Momenta Festival IV: “Ocean Breakup” Curated by Stephanie Griffin

The Momenta Festival, an innovative series of four performances, showcases the Momenta Quartet’s ability not only as acclaimed performers, but also as insightful curators. The 2018 festival, now in its fourth year, allows each quartet member to craft a program that highlights his or her own musical interests. Violist Stephanie Griffin conceived of the “Ocean Breakup” program on October 15th, the second evening of the festival, which sought to explore the connection between tales of heartbreak and tales of the sea. The Americas Society’s performance space, something of a formal salon, provided an attractive setting for an evening of eclectic chamber music.

A quiet drone overtook the room as Griffin’s own Poem from Exile began the program, in an arrangement for six violas and cello. Immediately, we became enveloped in the warmth of this unique instrumentation. Griffin explained that she wrote the piece while in Hawaii, during hours of listening to the sea, which became apparent as individual violas slowly slid by each other, with dissonant passing moments becoming familiar chords, almost as if waves were calmly bobbing in the middle of the ocean rather than crashing on the shore. The communal viola timbre, and the cello’s additional depth, complemented each other in a way that felt tender and soothing. For even as the overlapping textures increased and intensified, the gentle lilt of the tranquil sea remained.

Momenta Quartet

Momenta Quartet

The ocean’s tranquility continued throughout Alba PotesOleajes, which draws upon traditional music of the Colombian Pacific Coast. Potes used songs from her native Colombia, which combine both Spanish and African influences, to center the melodic content of the piece. In the first movement, melodic fragments continuously end on high harmonics, an effect that is intended to imitate songs that end in high falsetto, sung by adults and children while rowing boats. The driving rhythmic energy of the second movement quickly changes character, with pizzicato interjections interrupting the melodic fragments of El makerule, a traditional song from the province of Chocó. The final movement’s melody, presented by the viola, comes from a song typically heard in the viewings of the houses of the dead. Griffin’s viola sang as gentle glissandi mimicked the vocal quality, with a melancholic tinge.

Just as the sea cannot remain calm for long, Guy Barash’s String Quartet No. 1 “Wrong Ocean,” brought us out of its tranquility and deep into its potential for violence. Throughout Wrong Ocean’s ten movements, the quartet drew upon their technical expertise, both as individuals and as an ensemble, with intricately interlocked conversation that seemed to highlight the idea inherent in their name Momenta, “four individuals in motion towards a common goal.” Each short movement, only 30 to 90 seconds in length, becomes a freestanding vignette, a brief sound world that is able to be highly jarring or disorienting because of its fleeting nature. Simultaneous interjections, angular jumps, sinuous melodies, and quivering rhythmic insistence alternate between cacophony and chatter, demonstrating not only the crashing waves, but also water’s intense force and power.

Carl Bettendorf’s Il y a l’Océan, brought us back to a peaceful ocean, but this time, one that was full of sorrow and pain. The spare world, which slowly moves from shimmering ethereal moments to rhythmic pizzicato, draws upon repeated figures and unvoiced sounds. A lovely homophonic middle section brought the members of Momenta Quartet together, but too soon did this dissipate, like the tide slowly retreating.

Ariadne Greif with Momenta Quartet at Momenta Festival IV

Ariadne Greif with Momenta Quartet at Momenta Festival IV–Photo by Nana Shi

After four works that were largely devoid of traditional harmony and song-like melodies, the final selection, Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, brought us into a completely different world. Griffin’s chamber arrangement for Momenta, plus an additional viola and harp, provided an intimacy over which Ariadne Greif’s clear soprano could soar, but Wagner’s lush Romantic writing seemed somehow out of place after four contemporary selections written between 2003 and 2018.

Though Griffin, Bettendorf, and Barash’s works had apparently been written during romantic breakups, none seemed particularly sonically-indicative of heartbreak. Rather, each seemed aurally positioned toward a different view of the ocean—calm and consoling, vast and infinite, or wild and spiteful. Potes’ work did not touch upon loss of love at all, so the Wagner seemed alone in its representation of lost love. Griffin’s curatorial idea was compelling, if a bit forced. However, the evening excelled in execution, for the Momenta Quartet proved their ability to bring vastly different works to life flawlessly and with extreme care.