The Attacca Quartet Play a Seriously Fun Caroline Shaw Program at National Sawdust
Considering that string players ought to be ideally suited to writing string quartets, Caroline Shaw is not only a capable violinist but also a strong singer with a background in choral music. So the cantabile quality and sheer catchiness of her string quartets were hardly a surprise when the Attacca Quartet played a grand total of five of them at National Sawdust Sunday evening.
Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for a piece whose ambition trumped content. The works on this bill made for a far more accurate and rapturously entertaining survey. The Attaccas chose well in championing her, and she deserves champions as committed to and capable of tackling her often dauntingly challenging if reliably tuneful and ever-growing repertoire.
The influence of Bach shone clearly throughout several of these pieces, but through the prism of Philip Glass, in terms of elegantly circling, hypnotic, subtly shifting motives and arpeggios. Distant echoes of late Beethoven and a “nested Bach cantata,” as Shaw grinningly put it, were present. There were also flickers of composers as diverse as Kaija Saariaho and Per Norgard, particularly during the music’s most shimmery, atmospheric moments, most of them a setup for Shaw’s next surprise. None of these pieces followed the traditional four-part mold. The most expansive was Plan & Elevation, an uninterrupted, seven-part suite inspired by the greenery at Dunbarton Hall, a Washington, DC area landmark. The shortest and most overtly triumphant was Valencia, the concluding number, its lithe, loosely tethered, balletesque flourishes celebrating the virtues of a particularly juicy orange, bursting with flavors both sweet and acidic.
Shaw writes very generously for string quartet. Second violinist Keiko Tokunaga got plenty of time in the spotlight, as did first violinist Amy Schroeder and violist Nathan Schram, as Shaw’s kinetic phrasing lept from voice to voice. She makes maximum use of a cello’s most stygian resonances, delivered exuberantly by cellist Andrew Yee. The opening work, Entr’acte, featured all sorts of hushed, muted harmonics, microtones and the occasional devious glisssando. Each member of the quartet seemed pushed, if quietly, to the limits of their extended technique with volley after volley of pizzicato, in addition to gentle doppler or siren effects.
One number explored a Roland Barthes concept about the perception of a particular tone. Punctum, the next-to-last piece, Shaw averred, means both “point” in Latin and also the opening of a tear duct: it turned out to be more of a pensive pavane than a cavatina. The sold-out audience was drawn in raptly and finally exploded in applause: nobody knew when the concert was going to end since there was no program printed or online, at least at the venue’s page. It’s hard to think of an ongoing string quartet cycle that’s going to be more fun to keep in touch with than this one.
The Attacca Quartet’s next New York concert is on January 20 at 7:30 PM featuring Beethoven’s String Quartet No 10, Op 74, “Harp” in E-flat Major, and String Quartet No 9, Op 59 No 3 in C Major, plus Michael Ippolito’s Big Sky, Low Horizon, at Church of the Holy Trinity, 3 W. 65th St.