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Vibrant quartet has no-nonsense attitude

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The Italian musical term attacca means to proceed directly -- move along without hesitation. It's a well-suited moniker for the youthful Attacca Quartet, which is performing in the Virtuosi Concert Series on Saturday at 8 p.m. Its straight-ahead attitude is delightfully uplifting.

The New York City group, made up of violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokanuga, violist Luke Fleming and cellist Andrew Yee, is taking the place of originally scheduled performer, pianist Cyprien Katsaris. Harry Strub, Virtuosi's resourceful artistic director, proves again that when life gives him lemons he makes lemonade with this fortunate, albeit late switch.

Ever on the lookout for new talent to bring to his Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall stage at the University of Winnipeg, Strub was aware of this vibrant quartet through their agent and thought of them immediately when he needed a replacement. "I met them only a few weeks ago when they were showcased at the Chamber Music America annual presenters' conference in New York," said Strub. "I heard them live and up close in a packed-to-overflowing room. This sophisticated audience of chamber music presenters went a little crazy with enthusiasm for the exuberance and musical maturity we all witnessed."

"It's lucky we were free," Schroeder said in a phone interview she shared with Yee, speaking from the Juilliard School building. "We'll be in Washington two days before and were able to get a flight. We're excited to come to Winnipeg."

The ensemble was established in 2003. "We met on the second day of school," said Yee. "We later decided to form a string quartet. There have been two roster changes since then. We are the two original members."

Tokanuga, from Yokohama, Japan, joined over six years ago, while New Orleans native Fleming is the newest member at two and a half years. Schroeder hails from Buffalo and Yee calls Fairfax, Va., home. With the exception of 29-year-old Fleming, all are just 27.

"We started because we love string quartets," said Yee. "It's a great thing because you are essentially the owner of your own business. You play the repertoire you love. We love Haydn, Bartok and Bach. In the middle of each year we all sit down and ask, 'What do you want to play?' There are still so many works we want to play."

And while the quartet is pretty much a full-time job for the group members, they supplement their income by teaching and coaching. Yee also has a job at a "really nice" coffee shop.

In March the group will record its first professional CD, a compilation of the works of John Adams. It also has an impressive list of contest wins, including the 7th Osaka International Chamber Music Competition in 2011 and the 2010 Melbourne International Music Competition in 2010. "We wish we didn't have to do them," laughed Schroeder, "but it's good experience. You meet fantastic senior musicians and groups and it's great to share experiences with them. It's also a good way to be heard in places we wouldn't be otherwise. It makes us work hard and reach new levels."

In 2010, Attacca embarked on Project 68, a unique and ambitious initiative to perform all 68 Haydn string quartets in a series at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in New York. "It's a spectacular venue," said Yee. They use special classical bows to add authenticity to the performances.

The inspiration came from an exceptional experience Yee had with a particular Haydn work. "Haydn is often used to start a program," he explained. "It's the easy piece for listeners and musicians before going on to the harder stuff. It's always treated that way and you usually only hear the same 12 quartets. But one day I was out walking my dog, listening to a Haydn slow movement I had never heard before on my iPod. I had my big headphones on and it was so rich and so meaningful, I suddenly burst into tears. I called everyone and said 'Let's play this!'"

The project has taken off, with the group tackling three quartets per concert. "It's our happy place," said Yee, "because we realize that Haydn was the creator of the string quartet genre. He wrote them all through his life and you can track his development."

Their concert on Saturday isn't all Haydn, though. They will perform his Opus 77, No. 2 - his final complete string quartet -- but have also programmed Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 2, Opus 44 in E minor, the quartet version of Barber's sweeping Adagio for Strings and String Quartet No. 2 by Janacek, known as Intimate Letters.

With so many quartets on the musical circuit, it can be difficult to differentiate yourself. The Attacca four don't let this worry them. "We've thought about that a lot," said Yee. "But it can be a dangerous thing to grapple with. Our goal is to be as true to ourselves as we can and hopefully that will show through. That's the road to happiness for us and the audience."

Tickets are $43 and $25, available by calling Virtuosi's 24-hour message line at 786-9000.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2012 D4

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