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The Lost String Quartet

The Lost String Quartet

A theatrical string quartet for children

 

“really, really smart, imaginative, and beautifully conceived and executed”
– Steve Smith

“a new classic of classical music for children”
– Alan Young, New York Music Daily

The Lost String Quartet is an original concert-length theatrical string quartet piece for children and playful adults of all ages, based on the children’s book by N. M. Bodecker, with original music by Momenta’s violist, Stephanie Griffin, and script and theater direction by Fernando Villa Proal. Fernando and the Momenta Quartet combine physical comedy and string quartet performance to tell the story of the misadventures that befall a string quartet on its way to a gig on the other side of the mountain. Throughout the course of the story, the quartet’s car and all of its instruments are destroyed. As each instrument meets its unfortunate demise, an original junkyard creation by experimental percussionist Michael Evans takes its place. As the old adage goes – the show must go on! Against all odds, the Momenta Quartet gives a concert that everyone in the audience will certainly remember.
The Lost String Quartet was work-shopped and developed at The Avaloch Farm Music Institute in August 2017. For a short interview about the making of The Lost String Quartet with the creative team, Stephanie Griffin and Fernando Villa Proal, please watch this film by Nana Shi.
The whole production fits in four heavy suitcases, and the Momenta Quartet would love to bring it to you! (Hopefully we will have better luck getting to your venue than the characters in the play…)
For further information about the project, please contact the composer at stephanie@momentaquartet.com

The Reviews are in!

“rambunctious and endearing”
“The ensemble avoided didacticism and let the subtly complex and sometimes sublime music speak for itself”
– Gemma Peacocke, I Care If You Listen

“It’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it”
– Alan Young, New York Music Daily

Read the full articles in I Care If You Listen and New York Music Daily

 

A Note from the Composer, Stephanie Griffin:

Stephanie Griffin with the “viola constrictor”

The Lost String Quartet is my most ambitious compositional endeavor to date – an original theatrical string quartet performance piece based on N. M. Bodecker’s delightful illustrated children’s book, in collaboration with the Mexican theater director Fernando Villa Proal, production designer Pedro Pazarán Trujillo, and experimental instrument builder Michael Evans. None of this would have been possible without the support of two composition fellowships from The Jerome Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

More than ten years ago, I bought a copy of Bodecker’s out-of-print book from a street vendor on Broadway. It is a far-fetched story about all the terrible mishaps that befall a string quartet as its members try to get to a concert on the other side of the mountain. By the time they make it there, their car and the cello have been destroyed, one of the violins is lodged within a tire, the other violin is stuck to a bag of frozen peas, and the viola has been swallowed by a boa constrictor. All in a day’s work!

Having worked with Skip LaPlante’s Music for Homemade Instruments, I began imagining this book as a theatrical string quartet piece in which the music becomes increasingly strange and avant-garde, culminating in a final movement played entirely on homemade instruments. I had revisited this idea many times over the years, and wondered who would be the right composer for the job.

In October 2015, I met Fernando Villa Proal at Momenta’s concert at the Búcareli 69 Casa de Artes in Mexico City. We became friends, and I absolutely loved his hilarious two-man rendition of Lope de Vega’s farcical El Principe Ynocente. When we began discussing an improvised viola and comic actor piece, he happened to mention his interest in children’s theater. I remembered The Lost String Quartet and realized I had my director. At that moment it also became clear that I had my composer – namely…me!

The music for The Lost String Quartet is not incidental music for a play, but rather a fully integrated theatrical piece in which the string quartet players serve as actors and musicians. The only outside performer is Fernando himself – who recounts the story and represents the various characters the quartet encounters in its misadventures.

Conceptually I was thinking along the lines of Mauricio Kagel, whose absurdist theatrical first and second quartets (1965-67) I had already performed with the Momenta Quartet. Musically, I used the ebullient Finale of Mozart’s String Quartet in G, K. 387 as a point of departure, developing the piece through a variation principle, with the variations getting more outrageous as the story develops and the string instruments are compromised. In addition to the numerous Mozart references, see if you can spot quotations from famous pieces by Beethoven, Bizet, Brahms, Debussy, Haydn, Saint-Saëns, Vivaldi…and much of the viola repertoire compressed in close succession in the final viola solo.

As befits the story, the form is one of dissipation. By the end of the story, traces of Mozart are subsumed into a wild new musical frontier, somewhat akin to the world of free jazz.

The most important aspect of The Lost String Quartet is its audience. I designed this piece especially for the over four hundred children from New York inner city public schools who participate in the programs of Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène’s radical and transformative Time In Children’s Arts Initiative. For many of these children, this show was their first experience of a live string quartet and their first exposure to contemporary concert music.

The whole production fits neatly into four (heavy!) suitcases, and it is my and Fernando’s hope that we can bring live performances of it to children all over the United States, Mexico and the world! By connecting live music performance with Fernando’s comedic sense and N. M. Bodecker’s whimsical story, we hope to provide these children with a delightful experience, which they will remember fondly in many years to come.

A Note from the Director and Playwright, Fernando Villa Proal:

Production designer Pedro Pazarán Trujillo with Fernando Villa Proal

It’s important to find ways for children to come close to arts and culture. Stimulating and enhancing sensibility in children is one of the most powerful tools we can pass to the next generation. It is one way that we can know they will be more aware of themselves, and hopefully more aware of their surroundings and the others.

As we become more sensitive as spectators we find in ourselves the spark, the possibility of creation. We discover our freedom. Each step we take can be considered part of our creation, and our lives can become our “work of art.” I strongly believe that the more a person is exposed to culture (art, nature, travels, conversations, etc), the more his critical thinking and his creative being grow, thus resulting in a more equilibrated person. Walking this lane, the individual finds also the freedom of his/her folk, and learns to respect their path.

I also believe the more we can enjoy, the better. Arts can offer us the means to access the aesthetic enjoyment. I feel that offering people the chance of getting to know their options is a must in this era where we give importance to duty, productivity, and competition rather than things like contemplation, calm and rest. We have to try to offer as much as we can to the people so they can make their choices through their knowledge and not because of their ignorance. Childhood is a fundamental period for curiosity and eagerness to become part of our adult life. This age is essential to guarantee their enjoyment of the arts and it is through amusement and fun that a stronger bond can be built.

When I first met and heard the Momenta Quartet, I was in awe. It’s amazing to hear them play, they know their instruments and they engage them in dialogue through the music with such grace that it just feels easy. Listening to them you can be sure you will enjoy the music without having to pay attention to anything else. Another thing I was able to appreciate was the histrionics each of them had: they know how to act and they can stage scenes; they are actually really funny onstage. I remember thinking about how they have so many resources. While I enjoyed their concert, the idea of the “musicalization” of a theatrical play with them performing was echoing in my mind. A couple of days later, chatting with Stephanie Griffin, this thought became a possibility. We began planning the adaptation of N. M. Bodecker’s out-of-print children’s book, “The Lost String Quartet.”

As a teacher and director, I have had the opportunity to work with many different kinds of plays – comedy, drama, musical, classical, improvisation, etc. But I have never worked with a string quartet, nor have I staged a “Dramatized Concert” such as “The Lost String Quartet.” This piece was an exciting opportunity for me to talk to children through theater, with music as the main character.

 

The “Tyre of Orpheus” is revealed!

Concept and original music: Stephanie Griffin
Script and stage direction: Fernando Villa Proal
Production design: Pedro Pazarán Trujillo 

Acting coach: Hilary Chaplain
Assistant director: Fernando Memije

Homemade instruments: Michael Evans
Homemade instruments consultant: John Gurrin

Performers:
Fernando Villa Proal
The Momenta Quartet:
Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, violins
Stephanie Griffin, viola; Michael Haas, cello

Circus music scene, complete with “Carmonicas”

Filmed live at The Time In Children’s Arts Initiative
by Minos Papas, Cyprian Films
December 2017, New York City
Photos by Nana Shi

Based on the book THE LOST STRING QUARTET by N. M. Bodecker
Copyright © 1983 by N. M. Bodecker
Adapted for the stage by permission of Atheneum Books For Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division.
All rights reserved.

The Lost String Quartet was made possible through grants from New Music USA, The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, The New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), The Alice M. Ditson Fund, The Amphion Foundation and Aaron Copland Fund for Music; and composition fellowship grants from the Jerome Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA).

Special thanks to Fred Tauber and The Avaloch Farm Music Institute
and to Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène of The Time In Children’s Arts Initiative