Attacca Quartet: A freewheeling group that keeps the classics fresh - The Buffalo News
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Attacca Quartet: A freewheeling group that keeps the classics fresh

The Attacca Quartet, led by Amherst violinist Amy Schroeder, is the graduate quartet in residence at the Juilliard School. At their home base in Manhattan, they are in the middle of “The 68,” a project that involves performing every one of the Haydn string quartets.

At the same time, the musical instruction “attacca” means, in Italian, to throw yourself into something. And the Attacca has its own freewheeling, impetuous vibe.

Before every rehearsal, they laughingly confessed, they open a bottle of wine.

For their Buffalo concert at 8 p.m. today in the Mary Seaton Room of Kleinhans Music Hall – a concert that kicks off the Buffalo Chamber Music Society’s 90th anniversary season – they are playing music from all over the map. Among them are Fanny Mendelssohn, the talented sister of Felix, and Buffalo’s own Christopher Rogerson, who recently graduated from the Curtis Institute.

“We like to keep our repertoire very fresh, so we’re excited when we go on stage,” Schroeder, 28, said by phone. “It adds an excitement and nervous energy which we hope to translate into the excitement of the performance.”

Speaking of nervous energy, the Attacca admits to one more secret of success: They have a private preconcert ritual.

Backstage, as the crowd whispers and programs rustle, the distinguished young musicians do the Chicken Dance.

It’s inspired not by the kitschy Buffalo wedding reception classic but by the TV comedy “Arrested Development.” Still, it does its job.

“It puts us all in a really good mood,” Schroeder admitted. “We all get happy.”

Whatever this quartet does, it’s working.

So respected is the Attacca that the musicians were hired to help with the 2012 movie “A Late Quartet,” made by Israeli-American director Yaron Zilberman. On screen, they appeared briefly as a young string quartet coached by the older quartet, portrayed by actors including Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Off screen, the Attacca coached the veteran actors on how to look as if they were really playing.

“We loved the director. He actually did a documentary about us six years ago,” said Attacca cellist Andrew Yee. The documentary was never released, he explains. “It was basically for his use, so he could see what it was like to be behind a string quartet. He filmed us for a month. He would do interviews asking what it was like to play that instrument in the quartet.” He laughs. “When he asked Keiko (Keiko Tokunaga, the Attacca’s second violinist), she gave an answer that ended up word for word as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s monologue.”

On a YouTube clip, you can hear Hoffman passing along Tokunaga’s wisdom.

“The second and the first violin aren’t heirarchical, they’re just different roles,” he says. He is talking to his jogging partner, against a lovely, wintry Manhattan cityscape. “Sometimes I get the melody, sometimes the bass line. I connect the first violin, which tends to be the soloist part, with the viola and cello, which flow right underneath the surface. Simply put, I pull it all together. That’s my job.”

When The News caught up with the Attacca via cellphone, the four musicians were all together, in a minivan, heading from their home base of New York City to Syracuse. After that, it was on to Buffalo.

For Schroeder, the Buffalo concert is a bit like coming full circle.

“I’m so excited to play on this series in Buffalo,” she said. “The first time I really realized I wanted to be in a string quartet was going to see the Guarneri Quartet play for the Buffalo Chamber Music Society. I’m pretty sure they played Ravel. I remember falling in love with Arnold Steinhardt’s words and passion, and I read his book.”

Steinhardt’s book, “Indivisible by Four,” chronicles humorously the ups and downs of a longtime string quartet. The Attacca musicians, young as they are, already have something of that longtime feeling.

It was 10 years ago that the group was formed at Juilliard. Students are still finding their paths, and so there have been a couple of personnel changes. Tokunaga has been with the Attacca eight years, and violist Luke Fleming for four.

Yee, there from the start, still remembers running into Schroeder in the hall on their second day of classes.

“Right from the beginning, playing with her was very easy, very enjoyable,” he said. “Which is why I think we’ve lasted as long as we have. There hasn’t been a single day that it’s been a struggle for the two of us to play. That’s a real gift, I think.”

And a birthright, perhaps. Buffalo has a grand quartet tradition. Our annual Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle is unique in the world and was copied by Lincoln Center. Fifty years ago, Buffalo became the home base of the Budapest Quartet.

Now, it could be up to Schroeder to carry that torch forward.

“I’m trying,” she laughed.

The other musicians share her passion. They select repertoire democratically, challenging themselves. One ambitious selection, which grew out of “The 68,” is a planned recording of Haydn’s monumental “The Seven Last Words of Christ.”

The Attacca also tackles modern pieces. Their new CD of John Adams’ “John’s Book of Alleged Dances,” was praised by the New York Times, which called it “exuberant,” “funky” and “exactingly nuanced.” A few of the short, quirky pieces are on tap for Buffalo.

The Attacca likes Adams. “He’s very much a tongue-in-cheek kind of guy,” Schroeder said. “He has very vivid explanations. He’s a funny guy, totally brilliant.”

The group also admires Christopher Rogerson, whose String Quartet No. 2 is also on Tuesday’s program. Like Schroeder, Rogerson, 24, is an Amherst High School grad. “We just had our first meeting with him,” Schroeder said. “We’re just loving the piece. It’s incredibly beautiful, and we’re planning on putting it on our next season. It’s all Attacca from movement to movement,” she added. “It’s very lyrical and beautiful and has some wonderful themes.”

“It’s a little Mendelssohnian,” Yee chimed in. “Rogersonian,” he adds.

Hearing them laughing, it seems likely that the Attacca has a long life ahead. The musicians respect each other and, more importantly, like each other.

One watershed moment came in 2011, when they took top prize in Japan’s Osaka International Chamber Music Competition.

“When we played the finals, we played Opus 132, one of our absolute all-time favorite pieces,” Schroeder recalled. “A young quartet getting to learn Beethoven for the first time – it was very fresh and exciting, but you worry about performing it for judges, who listen for details that you don’t necessarily have right off the bat. When we played the third movement, I think everything on stage seemed to come together, the balance, the intonation, how well we felt about it, the phrasing. I remembering feeling on the stage, ‘Oh, my God, I love you guys so much!’

“I couldn’t stop smiling throughout the whole thing. I know Keiko felt the same way. We were getting tears in our eyes.” She pauses. “It was almost like getting the spirit of Beethoven, the emotion behind the movement.

“Every time we get together as a quartet, we read the quartets we’re going to play at the next concert. And almost every time there’s a point at which all four of us stop and uncontrollably laugh. And in one of the slow movements, we end up crying.”


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