The Attacca Quartet – dynamic imperative to dive into the next note

Far and between today’s copious landscapes of string quartets, the Attacca Quartet has distinguished itself for its captivating appearances and an aptitude for contemporary projects, yet equally high esteem for the traditional classical repertoire.

Says founding member and cellist of the ensemble Andrew Yee: “When Amy and I formed the quartet with mutual Juilliard friends [in its original formation] in 2003, string quartets were becoming cool already, but there were not nearly as many as there are today. I remember having a conversation about our plans upon leaving school in 2002 before we had started the quartet and the assumption was, there was no career to be made as a string quartet. But quite contrary to that notion, after playing for many years just playing for free, we were invited for concerts all the time and simply kept on doing that. In the meantime, we have seen the birth – and death – of so many other ensembles, which has created today’s beautiful musical tapestry, dotted with all these diverse string quartets.” (Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez)

Much akin to the emblematic Juilliard String Quartet, whose very own Joel Smirnoff (member of the Juilliard until 2008) mentored the Attacca, the ensemble presents four independent voices, expressed by four individual personalities; with the articulate Andrew Yee, being the group’s spokesman, often arranger and sometimes food vlogger and painter. Music is always an integral part of everything, life has to offer and that includes Mac
and Cheese and Mendelssohn.

During the Juilliard years, Yee’s teachers were Fred Sherry and Joel Krosnick; other mentors of the quartet included Robert Mann, Arnold Steinhardt, and members of the Brentano, Tokyo and Juilliard Quartets.

“I don’t think we ever strived to be the next Juilliard Quartet, (the Attacca held a Juilliard residency in 2011) but we learned the importance of maintaining your individuality within the ensemble, while learning about group unity from members of the Tokyo or Artemis Quartets,” explains Yee. “We have a lot of respect for the golden age, our roots and shared vocabulary, but we also believe in developing our own voices; within the contemporary as well as the traditional repertoire,” he says. “For the most part, we are a project based quartet. We performed all 68 Haydn quartets in concert, as well as the Beethoven cycle and Caroline Shaw.  Sometimes a festival asks for specific things and sometimes it’s just a democratic process, following each other’s proposals. We enjoy digging in deep, and getting close to the human, behind the composer.” (Photo  Credit: NPR Tiny Desk)

Currently in their 16th season, the Attacca has featured a six-year Haydn project, coined “The 68,” containing all the classical master’s sixty-eight string quartets, he produced during his life span. “Based on Beethoven,” grew out of their contemporary project series “Recently Added,” which includes the quartet’s latest output, Pulitzer-Prize winning Caroline Shaw’s recording “Orange,” and presents cyclic works of current composers, who’s musical congruencies with some of the classical components found in Beethoven, inspired the ensembles’ renewed focus on the master’s work.

Shaw describes the world she built for Orange as a garden that she and Attacca Quartet are tending. Amy Schroeder plays first violin, Keiko Tokunaga is on second violin, and violist Nathan Schram joined the quartet now about three years ago.

“Hints of past years’ growth remain in the soil, and so the new growth has been partially shaped by the old,” explains Shaw. “The colors are vivid and familiar, and the shapes of the leaves follow a pattern that you seem to know until you don’t.” She continues, “This album is a celebration of the simple, immediate, unadorned beauty of a natural, everyday, familiar thing.”

“The string quartet is a constantly expanding art form. It is really exciting to see the new works coming out of this boom in string quartet interest”, says Yee.

“Throughout our cyclic exploration, we really got to know Haydn intimately; he is the kind of guy you want to go out and grab a beer with. Or the complexities in Beethoven; by the end we barely had to mention what we were thinking to each other anymore; it was like we were one with the work,” he describes.

When asked about their friendship outside of rehearsals Yee said “Life is too short to be in a quartet unless you enjoy the company of your colleagues. We see each other pretty much every day (more than we see our own significant others) that we don’t really need to schedule outside hang time that much. On tour, which is about a third to half of the year it’d different because we have nowhere else to be. So pretty much every night we go out to get dinner or drinks. We love each other – even though that’s not an absolute requirement for working well together; but if one would be miserable not getting along, one should opt out of a tight setting like a quartet; it’s just not productive for the music,” he says.

“We all pursue solo projects outside the quartet because the more curious adventurous we are as individuals the better we can be as a collective”

It is the very sincere interaction, united by a fierce love for music, which ultimately makes the quartet truly solid and alive; and more than the sum of its parts, it builds its most powerful momentum on the equal, yet diverse distinction of its members. I am rather intrigued by the personal stage presence of performers that transcend the sometimes-ferocious experience, life performances entail. While it may be distracting for some critics, connecting the audience with the humanity of the performer also visually, is one of the many elements that come to play on stage. Watch the Attacca perform Beethoven String Quartet No.2 in G Major, Op.18, No 2 – filmed live at the Greene Space, NYC. 

Embracing the fact that everyone also plays him/herself, I feel it’s an inadequate expectation of the performer to vanish behind the score, if personal eccentricity does not conflict with his/her quality of music making. Is that not part of the “truth,” performers are seeking to express daily, through their music making?

Many performers strongly support social causes, political opinions and cultural context, and while audiences don’t necessarily need to be aware of any of the performers’ different agendas, I believe in the right of a performer, who chooses to link civil courage to his/her stage persona. Andrew Yee feels it’s important to be who you are and putting that fully behind your performance.

He will perform at the upcoming Brooklyn ChamberQueer concert June 21stand 23rd at Brooklyn Arts Exchange , feeling that raising society’s consciousness and making queerness visible is overdue; whether in everyday life or within the classical music scene, which occupies most his time, with the quartet’s calendar starting to fill up quickly.

“This year we decided to take a break from cycles and focus on quartets we loved that didn’t necessarily fall into a “cycle” like the Ravel or Verdi quartets, which are single great pieces from an amazing composer, for example Ravel’s only string quartet, which does not compel a complete cycle be heard,” he says. “There will be room to just play different composers’ works, each of us loves,” he says.

Among these works, the ensemble will premiere a new composition” Ushiwakaru,” based on a Japanese legend by Yee’s friend, the composer Paul Wiancko, at Boston’s Isabella Steward Gardener Museum, in January of 2020.

At the MITO Music Festival in Italy, Attacca will premiere Chris Rogerson’s String Quartet No. 3, a commission by Chamber Music America and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, written for the Attacca in 2018.

Attacca audiences’’ consist of all age groups, but are known to attract many of their peers. In addition, Attacca is a huge proponent of instilling the love for music in the very young. “Educational Outreach has been one of our priorities from the very beginning of our career,” says Yee. The ensemble offers two different, age adequate educational programs and has partaken in various international initiatives at schools in three languages: English, Spanish and Japanese in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Mexico, Colombia, Dominican Republic and Japan.