Momenta Quartet Festival Struts Its Stuff

As the old saying goes, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” From September 30 through October 4, 2015, the increasingly busy and well established Momenta Quartet lived this proverb in near excess, having organized the first ever Momenta Festival to celebrate the release of the ensemble’s debut recording, Similar Motion, now available from Albany Records.

Each night of the festival was programmed variably by one of the quartet’s members, drawing from their personal experiences and inspirations in both the traditional canon and newly commissioned works.  While the scale and breadth of programming seemed somewhat daunting, there remained a kind of fundamental unity in these explorations, rooted in the question, “What is the Momenta Quartet?”

Throughout the four-day event, Momenta proposed many solutions to this question by skillfully navigating over four centuries of repertoire, from Tomas de Victoria, Claude Debussy and Charles Ives to an exhaustive list of contemporary works and premieres by D.J. Sparr, Dan Visconti, Michael Small, Gordon Beeferman, Wilfrido Terrazas, Yusef Lateef and Borey Shin. The personal taste of each curator kept the contrast fresh from evening to evening, opening with violinists Adda Kridler and Emilie-Anne Gendron’s dedication to 20th century chromaticism, drifting back to the 16th and 18th centuries with cellist Michael Haas and reemerging with fiery resolve in a 21st century defined by hyper-complexity and free improvisation under the bow of violist Stephanie Griffin.

Momenta Quartet-- Photo by John Gurrin

Momenta Quartet– Photo by John Gurrin

Nothing ever felt out of place or misrepresented, and each night bolstered Momenta’s striking originality in a way that words could only confound, and yet clearly answered the question this fine ensemble had posed. While the extensive list of young and emerging composers produced an impressive array of challenging works, the highlight of the festival for me was in an old favorite, George Crumb’s astrological masterpiece, Black Angels.

Complimenting the festival’s eccentric journey, Momenta’s debut recording, Similar Motion, seeks to answer “What is the Momenta Quartet” in analogous fashion. Bounding skillfully through three contrasting works (each performed in turn over the course of the festival), opening with Philip Glass’s Music in Similar Motion (originally scored for large orchestra, in this case reduced to string quintet), Arthur Kampela’s impossibly complex, Uma Faca Só Lámina (‘A Knife All Blade’) and concluding with Claude Debussy’s well known String Quartet in g-minor. In this more limited context, the exposition of Momenta’s self-exploration does feel somewhat abbreviated, and the placement of Kampela’s ferocious piece feels a bit far fetched. Striving for the very personal stylistic clarity of similar works like those of Helmut Lachenmann or Brian Ferneyhough but feeling somewhat less focused, Momenta’s special dedication to learning Kampela’s work over the course of two years seems to communicate a greater statement than the piece itself. Nonetheless, as a unit, this recoding is a highly worthwhile listen.

And that question as to what Momenta is; both this excellent recording and the inaugural Momenta Festival (hopefully the first of many) have shown that Momenta possesses an honest and heartfelt dedication to exploring this question without yielding to a gimmick or tag line. A sum of inspiration and personal discovery that operates beyond the boundaries of period or aesthetic. A group that has not decided what making music has to be, and so continues to find new ways to push the possibilities.