by Steven Pisano
Simply put: What can't Caroline Shaw do? As a violinist, she seems just as much at home playing a Mozart quartet as she does a sweet Southern spiritual. As a vocalist, both solo and as a member of Roomful of Teeth, her clear, pure voice would be just as at home in church as it would be on a pop stage. And, as a composer, she became youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for Partita for Eight Voices; she added a Grammy to her shelf last year for her album Orange, performed by and with the Attacca Quartet. (Check out this live performance of Orange at the Greene Space last April.)
Now 37 years old (though she seems much younger when you meet her) last week's "Composer Portrait" of Shaw at the Miller Theater seemed perfectly timed as a sort of mid-career retrospective. She seems to be working with everybody these days, from the New York Philharmonic (who has commissioned a piece from her as part of its Project 19 initiative celebrating female composers) to Kanye West. And while that kind of range can sometimes come across as gimmicky, for Shaw it is just an organic part of her all-encompassing musical world, wherein collaboration is an essential part of artistic development.
The Miller program was divided into two parts. The first half of the night was devoted to the Attacca Quartet (Amy Schroeder and Dominic Salerni on violins, Nathan Schram on viola, and Andrew Yee on cello) playing three of her string quartets--"Entr'acte" (2011), "Punctum" (2009/2013), and "Blueprint" (2015). Attacca (pronounced a-tock-a) has a special affinity for Shaw's work, which was fully on display last summer when they performed an all-Shaw program for an uptown Crypt Session.
Shaw herself did not participate in this first half, but after the intermission, she came to the stage for an interview with the Miller's executive director Melissa Smey, which was followed by Sō Percussion (Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting) backing up Shaw's vocals with everything from gongs and drums, to flower pots and coffee cans.
Narrow Sea (2017) featured the lyrics to a number of shape note hymns set to Shaw's music. Among the evocative titles were "I am a poor wayfaring stranger," "Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood," and "She said she'd meet me when I come." Let the soil play its simplest part (2019) included the song "Lay all your love on me": an homage to the ABBA song reworked for marimba and voice by Shaw and Sō Percussion pianist Adam Sliwinski. The music was appealing and approachable, blending a low-key pop sensibility with a new music approach.
When the night was over, it was clear that the program was not so much a complete portrait of Caroline Shaw as a sketch of all her multifaceted talents (except she did not play her violin). For fans like me, it was bliss. For audience members not familiar with her work, it was an eye-opener. As my seat neighbors packed up their belongings at the end, they looked at each other wide-eyed and said, "She really is gooood."
Roomful of Teeth, with Caroline Shaw, perform at Lincoln Center's "American Songbook" series on February 13.The final two "Composer Portrait" programs at the Miller Theater feature Oscar Bettison on February 20 and Dai Fujikura on March 5.
More photos can be found here.