Curiosity about Caroline Shaw brought me to the Sunday’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum concert featuring Chamber Orchestra in Residence A Far Cry together with the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. Last year Shaw, at age 30, became the youngest composer ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music, for her Partita for eight voices [here], which she wrote for Roomful of Teeth. The work premiered on this program, Music in Common Time goes far beyond that.
A versatile musician, Shaw also sings with the Teeth, as well as being a violinist (but not with the Criers). Three works were on the program. Shaw’s arrangement of Josquin des Prez’s La Déploration sur la mort de Johannes Ockeghem, and Shaw’s newly composed Music in Common Time made up the first half of the program (with the two ensembles joined in both works). The second half was a single work, the Criers in Mahler’s arrangement of Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, Death and the Maiden.
The Josquin motet, profound and thoughtful, was performed with great clarity. I appreciated Shaw’s fresh take on the familiar work. The resonance of the string bass was a sonority of a more recent century, and used sparingly but with great impact. The final couplet was sung by the voices alone, but then the strings entered, holding a single note under the voice’s cadence, then moving to take up the repetition of the couplet with strings alone; the voices returned for the final poignant cadence.
The program note (drawn from an Allmusic.com source, more on them below), was a description of the original motet, and not Shaw’s arrangement. Here Shaw might have been the one to explain how this work was chosen for inclusion.
I thought it might have effectively been paired with another work from that era that would share its polyphonic vocabulary. I also wished the text and translations for the motet had been provided. It is not enough for them to be described in the program note.
Shaw provided her own program note provided for her new work, “Music in Common Time,” and while she explained something about how it came into being, she told us little else about it. But in the case of a new work “fresh from the frying pan,” I’m more sympathetic to the lack of explication; that, after all, can come later. And it’s usually lovely when composers say a few words about their new piece, but with Shaw in her dual role as composer and ensemble member, one can see that she might want to avoid having yet another ball added to those that she juggles.
Commissioned by A Far Cry, and written for the two ensembles, Music in Common Time goes far beyond the Partita in its emotional depth and impact. I hear it drawing from music’s expressive history as well as bringing in extended techniques to create a powerful artistic experience.
Shaw writes of the origins of her piece as single D major chord, with the work bursting out from that. Beginning with the strings catapulting in full motion, and the voices interacting as wordless instruments, there was a terrific sense of motion, of a vast ever-expanding universe. The intensity of the energy (enhanced by the vigor of the playing and perfection of the tuning) reminded me simply of Wagner’s E-flat major at the beginning of the Ring cycle, of the universe that congeals before our ears into something unbounded and limitless.
The voices, in an outburst, offer words and then lurch into sounds: buzzing, humming, sliding. Some brittle snap pizzicatos, and then a gentle pizz pattern followed, with the voices sliding in and out of it. The strings moved into a series of rising half-step progressions, ascending in a gigantic spiral (I wondered if it was an inversion of the evocative descending figure near the end of the Josquin motet!) The voices moved around this in clusters or flourishes. Finally the strings and voices mesh, with the voices adding the eerie resonances of throat singing (a high rasping partial resonating over a low fundamental tone). The building tension ends with a descent and decrescendo (as a long exhale), articulated with plucked strings. The piece might have effectively ended there.
But the singers, rather exuberantly, launched on a new section, this one with words (beginning with the phrase “Years ago…”— were these Shaw’s words, or someone else’s poem? Again, that would be a nice tidbit to give us in the program). While everything else about the piece was gripping and had powerful momentum, this one idea evoked a banal collegiate a cappella pop song, conventionally tuneful. The strings re-entering brought back more layers of meaning, as they tinged the D tonality with some modal ambiguity and piquant cross-relations. And after so much emphasis on one key, the ending was— not an agreement, but rather a much richer agreeing to disagree.
This was an exhilarating and wholly satisfying musical journey, and I was very thrilled to witness the launch of a new work by a brilliant and innovative composer.
Perhaps it’s unfair for someone not predisposed to like arrangements or transcriptions to review a program that features an arrangement or transcription. What would the string ensemble bring to Schubert’s intensely intimate string quartet, Death and the Maiden? What, of course, besides more strings? More people—larger forces—do not enhance intimacy. This quartet really does not need tampering with. What led Mahler to do it (and did Mahler really cut the repeat of the exposition)?
The program note was frustrating in its brevity. And later when I learned that it in fact was lifted from a ubiquitous website, I felt disrespected. “Rovi Staff” (given as the note’s author) is of course not a person, but rather a reference to the Rovi Corporation, parent company of Allmusic.com, where the description can be found, one that itself dates back from a Musical Heritage Society LP (where no author is named either).
This very generic description did not address the arrangement that we heard. The information about Schubert’s quartet I found in Wikipedia was much more interesting, because there, noted authors are cited (“The finale is most definitely in the character of a dance of death; ghastly visions whirl past in the inexorable uniform rhythm of the tarantella,” according to W.W. Cobbett.)
I appreciated the brief spoken introduction offered by the Criers: two of them (I don’t believe they introduced themselves) offered some comments and words of welcome for each half of the program. However it does seem odd to me that no one from the ensemble or the venue would take on the responsibility of explaining how the arrangement of this well-known string quartet came into being, or what attracted the performers to it—do the performers prefer it to the quartet version?
The flaws of the arrangement are the obvious ones, that spontaneous expressions among four individuals are turned into staged gestures when executed by a large group. But the playing was so beautiful, loving, and precise that no large ensemble could have done it better. And there were some real plusses: the drama of the fortissimos with the fullness of the bass sound with the string basses and four cellos offers a different kind of excitement. Also, in the second movement, the statement of the theme had a very special poignancy in its hushed, restrained, murmur by the entire ensemble, and even more so at the end of the movement. The Scherzo—Mozartian in its tautness— also came off well.
In short I was very glad I attended this concert, although I don’t think the Schubert quartet was the best use of the Criers’ programming possibilities.
One more thing: the concert was officially sold-out, but I noticed at least 15 empty seats. Surely if people purchase seats, but then decline to occupy them by concert time, those seats should be reassigned to others. It seems a shame to have people turned away when the house is not actually full.