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Eric Nathan’s music receives sterling advocacy from Momenta Quartet and guests

September 20, 2014 at 12:25 pm
Eric Nathan's music was performed Friday night by the Momenta Quartet and guests at the Tenri Cultural Institute.

Eric Nathan’s music was performed Friday night by the Momenta Quartet and guests at the Tenri Cultural Institute.

Friday night at the Tenri Cultural Institute, the Momenta Quartet and a small handful of guest musicians presented a paragon of the concert-going experience: excellent music that was entirely fresh and new (to this listener), played with skill and élan.

The occasion was a “Composer Portrait”—not one from Miller Theatre but something exactly like that—a concert of music made by only one person, the young composer Eric Nathan. All the pieces were recent, from 2009 to 2013, and the format is ideal for hearing new and unfamiliar work. Nathan’s compositional voice came through with clarity, confidence and strength.

Nathan’s music is clear, consistently logical no matter how surprising the direction, and emotionally expressive without being simplistic or sentimental. His pieces are direct but not abrupt, and have the kind of excellent proportions that leave one thinking that the music ended exactly where his ideas finished.
The concert began with Four to One, played by Momenta, music inspired, in Nathan’s words, by the blazing autumn sunsets in upstate New York. The piece is certainly kaleidoscopic, but what impresses far more is how well written it is as pure music. Nathan likes to juxtapose two disparate chords to make complex harmonies, and he voices them so well that the results are never dense.

Nor are they harsh. They share some of the richness of Elliott Carter’s harmonies without Carter’s proud, obdurate edge. Nathan’s harmonic hues are bright, and he keeps his textures clear so that when a major or minor triad comes to the fore, it feels like a window has been opened to let in a cool breeze.

In Four to One, the harmonies are yoked to energetic rhythms that help structure the piece while they move it forward. The instruments trade off the beat and the accompaniment, and take turns with leading phrases. There are musical ideas that he lays out then brings back in a different instrument, and that delivers the satisfaction of hearing him form the piece as it goes along. The exploding energy of the fall sunset turns into something quieter and, expressively, far more brittle and haunted at the end—he seems always to be searching for something meaningful and beautiful.

Momenta’s playing throughout the concert was superb. They have an association with the composer that goes back to his DMA studies at Cornell, and they played with a balance of confidence and appreciation for the challenge and rewards of the music. They have an attractive sound, muscular and rough in the tradition of the Juilliard Quartet.

Oboist Peggy Pearson joined violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron, violist Stephanie Griffin, and cellist Michael Haas (violinist Adda Kridler sat out) for the Quartet for Oboe and Strings. This is a relatively simple piece: the strings accompany an extended, melodic solo from the oboe, but rather than homophony, the writing is inventively antiphonal. Each melodic statement is answered by a different, angular, upward moving riff, as if the strings are challenging the oboe to play something interesting over a new set of chords.

Pianist Mei Rui played the excellent Three by Three, music that manages to reconcile Gershwin with Ligeti, then tosses in a bit of Nancarrow at the end. The piece is in three movements, fast-slow-fast, with the outer movements demanding extrteme virtuosity.

Perpetual, opposing lines reminiscent of Ligeti’s “Désordre” Étude give way to crashing, jazzy chords that descend aggressively towards the bass line. The finale has a bit of boogie-woogie and the color and pace and rhythms recall Nancarrow’s player piano studies.

Rui was amazing at what seemed to be impossible, perpetual tempos. She was even more impressive in the second movement, “Lontano,” makred largo. The music is spare but exact, and Rui played the phrases and rhythms with consistent clarity.

Samuel Rhodes, late of the Juilliard Quartet, joined Momenta on viola for Omaggio a Gesualdo. Here Nathan worked further through his harmonic ideas, and the music added something from John Adams’ kit, the syncopated, perpetually rising scale. The effect is stimulating and agitating, and set up the revelatory beauty of the modal harmonies of Gesualdo’s “Ahi, disperata vita,” from the fifth book of madrigals. The chords flowed cooly and smoothly under a long, quiet, brittle tremolo, high in the first violin. The effect was ravishing and unsettling.

The finale—again for the quartet—Multitude, Solitude brought the concert to a closed circle. Like the first piece, this music begins with energy and activity before it slips into the shadow of introversion, growing quiet and silvery, with the players using harmonics and glissandos. The music is romantic and seems intensely personal, expressing powerful thoughts that he perhaps would rather not, or cannot, put into words.

The musicians are going into the studio this weekend to record all the music for an Albany release in the fall of 2015. It’s already a must buy.


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