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In One Era, Out The Other

New York
The Tenri Cultural Institute of New York
10/03/2015 -  
“Memory Palace”
George Crumb: Sonata for Solo Cello
Michael Small: Memory Palace (New York City premiere)
Luigi Boccherini: String Quintet in C Major, Opus 28, No. 4, G. 310
Tomás Luis de Victoria: Quam pulchri sunt
Claude Debussy: String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 10

Marcy Rosen (Cello), Momenta String Quartet: Emilie-Anne Gendron, Adda Kridler (Violins), Stephanie Griffin (Viola), Michael Haas Curator/Cello)

Momenta String Quartet (© Courtesy of the artists)

While rarely considering self-flagellation as a hobby, at the end of last night’s concert by the stunning Momenta String Quartet, I had the impulse to give myself a quick whipping. Where the hell had I been those two previous concerts? And why wasn’t I able to change my schedule to fit in the final concert today?

No response is important. The Momenta Quartet had released their first disc, and these four concerts in Treni Concert Hall had been given to celebrate the record. Yet this was no ordinary celebration. Consider the titles: “Americana” (with music by Ives, Wolff, Feldman, Glass and a premiere by D.J. Sparr); “The Concert From Hell” (Ysaÿe, Carillo, Glass, the full Crumb Black Angels, Ives); “All Blade”, with apparently the most difficult work ever written for quartet, by Arthur Kampela.

Last night was called “Memory Palace”. Partly because of a work written by Michael Small for Momenta. But also because the choices reflected different areas, and eras: Renaissance, Impressionist, Classical/Romantic and modern. A Boccherini Quintet, reflecting the Italian-born composer’s sojourn in Spain. Debussy’s Quartet, with more Iberian influence. A Renaissance work by a real Spaniard, Tomás Luis de Victoria.

And the New York premiere of Memory Palace by the British-born American-residing Michael Small.

M. Small in Ithaca (© Courtesy of the artist)

Just as Maurice Ravel had written homages to composers centuries before him, Mr. Small’s quartet was a kind of homage to Ravel–but with vast differences. The first notes almost literally were the first notes of Ravel’s Sonatine, and these were repeated, transformed, and brought into different a scherzo and slow section.

Yet what was most striking were the sonorities here. Just as Ravel explored exotic sounds for his instruments, Mr. Small was able to find resonances, echoes, changes which were always intriguing, yet always get that organic cohesion of a born composer.

This was the second quartet he had written for the Momenta String Quartet, and one can understand why almost every composer is rushing to get the music played by this group. In contrast to the highly respectable (yet to my ears ultimately bleak) Brahms quartets by the Chiara the previous night, the Momenta has, yes, that momentum which seizes the moments, makes light of difficulties and gives an always forward, even aggressive delight in their music.

One must single out cellist Michael Haas here. As “curator” of the program (each soloist had their own concert), so he gave himself the luxury of opening with an early yet absolutely wonderful piece by George Crumb. It was a solo for cello, but nothing was austere. The Crumb penchant for coloring came in a variety of pizzicato chords with the most varied timbres. His “pastorale” theme with variations was a Siciliana, almost ancient in style (ergo “Memory Palace”), and the end was a tarantella giving Mr. Haas the chance to shine.

He also scheduled a Boccherini quintet. Like Mr. Haas and like Villa-Lobos, Boccherini was a cellist and pushed his instrument whenever he could. For the Quintet, the noted cellist Marcy Rosen (a teacher of Mr. Haas) joined the group for a rollicking performance.

I had always felt that Boccherini had–like Vivaldi in The Seasons–a series of poems behind each movement. And the Momenta played it with that lightness of touch, some exceptional solos, a momentum pushing it forward.

The arrangement of a choral motet by Tomas Luis de Victoria gave the chance to offer another musical era, but it sounded too much like those viol consorts which are, frankly, dull.

That, though, was brief, and gave way for Debussy’s String Quartet. One always fears that this piece will fall back into pretty warm sonorities, a lulling soporific “pretty-pretty” piece, evoking Manet, a glass of Burgundy, springtime on the Loire.

But the Momenta players are far too individual for that. The opening theme was propelled out, and the movement had more iron than velvet. The second movement was equally lean and the finale coda showed them at their best.

Each movement had its delights, but the slow movement–almost a medieval orison–had a depth of artistry, giving chances for the personalities of the players. Again it was Mr. Haas with his clean upper register, and the full sounds of violist Stephanie Griffin. Nothing was sweet, and that middle was almost playful.

The entire program, though, had that sense of animation coming from four players who never let their digital chops overcome what was most essential. Their sense of elation, musical enunciation, and sheer joy.

Harry Rolnick



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