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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Superconductor Interview: The Attacca Quartet

A morning sit-down with this New York chamber ensemble.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Fiddlers on the roof: The Attacca Quartet
(L.R. Amy Schroeder, Keiko Tokunaga, Andrew Yee, Luke Fleming)
Image © 2013 The Attacca Quartet.
"On the second day of undergraduate," Andrew Yee says, "there was one of those team-building seminars, I met Amy (Schroeder) who was a friend of a friend. After we met we asked each other, 'Do you like chamber music?'"



That simple question in 2002 led to the formation of the Attacca Quartet, with Mr. Yee on cello and  Ms. Schroeder playing first violin. With the later additions of violinist Keiko Tokunaga and violist Luke Fleming, the ensemble has forged a path as one of the exciting young quartets to emerge from the Juilliard School.

The Attacca Quartet has made the music of Haydn a center of their repertory, exploring the 68 often-neglected quartets by the father of the genre. Despite his important status in history, Haydn has a mixed reputation among musicians and listeners, one which these players are eager to challenge. At the other end of the  spectrum is the chamber music of John Adams, subject of the ensemble's new CD: Fellow Traveler. 

Sitting in one of that venerable institution's tiny rehearsal rooms, it is hard not to feel the charge of energy that is between these four young people. A true ensemble, they pick up thoughts from each other like melodic lines, answering questions in a four-part method that echoes their precision as players. As such, the interview was written as a conversation to try to capture that flow.

Superconductor: One of the charges or complaints you get with Haydn is that his works are "boring" compared to later composers. What would you say to that criticism?

Amy Schroeder: "I think that's one of the things we're trying to change people's minds on. People who come to the series may experience some sort of historical context, but also get the humor, passion and touching qualities in some of his works."

Keiko Tokunaga: "When you think about Haydn's writing, you see how much he developed as a composer in a short period of time. He had no contact with other composers in Vienna and he was forced to be unique. It's amazing what he comes up with."

Luke Fleming: "His quartets get overshadowed by Beethoven's Op. 18's and Mozart's ten celebrated quartets. The truth is the Haydn quartets are far from boring! Whenever we finish a concert we have a reading session to decide what we're going to play next--we are always blown away. When you put the time into it, it doesn't take much time to find a lot in Haydn."

Andrew Yee: "We tried not to blow all the famous ones early. You could say 'I really wanna play Fifths or Sunrise or The Joke.' It would be easy to do that. When we plan a concert, we have to come up with an opening Haydn, a first-half Haydn and a closing Haydn. We generally--not always but generally put the later quartet on the ends.

Amy: "When we put his music on programs with other composers, we see how his work has influenced other composers, including John Adams."
"Let's go to work": The Attacca Quartet. Image © 2013 The Attacca Quartet.
On Tuesday night at Le Poisson Rouge, the Quartet played a special CD release concert for Fellow Traveler, their new disc exploring the quartet repertory of John Adams. The performance consisted of selection from the composer's Alleged Dances for String Quartet as well as his second formal essay in that genre, simply called String Quartet. Here, they talk about the finer points of interpreting John Adams.

Luke: Speaking as an "inner voice" player there's a purpose to that repetition. You can't listen to the works on our discs and claim Adams is just a minimalist composer. There's always reason for it.

Amy:  "These pieces are not what people expect when you listen to Adams. The alleged Dances have that sense but they're brief. Six of them are accompanied by prepared piano sounds when you control it you play it with a foot pedal for when the track starts. And it's a weird sound sometimes. It almost sounds like someone speaking in a different language" (Andrew starts demonstrating, singing "chak-a-tuk-a chak-a-tuk-a") "in a prepared voice."

Luke: "Another problem with playing the works live is that you have different speakers and different halls and different lengths of electronic signals."

Andrew: "Playing all ten Dances--it's quite an inner rush. It's about 35 minutes long its a big piece. we usually play six to eight dances and we do the order in a way that is most effective. For example, the Kronos Quartet plays their order with a repeated movement so there are eleven dances. Our order is the order we like. You con do as many in as any order you want."

Superconductor: So what does the future hold for this ensemble?

Luke: "When I joined in 2009 it was a trial by fire--we played the Adams Quartet in Alice Tully. From then on Adams, Adams was a big deal for us and then we started playing the 68. ^8's a daunting thing but we made a non-profit situation where we could donate and we made the Adams project happen and I'm confident when we stop making Adams and Haydn our number one priority we will charge ahead to the next project."

Keiko: "Playing all the Haydn quartets is a huge task. Playing Adams is a huge task. We have learned a lot about how conditions have changed and what is required to make it as a professional quartet. There's a feeling of having a clean slate. It's a huge learning experience for all of us and we are at a point where we are comfortable enough to work on the works in between."

Amy: "That's what our role is as a string quartet. Looking at the purpose of a string quartet it is so versatile now you can do so many things with it.  You can do the jazz thing, you can do the rock-star thing. We are so hungry for new repertoire that we overload ourselves with new repertory."

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.