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In Harmony: Caroline Shaw at Juilliard

Music Review
Thu Nov 1st, 2018

Caroline Shaw. Photo by Kait Moreno.

Caroline Shaw, one of the wunderkinds of contemporary music, made a public appearance at Juilliard on Thursday night to a packed hall where her well known sounds were performed by accomplished student instrumentalists, ending a week or more of master classes and tours through the halls of Juilliard where she sampled dance, theater and music in their teaching stages. In a one-sided interview dominated by Juilliard’s new president, Damian Woetzel, she managed to make a few points on her own in which she could explain her style and subject matter.

What came across clearly was that her strength is in her singing.  Her clear warm voice blossomed forth in the final pieces of the evening in which she sang three songs of a program called “By & By,” then sang a digitized enrichment of her own voice sections of a poem by Sarah Kay “A Bird Made of Birds,” while the poet herself read. Both were stunning; in both, students performed a string quartet quite well.

To sing American folk-type music to a string quartet is, in itself, something of a revolution. Her compositional simplicity and directness remains what distinguishes her as a composer.  We see or hear traces of Chopin, Mozart and Haydn, which she mentioned in her discussion, but while those antecedents may have been historical necessities, they also may be irrelevant. Her style is honesty and almost plainness. She composes in her voice which is clear, direct, and needs no explaining. 

That Juilliard hosted her in master classes where she worked with students on the own works is reportable news. That the public was invited to hear the result of these classes was a rich dividend. 

We heard “Entr’acte” (2010), a well-known and often played piece for string quartet, and then “Gustave Le Gray” for solo piano expertly played by Johanna Elizabeth Bufler, a familiar piece that could easily become a standard in the piano repertoire. We then heard a new piece, “Thousandth Orange,” (2018) played by a piano quartet that appeared to grow out of the preceding pieces with enriched vocabulary.  

The final and perhaps most dramatic work was the setting to Sarah Kay’s poem “A Bird Made of Birds.” Ms. Kay is no less a performer than Ms. Shaw. Her explanation, then performance of the poem transcended poetry, casting it into a new world of poetry dramatization with music. 

Somehow, this advocate of contemporary music feels that Caroline Shaw’s best work is yet to come. While she has already achieved wide recognition, I wait for her breakthrough piece, one that breaks more barriers and establishes herself as a major composer of the 21st century. I think she can do it. She is receiving commissions left and right. Maybe one will be that breakthrough piece.