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Caroline SHAW (b.1982)
Is a Rose (2016-2019) [16:15]
The Listeners (2019) [35:12]
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Avery Amereau (contralto), Dashon Burton (bass-baritone)
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale/Nicholas McGegan
rec. 2019, Berkeley, USA

Caroline Shaw, born in North Carolina in 1982, is one of the most interesting figures around in contemporary music at the moment. You can see her talking about her pieces in a number of You Tube videos, and she comes over as unpretentious and full of a straightforward love of music. She is also exceptionally versatile, having worked as a Baroque violinist, a singer, and a recording producer with the like of Kanye West. She is a member of the vocal group ‘Roomful of Teeth’, and a composition of hers for them, the Partita for 8 Voices, was responsible for the award of a Pullitzer Prize in 2013.

So what of her music? Rather than call it ‘accessible’ (which, however, it happens to be), I would call it ‘ear-friendly’, for she writes with such obvious love for the instruments and voices she uses, and with such respect for the musicians who perform it. There are clear influences, and echoes of earlier composers: Copland in the contours of some of the melodic lines; and Steve Reich and John Adams, most explicitly in the textures of the instrumental movement Pulsar. But please don’t get me wrong – Shaw is not a Minimalist! Yes, she is fond of ostinati (as are most composers of the past century), but they are used as a structural device rather than as a permanent feature throughout a movement.

As a Baroque violinist, Shaw is ideally placed to write for the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. This group, founded in 1981, has been conducted for the past thirty-five years by the redoubtable Nicholas McGegan, and they put great emphasis on commissioning new works from composers for their period instrument forces. There is also the Philharmonia Chorale, a chamber choir who can be heard in the second work, The Listeners. Added to that are three top-class soloists; the great mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, the alto Avery Amereau, and the bass Dashon Burton.

The first work, Is a Rose, is a group of three songs written for von Otter, with an orchestra of strings, oboe and harpsichord. The texts are, in turn, the poem ‘The Edge’ by contemporary poet Jacob Polley, then Caroline Shaw’s own ‘And So’, and finally Rabbie Burns’s ‘A Red, Red Rose’ (somewhat adapted by Shaw) of 1794. The settings are contemplative, sometimes hesitant, very gentle, yet with sudden bursts of sumptuous lyricism. Von Otter sings with complete understanding, using a wide range of vocal colours, employing here and there a jazz-like crooning, though never overdone.

The songs are extremely intimate; you feel almost as if you are eavesdropping on an intimate scene. The piece that follows, The Listeners, is a very different affair, being an oratorio, albeit not a long one. The subject matter is the famous ‘Golden Record’ that was prepared by the scientist Carl Sagan in 1977, then carried into deep space by Voyagers 1 and 2 – which are still out there somewhere to this day. The ‘Listeners’ of the title are presumably those imaginary beings who get to listen to the recording one day (assuming they’ve not yet moved on to compact disc, that is!) It’s a beautiful conceit, and Shaw skilfully mixes music and recordings of spoken language, notably Sagan’s own words about the insignificance of our Earth as seen from interstellar space.

Shaw loves to experiment with mixed media in this way, though, to be fair, this is something that probably works better in live performance than on disc, where we may lose the ‘deus ex machina’ effect. It still makes an impact, though, perhaps influenced by John Adams’ use of a similar technique in On the transmigration of souls amongst others of his works.

The two young soloists, alto Avery Amereau and bass-baritone Dashon Burton, sing superbly. Amereau has a true contralto voice, richly expressive but also flexible, while Burton deals magnificently with the often alarmingly high writing for a bass-baritone. The chorale don’t have a huge amount of singing, but do have the powerful choruses that frame the work. This illustrates one of the most notable aspects of Shaw’s writing – her economy. Not a note is wasted, no instrument or voice is included just as a make-weight, with the result that every fresh tone-colour makes its impact tellingly.

One slight reservation; the climaxes of the opening and closing choruses mentioned above are the only places where the small choir numbering around twenty-three sounds a little underpowered, despite the excellence of the voices – but full marks to the engineers for resisting the temptation to ‘fiddle’ the balance to bring up the choir.

I enjoyed this disc enormously, especially Is a Rose, which I find spell-binding. Caroline Shaw is a real talent, whose freshness and joy in music-making of all kinds is a true inspiration.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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