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Attacca Quartet Charms Vassar

Unusual program of music
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Feb 7th, 2016

Composer Richard Wilson


The Attacca Quartet, now in its twelfth season out of the Juilliard School and currently the Quartet in Residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, offered a program of three strikingly different pieces at Vassar's Skinner Hall.


In 1774 Haydn moved to London bringing along manuscripts marking a new musical departure, music written the previous year which employed a broader brush more addressed to the public than the more personal court music he had for some time composed. The quartets he brought along with him offered a synthesis of the Classical style and the Romantic style, an approach that greatly influenced Beethoven and Schubert. In  the Attacca  Quartet's performance of String Quartet in C major, op. 74, no. 1, I thought the Classical was more emphasized than the Romantic. They played well, yet I thought that there might have been more underlying emotion within the notes--but such emphasis remains a matter of interpretive slant. Amy Schroeder on first violin was superb. Click below for an Attacca Quartet sample video.


With composer Richard Wilson in the audience, they played his String Quartet no. 3 (1982). This sobering meditation on death remains both personal and public. Wilson, a childhood friend of conductor Leon Botstein since their early teenage years, wrote this piece to commemorate the death of Leon Botstein's daughter. The opening Prelude offers an unrelenting series of questions in edgy, yet strangely dynamic sinews. This arresting, quizzical lament is followed by Episode, which provides no resolution, yet poses some humorous self-mocking questions about answers that have no answer. The concluding Elegy opens with a low bass cello lament (exquisitely done by Andrew Yee) that struggles toward discovering a modest resignation in the face of death where somber  personal, as well as public concerns, admit movement toward some degree of resolution. Here the Attacca Quartet fully realized the authenticity of Wilson's emotional depth amid his brilliant, probing composition, a composition that should more often be a staple of the contemporary repertoire around the globe.


After such solemnity, the program offered a raucous conclusion with eight of the nine pieces from John Adams' composition for quartet and prepared piano, John's Book of Alleged Dances first performed by the Kronos Quartet in 1994. Adams famously quipped that "the steps for them had yet to be invented." He also declared that they may be played in any order. The pieces have humorous titles and explanations: "Alligator Escalator" is supposedly about an alligator traveling up and down Macy's Department Store wooden escalators; "Toot Nipple" (where Nathan Schram excelled on viola) a drunk dancing with a woman; "Judah to Ocean" depicting a train car riding to the Pacific Ocean. These and the other silly titles with comic explanations were all ribald allegories about sex and if you want a detailed explanation you can buy me a glass of wine for each not-that-all-obscure explanation. With Valentine's Day approaching, I suppose such wonderfully silly fare is not inappropriate. Everyone played with rollicking gusto. You can check out this piece for yourself on the internet at

Adams, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has troubled traveling because he is on the Department of Homeland Security terrorist watch list due to the perceived political nuance of some compositions.