Tan Dun and the Juilliard Orchestra at the Met Museum
John O'Hurley at the Café Carlyle

Attacca Quartet Plays John Adams at National Sawdust

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"I can't tell you how much I love this quartet. The way they play this music is just amazing. I actually just sat with them backstage and told them: 'We have the same DNA.'" - John Adams 

After two days of rain and cold, the sun finally popped out Sunday, and I was tempted to spend a lazy afternoon in my back garden, just starting to bloom with crocuses and tulips. All I wanted to do was read a book, or catch up on some other things I'd been putting off. But, I had a show on the calendar, and so I dutifully put away the lawn furniture, packed up my bag and trudged off to Williamsburg. 

The moment I surfaced at Bedford Ave, after a painfully long ride on the G train, I wished I'd never left my garden. The crush of iPhone-blinded hipsters and wide-eyed tourists made it nearly impossible just to walk down the street. But, I pressed on, past the hordes of buskers and brunchers to National Sawdust, where the Attacca Quartet (Violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nate Schram, cellist Andrew Yee) was already halfway through their first piece, John Adams' String Quartet No. 1 (2008). I sat quietly upstairs in the balcony; almost of the cocktail tables downstairs were full.

The Attacca tore through the music, mixing stop-and-go rhythms with gentle melodies before ending with a Bartòk-like stretch of haunting dissonance. During the applause, they acknowledged a slight white-haired man standing directly beneath me, applauding vigorously. I almost dropped my notebook when I looked down and saw that it was Adams himself. Did he really fly all of the way from Berkeley just to be here? Not exactly: turns out Adams was in town for both the St. Louis Symphony's performance of The Gospel According to the Other Mary at Carnegie on Friday, and the star-studded Bob Hurwitz/Nonesuch Celebration at BAM on Saturday. Still, it's not every day that you spot one of the world's greatest composers sitting in an 80 seat theater in Williamsburg.

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Amidst a surfeit of young, talented string quartets, the Attacca - which formed more than a decade ago when they were at Juilliard - stands out for their boundless energy and bold programming, such as their six-season traversal of all 68 of Haydn's string quartets. Sunday was the final installment of their Recently Added series at National Sawdust, in which they've presented the complete quartet music of three living composers; prior concerts in the series showcased the music of Caroline Shaw and Michael Ippolito

Anyone who follows this site knows that I'm a huge John Adams fan, so for me, this was a rare opportunity to engage with his quartets, which are often - and unfairly - overlooked in favor of his operas and orchestral works. If anything, Adams' tight construction and deep emotion are in even greater relief in his chamber music. Still, Adams is circumspect regarding his ability in this most intimate of formats: 

“String quartet writing is one of the most difficult challenges a composer can take on," Adams says. "Unless one is an accomplished string player and writes in that medium all the time, the demands of handling this extremely volatile and transparent instrumental medium can easily be humbling, if not downright humiliating...Quartet writing for me seems to be a matter of very long-term ‘work in progress.’”

Although Adams originally wrote his quartets for the Kronos and the St. Lawrence Quartets, the Attacca has been one of his foremost champions over the past decade, garnering high praise for their recording of Adams' complete quartets in 2013 (see above.) And, with good reason: Adams driving, energetic music is a perfect match for the Attacca's emotive, go-for-broke style, as in Fellow Traveler (2007), with it's oscillating strings and back-and-forth key changes. 

John's Book of Alleged Dances (1994) is a series of ten dances with whimsical titles like "Toot Nipple" and "Stubble Crotchet" that range from folksy to avant-garde. Playing against a recording of a prepared piano that often sounded like a click track gone mad, much of the music was infectiously head-bobbing: I even spotted Adams bouncing up and down in his seat during the frenetic, bluegrass-flavored "Dogjam." "Standchen: The Little Serenade" featured intricate interplay between the live strings and recording while the lullaby-like "Pavanne: She's So Fine" was tender and lyrical, apparently inspired by his young daughter. The weird, creepy glissandos of "Alligator Escalator" were apparently inspired by Adams image of a gator waddling up and down the floors of Macy's, moving faster and faster as he attempts to evade capture. Attacca Quartet_John Adams_National Sawdust-002
Not many composers could legitimately pull off a musical dialogue with Beethoven, whose 16 quartets remain the standard by which all others are measured. In his Second Quartet (2014), which closed Sunday's program, Adams avoids quoting directly from Beethoven's quartets (as he did in 2012's Absolute Jest for quartet and orchestra), but instead riffs on small excerpts from his late piano music, including the Opus 110 piano sonata and Diabelli Variations. "This music is already crazy," Adams told us, "and then I raise the stakes even higher." Although he retains hints of Beethoven's cadences and harmonies, the music is unmistakably Adams, filled not only with hypnotic chords and swirling intensity, but an almost shocking passion that erupts like a wail. The Attacca tore into it with power and precision, in a performance that was nothing short of stunning. 

It might have just been the heat of the moment, but somewhere between the concert hall and the afterparty (that's a whole other story), I overheard Adams promise his next quartet to the Attacca, right after he finishes a new concerto and a little opera he's still working on. Even if that doesn't pan out, the mutual admiration between Adams and this remarkable quartet is undeniable, and will no doubt yield some vivid results in the months and years to come. Who knows, maybe someday John will make like Beethoven and decide to just focus exclusively on quartets - with the Attacca as his muse. 

Attacca Quartet_John Adams_National Sawdust-014More pics on the photo page