By the Momenta Quartet | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Momenta—the plural of momentum. Four individuals in movement toward a common goal.
The string quartet as an instrumentation precedes Franz Joseph Haydn, but he elevated it to a genre. No longer about a melody and bass line with some filler in the middle, Haydn’s string quartets were the beginning of the progression toward four equal parts in the great works that followed—by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók—through to composers of the present day.
If the defining characteristic of the string quartet genre is democracy, it would stand to reason that string quartets should be fully democratic—not just in the music being played but also in the decision-making processes of the group. This is the founding principle of the Momenta Quartet. After all, one can’t have a “top down” structure in a group founded by a viola player!
Our programming policy is to support the musical interests of each member of the group. However, we are often faced with programming constraints from presenters. Our annual Momenta Festival—four consecutive concerts, each one curated by a different member of the quartet—is an antidote to that. We allow each other the freedom to program solo pieces, works for subsets of the quartet, and pieces including guests of our own choosing, and rely on the collective efforts of the quartet to raise money, get an audience, and make the event a success.
We devised the Momenta Festival in 2015 as a way to launch our debut album Similar Motion, building three of the programs around each of its three tracks. My first Momenta Festival program, “Music by Improvisers,” was an outlet for my main musical interest outside Momenta: avant-jazz. Gordon Beeferman and I premiered his Tunnel Visions (2015) for viola and piano, alongside an improvised duo with Mexican flutist Wilfrido Terrazas, a trio by Borey Shin, and quartets by Arthur Kampela and Yusef Lateef. Another festival highlight was playing Arnold Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon in a Spanish translation by Sebastián Zubieta, narrated by the Cuban rapper Telmary Díaz!
—Stephanie Griffin, violist
A driving force behind the Momenta Festival is the symbiosis between the individual and the collective. Imagine a group that not only wants you to keep your individual voice but actively encourages you to evolve it as a critical part of the group’s identity. This is Momenta’s core philosophy, and it has inspired my own Momenta Festival programming decisions year after year.
Since the festival began in 2015, I’ve been inspired to research new and underplayed solo violin works spanning five centuries. Aside from reducing rehearsal time for the whole quartet, programming solos gives us an outlet to explore pieces we might never, or only rarely, get a chance to perform. As four busy New York freelancers, we can’t easily make time for personal projects exploring all the non-quartet repertoire out there. If I ever release a solo album, paradoxically enough I’ll have my quartet to thank!
Momenta’s honoring of individual artistic vision also informs my festival programming for the quartet. One of my fondest memories is playing John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts alongside original video art by acclaimed Canadian artist John Gurrin. Other times I’ve drawn from Momenta-specific repertoire by an international array of composers who should be heard more widely: Kee Yong Chong (Malaysia); Ann Southam (Canada); Roberto Sierra (Puerto Rico); and key early modernist voices like Alejandro García Caturla (Cuba), Stefan Wolpe (Germany/U.S.), and Julián Carrillo (Mexico), whose complete quartets we are currently recording for Naxos.
Speaking of unique sounds, my past programs have featured everything from theremin (starring virtuoso thereminist Elizabeth Brown as the soprano in Schoenberg’s second string quartet) to gongs, water glasses, and shouting (in George Crumb’s Black Angels). But nothing tops the finale of “The Concert from Hell” from our first festival, where pianist and eminent Ives interpreter Gil Kalish (who had recently coached us during our Yellow Barn residency) joined us for Hallowe’en, a zany piece by the stubbornly individualist Charles Ives. Completing the cast was new-music violinist Gregory Fulkerson—for his bass drum debut. I’m still amazed that we pulled it off (and got a great review too). Here’s to many more Momenta Festivals to come!
—Emilie-Anne Gendron, violinist
Momenta Festival programs are not only a snapshot of each player’s musical interests, but also an opportunity to give the world second performances of works already premiered, as well as a hint at works we plan to perform again in the near future. These programs are often in flux until just a few months before the festival—right around the time we have to cement our ideas for marketing reasons!
Case in point: my latest program, whose concept began with Grażyna Bacewicz’s Second Piano Quintet. Though I initially struggled to build a program around it, I knew I found another piece for the evening after Momenta premiered Hirofumi Mogi’s In Memory of Perky Pat with hornist David Byrd-Marrow at the Music from Japan Festival last March. With David flying all the way in from Colorado, why not add Brahms’ Horn Trio? I titled the evening “Horn Fifths,” since it featured a horn and Bacewicz’s Quintet was rife with quintal harmonies—not “horn fifths,” but who’s checking?
Through a series of decisions guided by circumstance, my program ended up including a nod to my interest in contemporary Japanese music, a piece by a Polish female modernist whom I admire for her craftsmanship and creativity, and a great classic by Brahms, which also gave the rest of the quartet half an evening off!
—Alex Shiozaki, violinist
Each year we look forward to the Momenta Festival with excitement, but I will admit, also a hint of dread. We wonder why we’ve decided to perform four programs in four nights while also organizing the entire event ourselves. Questions creep in: Did we allow enough rehearsal time? Will audiences show up? What will they think of the latest adventurous program we’ve concocted? Why don’t we just space out these concerts like rational people?! At this point I like to remember our goals in creating the festival and also some of the things I’ve learned through the process.
The main goal of the festival is to support all of our individual musical interests, but the result has been that our audiences get a more personal glimpse of us as artists and people. Whether I am premiering a new work by a young composer or performing a Beethoven string quartet, I always strive to communicate and connect with the listener. Through each of the four programs, we share a little bit about ourselves: what we love to play, what kind of music we find interesting, what connections we see between different works on the program. Our core audience members who attend all four nights even remember our programs from previous festivals and draw connections from year to year. This is yet another way into the music, another angle to explore in personally connecting with our audiences.
The festival has taught me to be bold in programming choices and that audiences will be open to anything performed with conviction. Ensembles and presenters often pause when programming new works based on how they assume the audience will respond. But are our assumptions correct? The first festival featured an incredibly complex work by Arthur Kampela that I worried would mystify the audience, but in the end, people were riveted by its theatricality and unpredictability. On the opposite end of the spectrum, this year I programmed Valentin Silvestrov’s third string quartet but wondered if its understated and meditative nature would resonate. Multiple audience members told us how much they loved it. While I was wondering if my fifths and octaves were perfectly in tune, they were having a transcendent experience hearing the piece for the first time! In this way the festival really embodies what we value as a quartet: the joy and excitement of exploring the wide range of music available to musicians and audiences of today.
—Michael Haas, cellist