Momenta Quartet and the Momenta Festival

BlogCritics reviews Momenta Festival

Concert Review: Momenta Quartet Plays Ligeti, Partch, and a Roberto Sierra World Premiere (Oct 16, 2019)

Jon Sobel

The Momenta String Quartet gave each of its members an evening to curate during this year’s edition of the ensemble’s Momenta Festival. Despite a heavy rainstorm, a sizable audience turned out for the “Night Dances” concert curated by first violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron. While her inspiration may have lain in the shadows, the energy was bright during a program of fascinating music by legendary 20th-century iconoclast Harry Partch, modernist icon György Ligeti, and others. Notable was the world premiere of an intense piece written for the Momenta Quartet by the eminent Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra – who can count Ligeti as one of his teachers.

It’s hard to imagine Sierra, who was in attendance, being anything but delighted by the debut of his “Cuarteto para Cuerdas (String Quartet) No. 3.” A thoughtful and virtuosic showpiece, with five flowing movements built around a single nine-note scale, it leaps off the page with tricky rhythms right from the start. A percussive and densely harmonic “Cantando” second movement opens the way for the intriguing fits and starts of the “Rapidísimo” third. The final movements boil together with untrackable (yet somehow playable) rhythms. Altogether it’s a brilliantly constructed contiguous whole that leaves the listener metaphorically breathless.

The musicians’ convincing reading made Sierra’s new baby a fitting counterweight to the big beast of the concert’s second half, Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, “Métamorphoses nocturnes.” This work demands a great variety of techniques and colors, which the musicians achieved with a warm humanism matching their technical mastery.

As the instruments traded off on the simple main theme in the final section, sometimes straightforwardly, sometimes in reverse, sometimes with slides, the theme’s wild variations and developments, which had formed the meat of the piece, came back to me in a satisfying recall (including a sort-of-cubist waltz). This youthful work may predate the full flowering of the composer’s personal language, but it fully deserves its place in the 20th-century canon, as the Momenta’s accomplished performance demonstrated.

Harry Partch was surely one of the last century’s most unusual musical spirits, defying most conventions and composing for instruments of his own invention. Gendron chose to open the concert with an arrangement for string quartet by Ben Johnston of Partch’s “Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales.” These folksy miniatures featured playful melodies with startling use of just intonation, evoking in a humble but effortless way the weirdness of the large 44-string resonating boxes called the Harmonic Canon II for which Partch originally wrote them.

The Ligeti and Partch on the program drew me to this concert, but I was pleased to hear music by Erwin Schulhoff as well. This Czech-German-Jewish composer who perished in the Holocaust is little heard today. I first encountered his music on the Jerusalem Quartet’s recent Yiddish Cabaret album (reviewed here), which included Schulhoff’s spirited “Five Pieces for String Quartet.” Gendron of the Momenta performed a piece I hadn’t heard before, Schulhoff’s 1927 “Sonata for Violin Solo.” Playing a modern violin that sounded both fulsome and intimate in the Americas Society‘s small concert hall, she regaled us with magnificent fiddling in this colorful, barnburning music.

As if the pieces described above didn’t offer enough variety, the night-inspired program also included Mario Lavista’s String Quartet No. 2 “Reflejos de la noche” (1984), comprised entirely (with the exception of some lighthearted squeaks) of harmonics. So of course it’s a quiet piece, but its suggestions of bird and insect sounds are punctuated by siren wails. The single movement develops into a kind of skewed pastoral, with a surprisingly wide variety of colors (given the restrictions of harmonics), and tugged in unexpected directions by blue notes.

The Momenta musicians played this innovative (if somewhat overlong) work with sensitivity and charm, as they did the entire program. Their festival wraps up Oct. 18 and 19 with concerts at the Tenri Cultural Institute. Visit the Momenta’s website for information on upcoming concerts, and the Americas Society website for its calendar of upcoming musical events.

Lucid Culture reviews Momenta Festival

Things Go Bump in the Night With the Momenta Quartet

It’s extremely rare that an artist or group make the front page here more than once in a single week. But today, because the Momenta Quartet play such stylistically diverse, consistently interesting music, they’ve earned that distinction – just like the Kronos Quartet have, on two separate occasions, since this blog went live in 2007. Some people are just a lot more interesting than others.

This year’s annual Momenta Festival is in full swing, with its usual moments of transcendence and blissful adrenaline. The Momenta Quartet’s violist Stephanie Griffin programmed night one; night two, violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron took charge. As she put it, the theme was “Lively things that happen at night.” She wasn’t kidding.

Maybe, to provide a little break for her bandmates – who also include violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – Gendron supplied a major portion of the adrenaline with an irresistible romp through Erwin Schulhoff’s rarely performed Sonata For Violin Solo. Throughout its eclectic shifts from evocations of Appalachian, Middle Eastern, Asian and rustic Romany music, she swayed and practically clogdanced at one point, and that vivacity was contagious.

The high point of the night was one of the group’s innumerable world premieres, Roberto Sierra‘s sublimely shapeshifting, relentlessly bustling Cuarteto Para Cuerdas No. 3. Flurrying, almost frantic interludes juxtaposed with brief, uneasily still moments and all sorts of similarly bracing challenges for the group: slithery harmonics, microtonal haze spiced with fleeting poltergeist accents, finally a wry series of oscillations from Haas and a savagely insistent coda. Distant references to boleros, and a less distant resemblance to restless, late 50s Charles Mingus urban noir drove a relentless tension forward through a rollercoaster of sudden dynamic changes. There were cameras all over the room: somebody please put this up on youtube where it will blow people’s minds!

There was even more on Gendron’s bill, too. The hypnotic horizontality and subtle development of playful minimalist riffs of Mario Lavista’s String Quartet No. 2 were no less difficult to play for their gauzy microtonality and almost total reliance on harmonics. Harry Partch’s Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales have a colorful history: originally written for the composer’s own 88-string twin-box invention, the Harmonic Canon II, the Momentas played the string quartet arrangement by the great microtonal composer Ben Johnston, a Partch protege. Part quasi Balkan dance, part proto horror film score, the group made the diptych’s knotty syncopation seem effortless.

They closed with Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1, subtitled “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.” The ensemble left no doubt that this heavily Bartokian 1953 piece was all about war, and its terror and lingering aftershock (Ligeti survived a Nazi death camp where two of his family were murdered). The similarities with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8 – which it predated by six years – were crushingly vivid. If anything, Ligeti’s quartet is tonally even harsher. In the same vein as the Sierra premiere, these dozen movements required daunting extended technique. Which in this case meant shrieking intensity, frantic evasion of the gestapo, (musical and otherwise) and deadpan command of withering sarcasm and parodies of martial themes. All that, and a crushing, ever-present sense of absence.

The 2019 Momenta Festival winds up tonight, Oct 19 at 7 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St., with a playful program assembled by Shiozaki, including works by Mozart, toy pianist Phyllis Chen (who joins the ensemble), glass harmonica wizard Stefano Gervasoni and an excerpt from Griffin’s delightfully adult-friendly children’s suite, The Lost String Quartet. Admission is free but you should rsvp if you’re going.

New York Music Daily reviews opening night at the 2019 Momenta Festival

Transcendent Rarities and World Premieres to Open The 2019 Momenta Festival

by delarue

A few months ago at a panel discussion at a major cultural institution, a nice mature lady in the crowd asked a famous podcaster – such that a podcaster in the 21st century serious-music demimonde can be famous, anyway – what new composers she should be listening to. Given a prime opportunity to bigup her favorites, the podcaster completely dropped the ball. She hedged. But if she’d thought about the question, she could have said, with complete objectivity, “Just go see the Momenta Quartet. They have impeccable taste, and pretty much everything they do is a world premiere.”

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the annual Momenta Festival, and the fifteenth for the quartet themselves. There was some turnover in the early years, but the current lineup of violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, violist Stephanie Griffin and cellist Michael Haas has solidified into one of the world’s major forces in new music. Opening night of the 2019 Momenta Festival was characteristically enlightening and often genuinely transcendent.

Each of the quartet’s members takes a turn programming one of the festival’s four nights; Griffin, the only remaining member from the original trio that quickly grew into a fearsome foursome, took charge of the opening festivities. Each festival has a theme: this year’s is a retrospective, some of the ensemble’s greatest hits.

In a nod to their trio origins, Shiozaki, Griffin and Haas opened with Mario Davidovsky’s 1982 String Trio. Its central dynamic contrasted sharp, short figures with lingering ambience, the three musicians digging into its incessant, sometimes striking, sometimes subtle changes in timbre and attack.

The night’s piece de resistance was Julian Carrillo’s phantasmagorical, microtonal 1959 String Quartet No. 10, a piece the Momentas basically rescued from oblivion. Alternate tunings, whispery harmonics and a strange symmetric logic pervaded the music’s slowly glissandoing rises and falls, sometimes with a wry, almost parodic sensibility. But at other times it was rivetingly haunting, lowlit with echo effects, elegaic washes underpinned by belltone cello and a raptly hushed final movement with resonant, ambered, mournfully austere close harmonies.

In typical Momenta fashion, they played a world premiere, Alvin Singleton‘s Hallelujah Anyhow. Intriguing variations on slowly rising wave-motion phrases gave way to stricken, shivering pedal notes from individual voices in contrast with hazy sustain, then the waves returned, artfully transformed. Haas’ otherworldly, tremoloing cello shortly before the coy, sudden pizzicato ending was one of the concert’s high points.

After a fond slideshow including shots of seemingly all of the violinists who filtered through the group in their early years, conductor David Bloom and baritone Nathaniel Sullivan joined them for another world premiere commission, Matthew Greenbaum’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a setting of Walt Whitman poetry. The program notes mentioned that the text has special resonance for the composer, considering that he grew up close to where the old ferry left Manhattan and now resides across the river near the Brooklyn landing. Brain drain out of Manhattan much?

It took awhile to gel. At first, the music didn’t seem to have much connection to the text, and the quartet and the vocals seemed to be in alternate rhythmic universes – until about the time Sullivan got to the part cautioning that it is not “You alone who know what it is to be evil.” At that point, the acerbic, steady exchange of voices latched onto a tritone or two and some grimly familiar, macabre riffage, which fell away for longer, rainy-day sustained lines.

The Momenta Festival continues tonight, Oct 16 at 7 PM at the Americas Society, 680 Park Ave at 70th St. with works by Harry Partch, Mario Lavista, Roberto Sierra, Gyorgy Ligeti and Erwin Schulhoff programmed by Gendron. How much does this fantastic group charge for tickets? Fifty bucks? A hundred? Nope. Admission is free but a rsvp is very highly advisable.

Amsterdam News features Alvin Singleton premiere at Momenta Festival

Prolific composer Alvin Singleton talks upcoming work, ‘Black culture’ as ‘American culture’


Alvin Singleton was a kid with access in the midtwentieth century close-knit Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of his childhood. “Where I grew up,” he explains in an interview with Amsterdam News, “there were a lot of jazz musicians. I had friends in their families so I used to go to their rehearsals.” That informal exposure became the foundation for what became Alvin Singleton’s international career as an award-winning musical composer.

He studied music composition at New York University and Yale University and was a Fulbright Scholar in Rome. After returning to the U.S., after living in Europe for almost 15 years, he was Composer-in-Residence with the Atlanta Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Ritz Chamber Players and Spelman College. Singleton still spends much of his time in Atlanta.

Momenta Quartet will premiere Singleton’s Chamber Music America-commissioned piece “Hallelujah Anyhow” at Americas Society in New York City on Oct. 15. It will be part of the fifth annual Momenta Festival, a series of four concerts with diverse programs curated by the members of Momenta Quartet. Admission is free, but reservations are strongly recommended.

Singleton’s parents also played a significant role in his decision to become a musician. “They made me learn an instrument and I chose piano. Eventually, I learned to play jazz.” Singleton’s experience with jazz led to an interest in composing music. He enrolled in the New York College of Music (now part of NYU) where he began studying music composition. “I didn’t really categorize myself. I had begun listening to classical pieces and I knew there were a lot of Black composers.” Singleton joined the Society of Black Composers, which further fueled his fascination.

Singleton demurs when described as a composer of classical music. “I know that I write music. I’m a composer. So, categorization always gets us in trouble because it defines us very narrowly.”

When asked to describe “Hallelujah Anyhow,” he is characteristically reluctant to do so. “When people ask me about the titles for my pieces, I always say titles are for identification, not explanation. To know the music, you have to listen to it.”

The process of composing “Hallelujah Anyhow” was unexpectedly interrupted by a health scare. Singleton shares, “This piece took quite a long time,” he says, “because I had to have heart bypass surgery last year. It came out of nowhere because I didn’t have a heart attack or anything, I just had a blockage.”

He will, however, share his thoughts on some of his works that are relatively special to him. He has admitted that his “After Fallen Crumbs” was dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. due to King’s focus on helping

the poor.

The prolific Singleton will also share that he is particularly proud of “Shadows,” which he wrote for orchestra. “When I go back and examine it I see ideas that I was using that I didn’t realize at the moment. When I go over early music, I see ideas that aren’t fully developed because I was still developing. The more I write, the more I mature. In fact, I’m still developing even at this age.”

Perhaps because of his special connection to “Shadows,” Singleton has ventured to describe it in a past interview as, “An idea based upon different-sized spinning tops, each having its own little melody, and they intersect and shadow one another as the work develops.”

The general acknowledgment that Black American culture is an integral part of U.S. culture itself is something Singleton is excited about. In part borne out by recent developments such as the announcement by The Met that it will present Terence Blanchard’s opera based on New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s memoirs “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” the first time in the storied institution’s history that it will present an opera by a Black composer. The libretto is by writer and filmmaker Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”). “I think it’s about time, first of all,” Singleton says. “Secondly, it’s about the music. There are plenty of Black composers writing really good music but they don’t get the opportunity to be invited to be composers. Slowly but surely Black culture is being recognized as true American culture. I can’t imagine this country without Black people.”

Momenta Festival featured in The New Yorker

Any good string-quartet performance demonstrates the capacity for four individuals to meld their distinct personalities into a group identity and sound. The Momenta Festival serves notice that the reverse is also true, as each member of this excellent quartet—the violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, the violist Stephanie Griffin, and the cellist Michael Haas—programs a free concert. Taken together, they provide a kaleidoscopic view of the group’s inner urges. The first two programs, curated by Griffin and Gendron, respectively, present a fascinating mix of works, including world premières by Alvin Singleton, Matthew Greenbaum, and Roberto Sierra; the next set follows on Oct. 18-19, at Tenri Cultural Institute.

Steve Smith

October 15-19: Momenta Festival V

In celebration of its 15th Anniversary, Momenta Quartet presents: Momenta Festival V - October 15, 16, 18 & 19

Four concerts each curated by a different quartet member

Admission is free for all Momenta Festival concerts Reservations strongly encouraged for events at Americas Society October 15 & October 16

"[the Momenta Festival] has become one of the most amazingly eclectic, never mind herculean feats attempted by any chamber ensemble in this city..." - New York Music Daily

October 15-19, 2019: Momenta Quartet presents the Momenta Festival at Americas Society and Tenri Cultural Institute. The fifth edition of the Festival features five premieres (four world premieres and one NYC premiere). Admission to all concerts is free. The festival features four diverse chamber music programs each curated by a different member of the quartet. With programs that blend the old and new, the "intriguing programming" (The New York Times) and "striking originality" (I Care If You Listen) of the Momenta Festival have been acclaimed by critics and fans alike.

The 2019 festival opens at Americas Society on October 15 with a retrospective on 15 years of the Momenta Quartet, featuring guest conductor David Bloom, vocalist Brad Walker and curated by violist Stephanie Griffin. The performance includes the world premiere of Alvin Singleton's Chamber Music America commission as well as the late Mario Davidovsky's String Trio. The music continues on October 16 with the program “Night Dances” curated by violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron and featuring works by Roberto Sierra and Gyorgy Ligeti. The festival moves downtown to the Tenri Cultural Institute for the final two concerts. On October 18, cellist Michael Haas’ program “American Voices” features a world premiere by Christopher Stark and a New York premiere by Alyssa Weinberg. The festival concludes on October 19 with the program “Toy Stories” curated by violinist Alex Shiozaki. Momenta is joined by toy pianist Phyllis Chen in a program inspired by the recent birth of Shiozaki’s first child. The evening ends with a performance of Mozart's String Quartet K. 387, a consonent conclusion to a wildly diverse quartet of programs.

"We founded this festival in 2015 as an artistic outlet for each of our individual musical interests," says Momenta violist Stephanie Griffin. "I continue to be surprised to discover new pieces and composers that my Momenta colleagues introduce me to through this festival."

Admission to all concerts is free. Reservations strongly encouraged for events at Americas Society October 15 & October 16

Momenta Quartet's 2019 Momenta Festival

Fifteen Years of Momenta: A Retrospective - curated by Stephanie Griffin

Tuesday, October 15 at 7:00 pm

Americas Society

680 Park Ave., NYC

Free admission

Momenta Festival V opens with a celebration of Momenta’s 15th anniversary with selected milestones from their unique and eclectic personal repertoire along with world premieres by Matthew Greenbaum (conducted by David Bloom) and the Chamber Music America commission of Alvin Singleton. The Momenta Quartet is joined by bass-baritone Brad Walker.


Mario Davidovsky: String Trio

Julian Carrillo: String Quartet no. 10

Alvin Singleton: Hallelujah Anyhow CMA Commission WORLD PREMIERE

Matthew Greenbaum: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry for baritone and string quartet WORLD PREMIERE, text by Walt Whitman

Guest artists: baritone Brad Walker and conductor David Bloom

Night Dances - curated by Emilie-Anne Gendron

Wednesday, October 16 at 7:00 pm

Americas Society

680 Park Ave., NYC

Free admission

"Dreamy and hallucinatory works inspired by or evocative of night music- contrasts of darkness and light, mysterious atmospheres and manipulations of time, extremes of character and emotion." This is how violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron describes her program which features the world premiere of Roberto Sierra's String Quartet no.3 - written for and dedicated to Momenta. Also on the program is Ligeti's raucous and colorful String Quartet no.1, music by Harry Partch arranged by the late Ben Johnston, and more.


Roberto Sierra: String Quartet no. 3 WORLD PREMIERE

Gyorgy Ligeti: String Quartet no. 1 “Metamorphoses nocturnes"

Mario Lavista: String Quartet no. 2 "Reflejos de la noche"

Harry Partch (arr. Ben Johnston): Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales

Erwin Schulhoff: Sonata for solo violin

American Voices - curated by Michael Haas

Friday, October 18 at 7:00 pm

Tenri Cultural Institute

43a W.13th St., NYC

Free admission

Featuring the world premiere of Christopher Stark's Seasonal Music, the New York premiere of Alyssa Weinberg's Still Life for clarinet and string quartet, as well as music by Manena Contreras and Jason Kao Hwang - American Voices highlights music all written in the past 15 years.


Manena Contreras: Instantes

Alyssa Weinberg: Still Life for clarinet and string quartet NYC PREMIERE

Jason Kao Hwang: If We Live in Forgetfulness, We Die in a Dream

Christopher Stark: Seasonal Music WORLD PREMIERE

Guest artist: clarinetist Eric Umble

Toy Stories - curated by Alex Shiozaki

Saturday, October 19 at 7:00 pm

Tenri Cultural Institute

43a W.13th St., NYC

Free admission

Toy Stories is inspired by a recent, life-changing event that I experienced on May 2, 2019: the birth of my son. While I have long been interested in the unconventional sounds of toy instruments, this year’s festival seemed like the right time for a 'toy program'." - Alex Shiozaki. For the final concert of the 2019 festival, the Momenta Quartet is joined by toy pianist Phyllis Chen.


Stephanie Griffin: "Happy Car Ride" from The Lost String Quartet

Stefano Gervasoni: Adagio ghiacciato da Mozart, KV 356 for toy piano and violin

Phyllis Chen: The Matter Within for deconstructing toy piano, toy piano tines, and string quartet

Mozart: String Quartet No. 14 in G major, K387

Guest artist: toy pianist Phyllis Chen

Momenta: the plural of momentum - four individuals in motion towards a common goal. This is the idea behind the Momenta Quartet, whose eclectic vision encompasses contemporary music of all aesthetic backgrounds alongside great music from the recent and distant past. The New York City-based quartet has premiered over 150 works, collaborated with over 200 living composers and was praised by The New York Times for its "diligence, curiosity and excellence." In the words of The New Yorker's Alex Ross, "few American players assume Haydn's idiom with such ease."

Momenta has appeared at such prestigious venues as the Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery, Rubin Museum, Miller Theatre at Columbia University, the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Washington University in St. Louis, Ostrava Days in the Czech Republic, and at the internationally renowned Cervantino Festival in Mexico. Momenta has recorded for Centaur Records, Furious Artisans, PARMA, New World Records, and Albany Records; and has been broadcast on WQXR, Q2 Music, Austria's Oe1, and Vermont Public Radio.

ConcertoNet reviews Momenta Festival "Canciones"

ConcertoNet reviews Momenta Festival "Canciones"

For New York music-lovers, the holiday season is signified not by turkeys or costumes or Kris Kringles, but by the Momenta Festival.

New Yorker previews Momenta Festival

New Yorker previews Momenta Festival

This year’s programs focus, respectively, on music with words, tides literal and emotional, disparate aural terrains, and strength in numbers.

October 13-19: Announcing the 2018 Momenta Festival

October 13-19: Announcing the 2018 Momenta Festival

October 13-19: Announcing the 2018 Momenta Festival