The Spirit of Now: Attacca Quartet

June 9, 2022

photo by David Goddard
story by Kyle MacMillan

The Attacca Quartet pays respect to the past, playing works by composers like Haydn and Ravel and twice tackling the ultimate challenge for any such ensemble, a complete set of performances of Beethoven’s 16 career-spanning string quartets.

But the quartet is best known for its emphasis on the musical here and now. In 2019, for example, the foursome released Orange, a Grammy Award-winning album devoted to the music of the 2013 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, Caroline Shaw.

“That is a goal of ours, that a work by a living composer be on every concert that we play, which is not the norm, but I think it should be,” said cellist Andrew Yee, who uses the pronouns they and them.

In that spirit of the now, the Attacca makes its Colorado Music Festival debut July 12, presenting a concert of all contemporary music as part of the summer event’s Music of Today and Robert Mann Chamber Music series.

Yee describes the July 12 Festival program as a “snapshot” of what’s important to the group at the moment. The quartet spotlighted John Adams, the Festival’s 2022 Composer-in-Residence, on its debut album in 2013, performing all three of his existing string-quartet works at the time, including John’s Book of Alleged Dances, selections of which are featured here. “So, we have always had John Adams in our DNA, and John Adams took us under his wing and has had a lot of pieces cross our paths whenever he is in charge,” Yee said. It was via Adams that the group encountered Gabriella Smith’s Carrot Revolution, which culminates this program.

Also included on the line-up are Shaw’s Evergreen, Anna Müller’s Drifting Circles, Louis Cole’s Real Life, and selections by Steven Ellison aka Flying Lotus, a Los Angeles DJ and rapper. Rounding out things is Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 3, Mishima, which the Attacca recorded on its last album, Of All Joys. “We like putting Philip Glass on programs because it’s the wild card,” Yee said. “It can exist in whatever way an audience member sees fit, which is exciting.”

The Attacca was formed in 2003 at the Juilliard School in New York. Yee and violinist Amy Schroeder met on the second day of orientation as undergraduates, and they began playing string duos and then were part of a piano trio. But when the pianist dropped out, they decided to create a string quartet with two other students. “And we just sort of kept going,” the cellist said.

The group needed to list a name when it entered a competition soon thereafter, so its members chose “attacca,” a musical term placed at the end of a movement to signify a continuation to the next section without pause. “Like at 3 in the morning, Amy and I just opened a music dictionary and said every word until it sounded pretty good in front of ‘quartet,’” Yee said.

It has undergone personnel changes since then, with Yee and Schroeder being the only remaining original members. Violist Nathan Schram was recruited seven years ago, and violinist Dominic Salerni joined at the beginning of 2020 just after the quartet’s Grammy win.

In choosing contemporary works to champion, the Attacca obviously seeks well-crafted music, but its relationship with the composer is also important, too. “We tend to play music by people we really like as human beings,” Yee said. “Caroline Shaw is a very lovely person, one of my best friends.”

If the relationship between the composer and performer is strong, they said, it adds something “extra’ to the interpretations. The Attacca’s message is simple: “Listen to how much we love this music and how much we love the person who wrote it.”

Although the Attacca had released three previous albums, none gained more attention than Orange, which contained six of Shaw’s chamber works. “Our album with Caroline Shaw got a lot of attention and rightfully so,” Yee said. “I’m very proud of that album, and I think Caroline is doing something really new and interesting and relatable.”

Among those paying attention was Sony Classical, which liked the album concept and even the cover design. The prominent label signed the group even before the quartet’s Grammy win, and has released two of its albums since, including Real Life, which took the Attacca into the electronic world of such artists as The Halluci Nation, Mid-Air Thief, and TOKiMONSTA.

For Yee, coming to Boulder brings back some cherished memories. The first summer music camp they attended was the Rocky Mountain Summer Conservatory, where the teenager joined members of the St. Louis Symphony and other students in playing works like Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. “Just the level of music-making,” they said, “and the attention to details made me fall head over heels in love with chamber music, and I think it is the reason I am a chamber musician today.”

Experience the Attacca Quartet at the Festival on July 12.

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