"It's really tough to describe what it is to be a string quartet musician, but there's a unified sound you can tap into that is really unlike anything else," says Andrew Yee, a masterful cellist and one-fourth of Attacca Quartet.
Yee is an ideal ambassador for classical music broadly, and the string quartet specifically. The 35-year-old is Juilliard-trained, but first picked up the cello as a public school student in Virginia. He has deep knowledge, obviously, of the classical canon, but is also passionate about a good old-fashioned cocktail and was, for a time, making stop-motion animated films of cooking projects and posting to a Tumblr account he dubbed "The Hungry Cellist."
In other words, if your idea of string-driven classical music is that it's only for stiff, older "elites," think again. Listening to Yee describe it is exhilarating.
"If you've been in a car going 120 miles per hour, you suddenly don't feel like you're in a car anymore, and also, you don't know if you're going to live or you're going to die," Yee says. "You're out there on that edge. There's a certain element of that to playing in a string quartet, which is like a really good drug. That's the thing that we all like to tap into."
Yee's been chasing that rush with the Attacca Quartet for 17 years, since launching the group with his Juilliard classmate and violinist friend Amy Schroeder. They met their first day at the prestigious New York City music school, and after first playing as a duo, then as a trio including a pianist, they then formed the Attacca Quartet "and just kept getting concerts," Yee says. The group is rounded out by violist Nathan Schram and newest member and violinist Domenic Salerni, who recently took over for Keiko Tokunaga.
The combination of the quartet's individual talents has earned them acclaim from throughout classical music quarters, and you can add the Northwest BachFest next week to the long list of high-profile showcases they've enjoyed, including two years as the Juilliard Graduate Resident String Quartet and a year as Quartet in Residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
"We have four incredibly individual people who are very curious," Yee says in explaining the chemistry of his group. "We all have a lot of sort of weird ideas, but I think we all share this desire to make this very special, specific sound."
That sound earned the Attacca Quartet their first Grammy a couple weeks ago, earning the trophy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance for their recording of contemporary composer Caroline Shaw's "Orange."
While the quartet's award was not one of the few that was televised, they got to mingle during their awards ceremony with folks they admire like fellow winners I'm With Her (a folk trio featuring Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan) and world-music star Angelique Kidjo. And while Yee says "we didn't meet Billie Eilish or anything like that," the quartet did get great seats close to the stage for the televised show. And after doing a lot of interviews and having a lot of pictures taken after their win, Attacca Quartet also got to hit the Grammy afterparties, trophy in hand. When I talked to Yee a couple days after the awards, he noted "I'm just getting over my hangover now."
"I grew up watching the Grammys, and there's something sort of culturally baked into us that you can't help but just be flabbergasted," Yee says of the experience of winning. "I still don't quite understand what happened. It means a lot."
When the Attacca Quartet arrives in Spokane to headline the first week of Zuill Bailey's Northwest BachFest, they'll play four shows celebrating Beethoven's 250th birthday. The eight Beethoven quartets they'll play — two each evening — will be interspersed with works by three living composers, including on Wednesday a selection from their Grammy-winning recording.
Yee views tackling classic works by Beethoven as a challenge that's fun for the quartet to contemplate.
"Anybody who's ever been in even an amateur quartet has probably played Beethoven. He's one of those composers who just wrote really, really good quartets," Yee says. "Saying 'What exactly is our take on this music?' and to be open to actual exploration about how you truly feel about this music and not just recreate someone else's idea — or just being lazy and playing it how it's supposed to go — can be a real soul-searching prospect."
Mining those emotions as a musician is one of the exciting aspects of playing, though, and sharing that experience with his bandmates, Yee says, is a means of growing closer with the legendary composer himself.
"It's one of those things where you find yourself immersed in somebody's language, in their world, and you get a sense after playing somebody's music for that long that you start to understand him as a human being," Yee says. "Beethoven just is one of those people who, when you start to inhabit their world, you become sort of humbled. And you get the sense that he was maybe a little bit more likable than he's portrayed. He's funny, and he's thoughtful, but there's also a lot of pain. A lot of the music is unspeakably painful, but also [it is] some of the most exuberant, joyful music out there. It really is an emotional whirlwind." ♦
Attacca Quartet at Northwest Bachfest • Tue-Wed, Feb. 25-26, and Fri-Sat, Feb. 28-29 at 7:30 pm • $35/$15 students; Special Finale dinner with Zuill Bailey performance and auction • Sun, March 1 at 5:30 pm • $65 • All ages • Barrister Winery • 1213 W. Railroad Ave. • nwbachfest.com