You could make a case that chamber music requires more human cooperation and coordination than almost any endeavor. Both qualities were on abundant display in Attacca Quartet’s concert Sunday afternoon at the University of the District of Columbia, presented by Washington Performing Arts. These four musicians — violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram, and cellist Andrew Yee — have been playing together since 2003 when they were students at Juilliard. They may be a relatively young ensemble, but already they come very close to epitomizing the string quartet ideal: four strikingly individual players with the ability to speak eloquently in one voice.
From the hushed opening measures of “Entr’acte,” by Caroline Shaw, Attacca cast a spell over the audience that lasted the entire concert. Shaw, herself a violinist and the youngest composer to win a Pulitzer, knows how to write for strings. Attacca communicated their joyful enthusiasm for this intriguing, idiomatic music with all the spontaneity of an on-the-spot improvisation.
Attacca’s ensemble precision is impressive. They maintain bell-like intonation in sounds so quiet as to be barely audible. Their full-throttle loud is robust, round and orchestral, never strident. They move between dynamic extremes with the same speed and ease that they accelerate or slow the tempo, always with complete unanimity. Startlingly abrupt shifts of mood or atmosphere are perfectly calibrated to further the musical narrative, and complex musical textures emerge with the clarity and purpose of animated conversation.
All these values contributed to an impassioned performance of Mendelssohn’s Second Quartet, Op. 13, the most persuasive of the young composer’s several musical monuments to Beethoven. But the afternoon peaked in the nether reaches of Beethoven’s C-sharp minor Quartet, Op. 131. Attacca negotiated this constantly changing emotional terrain with confidence, authority and a wisdom well beyond their collective years. Mastery like this is scarce enough in quartets that have played together for decades. I can’t wait to hear them again.