You might not normally expect to hear the amplified sound of dripping water during a string quartet performance, but the sound – which provided a sonic complement to the image of rain falling in sheets outside – was strangely fitting during a Summergarden concert by the Ansonia Quartet at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Sunday night. A persistent downpour had pushed the concert indoors to the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby rather than its intended location, the sculpture garden on the other side of the Garden Lobby’s glass wall. Every summer in since 1971, MoMA’s Summergarden series has provided weekly free concerts in the sculpture garden (or, in the case of bad weather, the Garden Lobby), and continues to make music that frequently fields accusations of “elitism” accessible to anyone willing & able to wait in line for an hour or so.
This year’s series is titled “New Music for New York,” and features two programs of contemporary classical music and two evenings of jazz (the final concert will take place on July 29, and features the Matthew Shipp Trio). The contemporary classical music performances, curated by Joel Sachs, were performed by the New Juilliard Ensemble and the Ansonia Quartet. The latter of these, which consists of violinists Sumire Hirotsuru and Byungchan Lee, violist Jocelin Pan, and cellist Isabel Kwon, brought a challenging program of two world premieres and two (probable) New York premieres to the ears of a diverse and enthused audience taking refuge from the rain on July 22.
The amplified water droplets were heard during Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Oasis (1998), for string quartet and recorded sound, after a brief pause halfway through the concert. (The piece was heard in its “probable” New York premiere; as Sachs explained before the concert, copies of the score that have been floating around might have resulted in a prior New York performance.) Ali-Zadeh was born and grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan, where she was discouraged from studying traditional music due to the political climate; instead she studied Western-style composition, piano, and musicology. She now divides her time between Baku and Berlin, composing chamber and orchestral music that now incorporates traditional Azerbaijani musical principles alongside Western modes of composition.
Oasis is part of Ali-Zadeh’s Silk Road cycle, and according to its author is meant to depict an oasis imagined by desert travelers, also evoking the “mellifluous singing” of a ghazal (a type of classical Azerbaijani love poem). The work moves in a circular form, beginning and ending with the recorded sound of water dripping paired with ever-so-light first violin pizzicato. These opening lilty plucks were eventually joined by plucks and high tones from the other instruments; the high tones became more and more sustained until finally I noticed that the water drops had stopped and the sound world was brimming with the timbres of the four instruments melting together. Ali-Zadeh’s use of recorded sound in the middle of the piece felt a bit incohesive, with its clutter of indistinct rumbles, whispers, and moans interrupting the otherwise stunning symmetry and coherent imaginative world of the piece.
Oasis was followed by Paul Desenne’s muddled yet lively Diásporas (2017), heard on Sunday in its world premiere. Desenne, who was born in Caracas and was a founding member of the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra, incorporates Latin American sounds and ideas into his music. Diásporas consists of a hodgepodge of sounds and musical references, resulting in what Desenne refers to as “traditional music from nowhere, even more unrooted than academic music: the real feeling of diaspora.” Although the idea of “traditional music from nowhere” is somewhat problematic – Desenne’s sonic references clearly “place” his musical world, and I’m not sure that attempting to erase the roots of traditional musics is productive – his wonky hybridized quartet can be heard as a successful musicalization of diaspora.
Starting with a “Minute Dance” dedicated to the memory of Eugenio Toussaint, the quartet moves through and across time and geographies in its evocation of klezmer music, Erik Satie’s late 19th-century piano compositions, tango, and Afro-Venezuelan rhythmic counterpoint, finally culminating in a “Tanganadanza” (literally “brawl-dance”), which was the most horizontally and harmonically compelling movement of the work. Its brash yet careful footwork veered chaotically into our ears before its final flourish; the audience might have been exhausted after such a rich and disjointed sonic journey, yet still burst into enthusiastic applause.
The first (and stronger) half of the concert consisted of John Woolrich’s String Quartet No. 6–Badinerie (2017) and Lei Liang’s Gobi Gloria (2006). Where Ali-Zadeh’s and Desenne’s pieces both felt a tad long-winded, Woolrich managed to convey a thoroughly captivating musical journey (what he describes as “broken shards of music, glued together to make a single movement”) into a ten-minute single-movement work. Woolrich, who was born and currently works in the U.K., is notably not very chatty about his compositions; yet his description of Badinerie (which is one of a group of six quartets, and was heard Sunday in its world premiere) is spot-on. The Ansonia musicians rendered this work with calm virtuosity, creating a propulsive feel both within and between shards: from piercing first violin tones layered over cello pizzicato to the unpredictable yet gorgeous harmonies of the opening jaggedly overlapping ascending phrases.
Gobi Gloria was a beautiful complement to Badinerie, its solo melodic lines sounding even more drastic and earthy after Woolrich’s sparse sonic clashes. Liang is a Chinese-American composer and musicologist who specializes in writing about traditional and contemporary Asian music. He comments that Gobi Gloria is part of a larger series of compositions that was inspired by his admiration for Mongolian music; Gobi Gloria references multiple Mongolian musical traditions, such as long-song, folk songs from the Nei Monggol region, and the music of shaman rituals. The meditative roving melodies and unconventional textures sounded glorious in the acoustics of the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby; the sounds produced by the Ansonia Quartet were a warm contrast to the grey sloshy weather outside.
Rebecca S. Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, Sounding Out!, TEMPO, and I Care If You Listen. By day she studies ethnomusicology as a doctoral student at Stony Brook University and works as an assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.