Violinists Amy Schroeder and Domenic Salerni, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee of Attacca Quartet performed in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel on Friday, Jan. 20. The Grammy Award-winning group has been described by The Nation as one that “lives in the present aesthetically, without rejecting the virtues of the musical past,” and this characterization was clearly reflected in their choice of repertoire.
The first piece on the program was “Entr’acte,” composed in 2011 by Caroline Shaw (b. 1982). The piece was inspired by one of Haydn’s string quartets and was based on the structure of a minuet and trio, though it was by no means a traditional-sounding piece. It began with sparse rising and falling figures that created an air of mystery and seemed almost tentative at first, though they soon built into a more robust sound with the quartet leaning into the dissonance between their instruments.
At times this repeated motif subsided and was interspersed with passages that implemented a variety of extended techniques, including one where the musicians drew their bows across the strings in such a way that it sounded like wind rather than a clear pitch, as well as some that created more squeaky or whistling or percussive effects. There was even a section that sounded like unnervingly human sighs.
Textural variety was also created by more conventional techniques, as in a section where all members of the quartet played with a very warm, lute-like pizzicato sound, another section where Salerni’s pizzicato made his violin resemble a bell. While most of the piece was in a leisurely character, there was a brief but dramatically contrasting section initiated by Schram, which was bolder and more active. The piece came to an abrupt end as a gentle, harp-like solo from Yee trailed off, leaving the piece with an unfinished feeling.
John Adams’ (b. 1947) first String Quartet, in two movements, was second on the program. The first movement began with the instruments unified in rapid, excited passages, though this sense of unification quickly melded into one of more chaotic coexistence. Perhaps this movement could represent the bustling commotion of a big city. Personally, I pictured a densely populated forest, with all the different animals each going about their separate but interconnected lives. Particularly one of the violin motifs reminded me of a bird call. There were a few more tender and subdued sections within this movement, which in my imagination corresponded with the meditative feeling of being surrounded by nature.
Like the first movement, the second movement began with a flurry of activity, though this time with some gestures that gave it also a sense of majesty. Yee led the group into an animated and adventurous section with bows screeching and intense clashing between the instruments. Yee played their cello without an endpin, allowing them freedom of movement that was effective in expressing the character of this section. I noticed some snapped hairs on Schram’s bow as another inadvertent testament to the investment of these musicians. This movement concluded with a decisive sforzando chord.
After this second piece, the quartet took their bows and went backstage for intermission, but the audience was so enthusiastic that the quartet came back onto the stage for a second bow to a standing ovation before intermission began.
After intermission came Maurice Ravel’s (1875 – 1937) String Quartet in four movements, the final piece on the program. It was a change of pace from the contemporary pieces in the first half of the recital to something a bit more traditional. The first movement featured a light but full sound with a celestial quality to it. There was unhurried motion throughout most of the movement, and the musicians seemed to relish the sweetness of the music. There was a feeling of waves of sound and casual, non-dramatic transitions between characters.
The second movement was energetic and full of life, with pizzicato and trills adding a bubbly feeling to the music. Schroeder’s violin sang joyfully above the other instruments without dominating the overall sound. From this beginning, the movement quickly transitioned into a melancholy section with “sighing” motifs. Hushed moments leading into crescendos gave the piece a compelling intimacy. By the end of the movement, the music had regained its former energy, ending in a forceful chord followed immediately by a much quieter chord and then another forceful one, which got a laugh from some audience members.
Most of the third movement was slow and sorrowful, until the cello plunged into a deep and intense passage, sparking a correspondingly passionate response from the other instruments. By the end of the movement, the music had again become subdued.
This feeling was shattered completely as the final movement began with a bold, loud statement. Following this, the movement became more pastoral, with violin melodies gliding above the lower instruments. This movement ended with an intense passage leading up to a triumphant chord, making it the perfect conclusion to the performance. After this piece, the audience again gave a standing ovation, bringing the Attacca Quartet back to the stage.
As an encore, the group performed another piece by Caroline Shaw, titled “Root,” which is the fourth and final movement of a larger work for string quartet titled “The Evergreen.” This piece began with a swaying and repetitive lullaby-like cello introduction. Swelling, sometimes dissonant chords joined the cello with increasing frequency. The cello’s introductory pattern served as an ostinato throughout the piece, usually played by the cello, but occasionally one or more of the other instruments would join in or take it over.
The ostinato gave the piece a comforting sense of consistency, while the chords and melodies enhanced the overall feeling of wholeheartedness and being at peace, while also creating a contrasting sense of variety and the unexpected. Through their body language and choices of phrasing, the quartet cultivated a spirit of storytelling in this piece, which concluded with only the two violins playing a melody that faded away, as though the storyteller trailed off towards the end of their story.
Throughout their performance, Attacca Quartet demonstrated a masterful attention to details and an impressive awareness of each other, the audience and the space in which they were playing. The chapel was the perfect place for this music as it allowed the audience to be immersed in the sound but not overwhelmed by it, and the quartet filled the space while playing no louder than they needed to, so that the music within the space felt at once intimate and expansive. They communicated their interpretations of the pieces with clear distinctions between different sections and with a great variety of characters, so that the structures of the pieces were clear and the audience was able to grasp the narratives without confusing the sense of direction within each piece. Their inclusion of both new music and older classical music made for a continuously engaging program with appeal for both traditionalists and those interested in musical innovation.