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Momenta Quartet [Photo by João Magalhães]
04 Oct 2016

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

A review by Rebecca Lentjes

Above: Momenta Quartet

Photos by João Magalhães

 

Notes and sounds by Prabowo, Matthew Greenbaum, Wang Lu, and Leoš Janáček had vibrated against our eardrums before dissolving into the air; our cups of beer (custom-brewed by Sam Burlingame to pair with the chamber opera) had been drained and now sat empty in our hands. These words, which Prabowo had set from a love poem by Goenawan Mohamad, seemed to encapsulate the theme of the evening: the intensity and inherent transience of passion, love, and friendship—stories that are written in fire, but inevitably forgotten or erased.

Prabowo’s chamber opera, for string quartet and two vocalists, was composed in 2005 specially for the Momenta Quartet, the ethnomusicologist and experimental vocalist Nyak Ina Raseuki (aka Ubiet), and a Western-style soprano (which part was sung by Arnold in this performance). Mohamed’s text was not carved out into set divisions but rather freely shared and vaulted between the two vocalists. Some phrases were sung while others were spoken in a low guttural chant. Both Ubiet and Arnold overwhelmed the intimate space and boxed-in acoustics of the Tenri Cultural Center with sounds that seemed to defy the limitations of the human body. The rate of their vocal exchanges accelerated until the final two stanzas, which they sang in a silken, glossy unison: a fitting (and exquisite) embodiment of the ephemerality of human connection. The Momenta Quartet wended their way through extensive string passagework during periodic interludes that were so whispery they hurt your ears, but in a good way.

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Before the opera, the Quartet had performed three works selected by violist Stephanie Griffin. Each member of the quartet curated a night of the Festival, with Griffin’s “Written in Fire” the only of the four to feature a woman composer. The world première of Wang Lu’s Double Trance, commissioned for the Festival, was an exploration of a less straightforward, more fragmented kind of passion that felt real and honest. Its piece was inspired by the “desperation and resignation” Lu witnessed in a Piero della Francesca fresco on her recent travels through Rome. Its heterogenous texture comprised of crunchy groans, plucks, strained shrieks, tremolos, and stratospheric cello overtones. Prabowo’s imagery is full of movement (“Sometimes I want us to fall, like butterflies falling from a branch before the certainty of death”); Lu’s is an abstract assemblage of frozen moments, a scattering of puzzle pieces in which one can glimpse a beautiful whole.

More homogenous in texture was Matthew Greenbaum’s Castelnau, a 2002 quartet which was the first piece ever written for the Quartet. The piece felt like listening to a more distant kind of passion, or perhaps passion through the lens of nostalgia. Phrases echoed from instrument to instrument in overlapping shreds of sound like conversations relived obsessively in one’s head, before eventual unisons and the long draggy chords of forgiveness (or forgetfulness). Janáček’s Intimate Letters of 1927–1928 fit the theme most explicitly; the quartet was composed in the last years of the Czech composer’s life, offering a musicalized narration of the 600 love letters he had written to his married muse, Kamila. The quartet made me laugh on multiple occasion, from its tonal opening (always jarring at a new music concert) to the totally loony cascading delirium of the entire fourth movement. The soaring viola lines of the second movement—meant to portray Janáček’s beloved—were executed brilliantly by Griffin, who glowed all evening.

Rebecca Lentjes

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