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.