Norgard: String Quartet No. 3 (Three Miniatures)
Norgard: String Quartet No. 8 (Night)
Norgard: String Quartet No. 5 (Inscape)
Norgard: Tjampuan (Where the Rivers Meet)
Norgard: String Quartet No. 10 (Harvest Timeless)
As luck would have it, just as I was marveling at the exceptional talent of contemporary Danish composer Per Norgard after the New York Philharmonic's vibrant performance of his Symphony No. 8 a week earlier, I was able to become more acquainted with his impressive œuvre, including his intriguing "infinity series", thanks to the timely three-day mini-festival "Norgard in New York", of which I regretfully could attend only the second night, at Scandinavia House. It turned out, however, to be a night to remember.
As it was, the program looked like a well-balanced mix of substantial works and less significant pieces, which all together formed a compelling smorgasbord. And to make the offer even more attractive, the Momenta Quartet, whose strong dedication to international avant-garde music and superior musicianship have been well proven for a while now, would logically enough be the ensemble in charge of the performance.
After a short video featuring Norgard talking about his constant search in music, the concert started with the US premiere of his 1959 String Quartet No. 3, and while the "Three Miniatures" were indeed short-lived, they nevertheless delivered an illuminating punch into the composer's mindset at the time, with each musician getting to play their own little melody that brilliantly developed into delightfully original patterns before it all ended on a refreshing whimsical note.
We stayed in a light-hearted mood and fast-forwarded almost five decades for "Playground", an immediately engaging piece for solo violin that, in Emilie-Anne Gendron's expert hands, turned out to be a highly rhythmical, blazingly virtuosic treat that vividly expressed children's spontaneity, feistiness and unspoiled sense of fun.
But then the atmosphere grew darker for the US premiere of his 1997 String Quartet No. 8. Drawn from Norgard's chamber opera Nuit des Hommes, which itself is an abstract work about World War I based on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, "Night Descending Like Smoke" was an emotionally gripping journey that relentlessly moved from eerie tensions to severe turbulences. The Momenta Quartet gave a haunting, assured and richly rewarding performance of the challenging composition, during which they once again clearly demonstrated their outstanding skills.
After a well-deserved intermission, we moved back to 1969 for the US premiere of the String Quartet No. 5. Finely crafted and inconspicuously hypnotic, "Inscape" started unabashedly minimalist and generated a myriad of subtly intricate sounds before finally launching into a joyful, earthy episode in the best folk music tradition.
Next we had another US premiere with "Tjampuan", a lighter work from 1992 that highlighted Norgard's keen interest in Indonesian culture. Both violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas did an excellent job brightly impersonating the two rivers of the title, each resolutely following its own course until they eventually met toward the end.
The concert concluded with the 2015 String Quartet No. 10 ("Harvest Timeless"), a more traditional, but still endlessly inventive composition that had the composer's trademark microtones, but also flowed more freely before slowly fading away. The Momenta Quartet's playing was impeccably precise and smooth as they leisurely took us across various melodic landscapes in a successful and timeless combination of classical and contemporary music.