The Attacca Quartet’s exciting debut release on Azica Records features the music of John Adams. This fortuitous association began at Juilliard when the group accepted the daunting challenge of presenting, on short notice, the first movement of his String Quartet (2008).
This grand work’s shape is sprawling like spilt liquid, yet bold in its transparency (could one say this two part work is in classic sonata-allegro form, whose second movement is its displaced development?) The bustling music of the opening, chattering and suave, is sleek and brash in the recapitulation, after violist Luke Fleming’s plangent, impassioned pleas inspire his colleagues to a section of tender soaring singing. The active music in the next part starts with glittering ascending passagework which transforms to a flickering repeated note fabric that supports the former’s aspirations reduced to a two note rising motif. The closings of both movements are inconclusive and disquieting – the first hushed, the second desperate. The best quartets offer a world made intimate: the cumulative effect of this masterwork is as powerful as a late Sibelius symphony.
Remarkable in a very different way is Mr. Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994), “alleged because the steps for them have yet to be invented”. More than vignettes, more than incorporations, these ten amazingly unpretentious little gems are distillates of various vernacular idioms, mostly American. How could music of such great good humor be written in our time?
Laugh out loud funny is "Hammer and Chisel", sounding like a construction site. In "Standchen", the serenader is a loud computer scientist, awkward yet insistent. Andrew Yee’s cello divinely renders the wistful melody of the "Pavane (She’s so Fine)," “a quiet graceful song for a budding teenager, playing her favorite song on the boom box. Back and forth over those special moments, those favorite progressions. she knows all the words.” Leading violinist Amy Schroeder’s slight reserve well serves her stylishly steamy "Habanera", delivered without sleaze, and with Mr. Yee their belly dance duet detour delights with a vision of an exotic oasis.
The hoedown fiddlin’ of "Dogjam" is a bit stiff, and "Judas to the Ocean" is played a bit white, but "Toot Nipple" is a gas, "Stubble Crotchet" is Bartok a century later, and "Alligator Escalator" is, well, cosmic gas! "Rag and Bone," which they chose to open this suite (the order and number of selections are at the discretion of the performers) introduces a conundrum – six of the dances include a pre-recorded “rhythm loop” track of sound samples from a prepared piano, an indisputable final authority from the composer. In some of the movements our live players do not quite equal the the groove of “essentially the fifth member of the group” (from Mr. Fleming’s excellent program notes).
The Attacca String Quartet is excellent. One could wish that the first violinist develop a more commanding audacious profile, that they would risk being more argumentative, and that the occasional busy texture might become unmuddled in the middle. What distinguishes them from the preponderance of other young ensembles, however, more than their unflagging enthusiasm, their cohesion and their dedication to the repertoire past, present and future is their singing from the heart and soul. Godspeed!