Oregon Cultural Trust

“Are you still there?” Caroline Shaw at Willamette University

All-Shaw concert featuring Katherine Skovira brings thoughtful, inquiring atmosphere to Salem

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An evening of music (February 2) at Willamette University celebrated the evocative music of Caroline Shaw. The concert–the culmination of Shaw’s residency at the university–featured a number of her works in varying formations for piano, voice, choir, and string ensemble. Students, faculty, and professionals unaffiliated with the campus participated with verve, creating a memorable event for the audience at Hudson Hall and those watching the livestream.

Shaw’s residency was made possible by the Grace Goudy Distinguished Artists Series, established 30 years ago by professor emeritus Anita King. In recent years, under the direction of Jean-David Coen, the series has brought to Salem the talents of soprano Julianne Baird, pianist Janina Fialkowska, singer-composer Theo Bleckman, guitarist Xuefei Yang, and multi-Grammy-winning jazz pianist Billy Childs.

Now, the series can boast of Shaw, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her a cappella piece Partita for 8 Voices, which offers a strikingly fresh sound via extended vocal techniques, including Tuvan throat singing. The award vaulted her into high demand. She has responded with works that span classical and popular music as well as multiple media, including dance, film, and even collaborations with Kayne West, Beyoncé, and Dolly Parton. 

To kick off the all-Shaw extravaganza at Willamette University, the composer gave a few introductory remarks to each piece except for the last one, which was commissioned by the series. Her unpretentious, informal style and infectious personality resonated well with the audience. 

The first piece on the program, Gustave Le Grey for solo piano, was named for the innovative French photographer, whose work inspired Shaw in a metaphorical way. The piece has a series of chord progressions that framed a fragment from Chopin’s Mazurka 17, No. 4.

Trinity Goff, a 20-year-old pianist at Willamette University, gave a sensitive performance, carefully building the repetitive, ascending chords that shifted slightly before centering on the quote from Chopin. Then, it seemed in a more freed-up stance, she gracefully returned the piece to its opening statement. 

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Next on the program came To the Hands, a cantata for choir and string quintet. This six-movement work came about during the Syrian refugee crisis and contains a staggering recitation of numbers from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, reflecting people in search of a new place.

With Chris Engbretson conducting the Willamette University Chamber Choir, the Salem String Quartet (violinists Calius and Sigrun Oprea, violist Brandon Brown, and cellist Katherine Parks), and bassist Kevin Brown, the cantata began with eerily-high violins and a chant of voices. That calm was broken when the singers cried (in Latin) that peoples’ hands were wounded. The agitation led to a movement based on Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Here, the choir pleaded for mercy for those who are forced to flee warfare. The ensemble created a sense of loss before reciting the number of people fleeing. (The last number I could recall hearing was six million.) The chaos subsided as the men and women echoed back and forth “I will hold you; I will enfold you” accompanied by pizzicatos from the strings.

The choir, consisting of 24 voices, deserved high marks for an excellent blend, precision, and good diction despite having to wear masks. The quintet supported the singers extremely well, and it was great to see Shaw make a dash to the stage door to congratulate the performers. 

After intermission, Valdine Mishkin gave a succinct performance of In manus tuas (Into your hands) for solo cello, which Shaw derived from a 16th century motet by Thomas Tallis. Repetitive lines drifted, varying in dynamics. Some notes had a hollow ring that made it sound as if it were being played in a much larger space. Now and then, Mishkin accompanied her playing by intoning a vowel. Pizzicatos shaped the end of the piece, which ended solemnly.

On a lighter note, mezzo-soprano Katherine Skovira–Zeller Chair in Dramatic Vocal Arts at Willamette University–and the Delgani String Quartet (violinists Anthea Kreston and Jannie Wei, violist Kimberlee Uwate, and cellist Eric Alterman) performed Cant voi l’aube with lyrics from a 12th-century French manuscript. Skovira expressed the feelings of ardent love marvelously. The last words created a sense of longing that was deliciously juxtaposed with the tic toc of time from the cello.

In Valencia, which Shaw said was inspired by “the beauty of an orange,” the Delgani String Quartet elicited an exciting sequence of sounds. Initially the violins held court in the high register against pizzicatos from the viola and cello. Later, sliding, slurring, and slicing tones built incredible tension that was released into a flowing stream. The piece acquired a more pronounced rhythm before closing with aggressive plucking that was akin at times to strumming. After a decisive finale, the audience erupted with cheers. 

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The concert closed with the world premiere of Solitaire for mezzo-soprano and piano, commissioned for Skovira. Based on a poem by Ruta Kuzmickas, the text expressed frustration with technology in the form of cell phones but on a deeper, more existential level. Performed with poignant intensity by Skovira and Jean-David Coen (with Kuzmickas, an acclaimed pianist, turning pages), Shaw’s music created a questioning atmosphere that lingered hauntingly with the words “Are you still there?”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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