A Democratic Approach from the Momenta Quartet

United StatesUnited States Nicola Matteis the Younger, Jean Martinon, Roberto Sierra, Kaija Saariaho, Ann Southam, Aaron Copland: Benjamin Fingland (clarinet), Stephen Gosling (piano), Americas Society, New York City. 17.10.2018. (BH)

Momenta Quartet (c) Nana Shi

Nicola Matteis the Younger – Alia Fantasia (ca. 1720)
Jean Martinon – Sonatine No.5, Op.32/1 (1942)
Roberto SierraCuarteto para cuerdas No.2 (2010)
Kaija Saariaho – Nocturne (1994)
Ann SouthamSong of the Varied Thrush (1991)
Aaron Copland – Sextet (1937)

Among its other virtues, a string quartet is an intimate example of democracy. The Momenta Quartet has taken this concept to a natural apex, creating an annual festival of four concerts, each curated by one of the group’s members: Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki (violins), Stephanie Griffin (viola) and Michael Haas (cello).

For the third night, held at the Americas Society, Gendron had the podium, and unveiled a diverse array titled ‘Points of Departure,’ which she described in the program notes as a collection of ‘vastly different auditory excursions.’ She began the journey with Alia Fantasia (ca. 1720) by Nicola Matteis the Younger, with a flood of gently rocking arpeggios, cleanly — and astutely — done with no vibrato.

But this paved the way for Jean Martinon’s Sonatine No.5, an extravagant display for solo violin from a man best known as a conductor, but also a violinist, and — at least based on this example — a formidable composer. There are at least a dozen recordings on YouTube. A wide-ranging chromatic fantasia, it zigzags between quiet introspection and extravagantly conceived double stops. Gendron later gently released Kaija Saariaho’s Nocturne (also for violin on its own), with its melodic line riding above a subtle undertow of scrapes and whispers.

Perhaps most striking was Roberto Sierra’s Cuarteto para cuerdas No.2 (2010, commissioned by the La Catrina Quartet). In four movements, it is packed with rhythmic invention. Even the relatively calm Lento con gran expresión is animated by tiny gestures. Gendron describes it in her notes, ‘A Baroque style lament forms the canopy of a sonic rainforest in which multiple layers of life and sound coexist: tremolo and ponticello imitating the buzzing of insects, pizzicati like drops of rainwater, and jarring accented outbursts like the cawing of birds.’

But the outer three movements are abuzz with wickedly difficult sequences that would test any group’s stamina. The players responded with cracking urgency and precision.

The foursome returned for Ann Southam’s Song of the Varied Thrush. One of Canada’s most respected composers, Southam (1937-2010) was inspired by the call of the title bird, which she represented with a quick, ascending two-note motif, passed around from player to player. In contrast, long, hymnlike passages — richly tonal with serene consonance — evoked the weight and sustenance of the surrounding landscape.

To close, the group added Benjamin Fingland on clarinet and Stephen Gosling on piano — both known for being unfazed by, well, virtually anything — for a rollicking reading of Aaron Copland’s Sextet. A bona fide classic, its energy coursed through the ensemble, which tossed the composer’s motifs and bubbly rhythms back and forth to sparkling effect.

Bruce Hodges

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