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Momenta Quartet at the Freer

Since its founding in 2004, the Momenta Quartet has voraciously championed new music, averaging one world premiere for every two of its concerts. On Thursday night, the quartet brought that venturesome spirit to the free concert series in the Freer Gallery of Art’s Meyer Auditorium. The program, featuring music inspired by Buddhism, presented four pieces written within the last ten years — two commissioned by Momenta — along with one mid-century touchstone.

First was the String Quartet No. 4 (“Clouds Surging”) by Malaysian-born composer Kee Yong Chong (b. 1971). Though his program note cited a Buddhist poem about gazing up at clouds, the music seemed to carry listeners on an airborne journey through them. The two violinists were placed on either side of the audience, and this, together with an exhilarating use of dynamic contrast, created a true stereophonic immediacy. Momenta’s command of extended techniques was evident; often a rapid gesture began as a steely scratch on an instrument’s bridge, only to evanesce as a fluty whisper high on the fingerboard.

Four TEEN, by Ushio Torikai (b. 1952), presented a compelling psychological narrative based on the experience of walking through a Zen garden. String Quartet No. 2 (“The Flag Project”) by Huang Ruo (b. 1976) was inspired by the bright Buddhist prayer flags bestrewing many windswept Himalayan peaks. Each of the performers gamely doubled on a pair of Tibetan finger cymbals. At one point, the cello channeled the gruff intonations of monks beneath a brilliant din of bells; at other times, string bows were drawn across the cymbals to create a shimmering sound.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Momenta String Quartet offers music ‘Inspired by Buddhism’ (Washington Post, November 10)
After intermission, an intricately crafted, but somewhat dry, study of disquiet by Jason Kao Hwang (b. 1957), If We Live in Forgetfulness, We Die in a Dream, was followed by the String Quartet in Four Parts by John Cage (1912–1992). This bleak, subdued work was perhaps more radical than any of the newer pieces on the program. Having no hint of human feeling, its “melodies” seemed random (though the piece comes just before Cage fully embraced chance as the ruling principle in his music). An occasional snatch of what sounds like medieval chant only heightens the detached effect. Momenta performed it appropriately, with patient concentration and without expression.

Some pieces were accompanied by projected visual art, including an evocative video work by John Gurrin. These often beautiful images were displayed unobtrusively offstage. Apart from one unforgettable picture seeming to show two rows of spermatozoa facing off in a line of scrimmage, one’s focus could remain on the rich musical program and the Momenta Quartet’s first-rate performance.

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