By George Loomis
NEW YORK — The Momenta Quartet opened its second New York festival with a concert on September 28 demonstrating the kind of enterprising spirit that characterized its widely acclaimed first such venture last year. Aptly called Momenta Festival II, the four-part event features a concert curated by each of the quartet’s members juxtaposing new music with one or more established works. The remaining concerts continue through October 2.
The first concert was the turn of the excellent violist Stephanie Griffin, who put together a program called Written in Fire by virtue of the presence of two works embodying deep expressions of love, Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) from 1928 and Pastoral, a 2005 chamber opera by the Indonesian composer Tony Prabowo for string quartet and two voices to a text by the Indonesian poet Goenawan Mahamad.
First, however, came two engaging shorter works: Matthew Greenbaum’s Castelnau (2002/4) and Wang Lu’s Double Trance, heard in its world premiere. The piece by Greenbaum, who was one of the last students of the composer Stefan Wolpe, was the first composition ever written for the Momenta Quartet, a 12-minute work in three movements, with each of the outer movements marked Vivace, as befits their lively nature and the similarity of their assertive, sonorous musical materials. The cantabile middle movement allowed violist Griffin to spin out warm, singing tone by playing a reflective, sometimes mournful melody.
For Double Trance, the composer, a Chinese-born woman who teaches composition at Brown, drew aural inspiration from a visit to a Roman church, where she heard nuns singing a monophonic melody, and visual inspiration from Piero della Francesca’s 15th-century fresco Madonna del Parto, which reminded her of the melody she heard. The piece begins fragmentally with pizzicato notes, harmonics and glissandos but strikingly coalesces with impassioned chords and rich sonorities suggestive of the spirituality of its starting points.
These two works served as excellent audience preparation for a splendid performance of the Janáček masterpiece, a work linked inextricably to the composer’s impassioned but platonic relationship with Kamila Stosslava, a married woman to whom he wrote over 600 love letters. The work sometimes seems to move abruptly from one musical idea to the next, but the recurrence of ideas in subsequent movements as well as the concentrated playing by the quartet and its alertness to the work’s diverse musical content, which ranges from Czech folk elements to rapturous melody to suggestions of mystery (like the acerbic tremolos in the last movement), allowed the piece to come together handsomely.
Tony Prabowo is a composer closely associated with the Momenta Quartet and especially with violist Griffin, who, besides performing his music, is said to have served him as muse. Pastoral, though called a chamber opera, might better be characterized as a work for string quartet with two women’s voices, both because the voices are absent from much of the work and because of the non-narrative aspect of Mohamad’s poem. Indeed, the text (of which English translations of the original Indonesian were furnished) is extremely hard to parse and seemed more descriptive of scenes from nature than of a love affair, even if there is the suggestion of a couple in a doomed relationship. “Sometimes I want us to fall,” the text concludes, “like butterflies falling from a branch before the certainty of death.”
Pastoral did offer the enticing prospect of experiencing strikingly different vocal styles, since one part is written for a Western oriented soprano and the other for a woman trained in an indigenous Indonesian style. Both singers here gave accomplished performances. The Chicago Tribune has aptly called Tony Arnold the “Cathy Berberian of her generation,” but Prabowo’s music recalled all too well the kind of disjunct vocal writing, with wide leaps of dissonant intervals, the famed new-music soprano excelled in in the sixties.
Arnold handled them deftly, but the music sung by the singer known as Ubiet, a celebrity in her native Indonesia, proved more interesting. Regrettably, she had precious little to sing, but one was struck by her earthy voice and vocal techniques such as machine gun-like tremolos. At first blush, Pastoral seemed like an avant-garde work, but Prabowo’s writing for the quartet has a solid, modernistic appeal, with some passages showing a Schoenberg-like earnestness. Like all the works on the program, it was idiomatically written and allowed the Momenta players to show their mastery of the medium’s traditional performance values.
Momenta II Festival (momenta is the plural of momentum) continued with a program on September 29 curated by second violinist Alex Shiozaki that placed Beethoven’s Op. 135 quartet aside recent music from the East. October 1 brought a program assembled by first violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron of works by Cage, Kurtag, Grieg and Eugène Ysaÿe, and on October 2 the quartet pays centennial tributes to Dutilleux and Ginastera in a program selected by cellist Michael Haas that also includes the New York premiere of a piece by Christopher Stark. All concerts are given at the Tenri Cultural Institute on West 13th Street.
As if the festival were not appealing enough in its own musical right, it engaged the brewmaster Sam Burlingame to match each concert with a specially prepared beer. At the end of the opening concert, he served a dark, rich brew called Love in the Dark with an alcoholic content of 6.5. Many another musical event would do well to follow the festival’s example.
George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.