Composer: Caroline Shaw
“Be free, and live life fully,” writes Caroline Shaw in a note accompanying the score of her Partita. Since that astonishing a capella work received the Pulitzer in 2013 — making Shaw the youngest-ever winner of the most prestigious prize in American composition — the North Carolina native has sustained her commitment to spontaneous collaboration as creative process. An omnipresent voice in the New York classical scene, Shaw is known as both composer and performer, whether playing violin in new-music ensembles or singing in church choirs. And as a musician who primarily writes for close friends (like the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, in which Shaw sings and for which she composed the Partita), she thinks carefully about what it means to make scores that will be interpreted by others.
Co-commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony and premiered in 2015, Lo marks Shaw’s first major work for orchestra: a new challenge and a new opportunity for a composer accustomed to working with her peers. Shaw forges a relationship with the orchestra by inserting herself into the music as violinist; she fulfills her “Be free” adage by choosing not to notate much of her solo part, making every performance of Lo a thoughtful reinvention.
Shaw has purposefully avoided calling Lo a violin concerto — in one interview, she said, “It’s a piece for a lot of players, and I’m going to play the violin”— so do not expect any hyper-Romantic battles between soloist and orchestra. Instead, Shaw occasionally places herself among the ensemble, joining the first violin section as might have been common in Mozart’s day. Lo opens with a kind of improvisatory cadenza — punctuated by delicate intrusions from the winds and strings — and builds in intensity, as different sections of the orchestra obsessively contemplate motto-like phrases. The second movement unfurls a pizzicato chorale soon taken up by the orchestra, as Shaw soars above; gradually, the notation loosens in rhythmic specificity, such that by the end of the work, the ensemble has fully embraced her improvisatory spirit.