the front page here more than once in a single week. But today, because the Momenta Quartet play such stylistically diverse, consistently interesting music, they’ve earned that distinction – just like the Kronos Quartet have, on two separate occasions, since New York Music Daily went live in 2011. Some people are just a lot more interesting than others.

This year’s annual Momenta Festival is in full swing, with its usual moments of transcendence and blissful adrenaline. The Momenta Quartet’s violist Stephanie Griffin programmed night one; night two, violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron took charge. As she put it, the theme was “Lively things that happen at night.” She wasn’t kidding.

Maybe, to provide a little break for her bandmates – who also include violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – Gendron supplied a major portion of the adrenaline with an irresistible romp through Erwin Schulhoff’s rarely performed Sonata For Violin Solo. Throughout its eclectic shifts from evocations of Appalachian, Middle Eastern, Asian and rustic Romany music, she swayed and practically clogdanced at one point, and that vivacity was contagious.

The high point of the night was one of the group’s innumerable world premieres, Roberto Sierra‘s sublimely shapeshifting, relentlessly bustling Cuarteto Para Cuerdas No. 3. Flurrying, almost frantic interludes juxtaposed with brief, uneasily still moments and all sorts of similarly bracing challenges for the group: slithery harmonics, microtonal haze spiced with fleeting poltergeist accents, finally a wry series of oscillations from Haas and a savagely insistent coda. Distant references to boleros, and a less distant resemblance to restless, late 50s Charles Mingus urban noir drove a relentless tension forward through a rollercoaster of sudden dynamic changes. There were cameras all over the room: somebody please put this up on youtube where it will blow people’s minds!

There was even more on Gendron’s bill, too. The hypnotic horizontality and subtle development of playful minimalist riffs of Mario Lavista’s String Quartet No. 2 were no less difficult to play for their gauzy microtonality and almost total reliance on harmonics. Harry Partch’s Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales have a colorful history: originally written for the composer’s own 88-string twin-box invention, the Harmonic Canon II, the Momentas played the string quartet arrangement by the great microtonal composer Ben Johnston, a Partch protege. Part quasi Balkan dance, part proto horror film score, the group made the diptych’s knotty syncopation seem effortless.

They closed with Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1, subtitled “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.” The ensemble left no doubt that this heavily Bartokian 1953 piece was all about war, and its terror and lingering aftershock (Ligeti survived a Nazi death camp where two of his family were murdered). The similarities with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8 – which it predated by six years – were crushingly vivid. If anything, Ligeti’s quartet is tonally even harsher. In the same vein as the Sierra premiere, these dozen movements required daunting extended technique. Which in this case meant shrieking intensity, frantic evasion of the gestapo, (musical and otherwise) and deadpan command of withering sarcasm and parodies of martial themes. All that, and a crushing, ever-present sense of absence.

The 2019 Momenta Festival winds up tonight, Oct 19 at 7 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St., with a playful program assembled by Shiozaki, including works by Mozart, toy pianist Phyllis Chen (who joins the ensemble), glass harmonica wizard Stefano Gervasoni and an excerpt from Griffin’s delightfully adult-friendly children’s suite, The Lost String Quartet. Admission is free but you should rsvp if you’re going.

Transcendent Rarities and World Premieres to Open The 2019 Momenta Festival

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]