On a chilly Friday in early December about fifty second-graders arrived on buses from Title 1 public schools–some of the poorest public schools in New York city–at The Time In Children’s Arts Initiative studio space in Chelsea. They had come to see composer and violist Stephanie Griffin’s rambunctious and endearing The Lost String Quartet performed by the Momenta Quartet and the Mexican actor and director Fernando Villa Proal.
The children took seats on the floor with their teachers and a few parents and waited patiently for the show to commence. To begin the performance, Villa Proal, the show’s writer, director and narrator, popped out intermittently from behind a black backdrop to provide disarming updates on the number of seconds left to wait. In a suit jacket and bowtie, he became a camp, Pythonesque house manager, mutely pantomiming and drawing uproarious responses from the seven-year-olds with a well-timed dose of gross-out humor.
The string quartet arrived dressed in rain ponchos and carrying busted-up “instruments”: an icy violin plastered in frozen vegetable packets, a squashed violin trapped in a car wheel (made from a zither wedged inside a bicycle tyre), a cello replaced with suspended auto parts, and a viola mutated into a hybrid melodica-puppet boa constrictor. The quartet performed an improvisatory introduction on their broken instruments, and a wordless Minion-like argument erupted between the quartet and Villa Proal’s officious house manager. Based on N. M. Bodecker’s book of the same name, the children delighted in the farce of the show as Villa Proal explained the narrative underpinning it; the quartet’s dishevelled appearance and transformed instruments had resulted from a tortuous journey to the concert on the way from the ensemble’s shared living quarters.
Developed and workshopped over an extended period of time – including a residency at Avaloch Farm Music Institute where the Momenta Quartet (of which Griffin is the violist), director Villa Proal, and experimental instrument designer Michael Evans collaborated to create the hour-long piece – The Lost String Quartet is a considerable achievement in children’s theatre and music education. When asked whether they knew what a violin is, most of the children raised their hands and called out an enthusiastic “Yes!” There was less certainty about the cello and no one raised their hand.
The quartet gamely undertook impressively choreographed scenes to tell the story of a hapless quartet undergoing a series of misadventures in which each instrument is lost or butchered. Their performances, well outside the ordinary comfort zone of a professional string quartet, were compelling. After the opening scene, the narrative jumped backwards in time and the children were treated to both improvised and composed music performed by the consummate quartet. The ensemble avoided didacticism and let the subtly complex and sometimes sublime music speak for itself. Villa Proal moved a cut-out car through a colourfully-painted map of the quartet’s journey to give a sense of how far we had so far travelled together, and how many mishaps still awaited us.
Griffin’s score includes beautiful and substantial farewell laments for the instruments as each in turn is damaged or lost. With musical quotes of Mozart, Vivaldi, and Brahms, she cleverly weaves Baroque, Classical, and Romantic themes into her unapologetically modern music, and the children reacted positively and equitably to all of it, bopping their heads and dancing on the spot in time with the music. One little girl was spell-bound and serenely waved her arms like a conductor for much of the performance. Villa Proal’s appearances as various comic characters throughout the show were resoundingly funny and engaging. His audience interactions could have been included even more frequently, allowing the students more opportunities to interact, call out and move around.
The show was performed multiple times over the course of a week for students ranging from kindergarteners to fourth-graders, and there were musical and comic elements to appeal to each year-level. An hour was perhaps a little long for some of the seven-year-olds who had their own long journeys to and from their schools, and some of the parents and teachers exchanged looks of mild concern during one scene set in a prison. These hiccoughs, however, were minor in relation to the whole, which invited the students to enjoy visceral string music up-close and across centuries of repertoire and technique with no unnecessary dry lecturing.
The Lost String Quartet was the Momenta Quartet’s first foray into education for children and the result was remarkable. Many of the students will wait expectantly for next year’s show in which the quartet will be able to build upon this first solid venture and hopefully reach even more children in New York’s deprived public school system.