SummerFest and the Miró Quartet Celebrate Composer Caroline Shaw

Acclaimed American composer Caroline Shaw first won the hearts of San Diego music aficionados when she and her vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth appeared at the 2013 Carlsbad Music Festival. A year earlier, Shaw had startled the American music establishment becoming the youngest composer ever awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize in music.

Caroline Shaw [photo (c.) Kait Moreno]

Since that Carlsbad appearance, numerous local ensembles have programmed Shaw’s engaging music, and at the 2019 La Jolla SummerFest, the Miró Quartet played Shaw’s 2011 “Entr’acte.” Wednesday at this year’s SummerFest, the Miró Quartet played more music by Shaw with the composer present to introduce her works. They also accompanied her singing two of her works, and she played viola with them in Felix Mendelssohn’s B-flat major String Quintet, Op. 87.

I would label that collaboration with an upper-case “C.”

The Miró Quartet opened Wednesday’s early concert in the Baker-Baum Concert Hall with the West Coast première of Shaw’s 2021 Microfictions. Although Shaw’s program note describes the work as “a set of six short musical stories in the tradition of imagist poetry and surrealist painting,” it quickly became clear that we were not dealing with the vivid pictorialism of, say, Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite.

Shaw’s first movement of Microfictions opened with faint harmonics from the upper strings that gradually merged into short, crisp motifs—alternately bowed and plucked. The slow, dark theme offered by cellist Joshua Gindele focused this austere modal movement as the upper strings extended the cello’s plangent offering. “Road signs melted until they were the color of an unrhymed couplet”? Of course!

As an organist, I should have immediately discerned the second movement’s slow, sustained slurring of tones as an allusion to “organ pipes being tuned.”

The slightly dissonant polyphony of the third movement, a gaggle of complex, ascending themes accented by bright pizzicatos did suggest “a summer storm.” I found Shaw’s fourth movement unusually compelling: luminous chords slowly taking shape amid delicate traceries in the three upper string parts. Then violist John Largess unleashed a vivid, Byzantine roulade coyly answered by second violinist William Fedkenheuer and cellist Gindele. Was this “the chord that fell from grace?”

Shaw’s bristling fifth movement offers welcome agitation to this otherwise understated suite. First violinist Daniel Ching’s sharp, jaunty iterations did suggest those omnipresent birds in the paintings of Juan Miró, imagery Shaw evokes in her lengthy title of the movement, “Waking up on the early side that Tuesday . . . Miró noticed a bird . . .”

As the finale subsides quietly, a progression of dark pianissimo chords resolves into tighter, resonant clusters: “The mountains folded in among themselves, as the day grew on . . .”

The Miró Quartet’s ardent attention to detail and sumptuous colors gave this suite the luxurious treatment for which every composer yearns, but only occasionally receives.

Shifting gears from Shaw’s striking contemporary piece to the overconfident, resplendent Romanticism of Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quintet in B-flat major, Op. 87, proved no small challenge. Fortunately, the command of the Miró Quartet, ably assisted by Caroline Shaw on the additional viola part, drew The Conrad audience back into this golden age of European chamber music.

As Eric Bromberger suggests in his printed program notes, the flamboyant first violin part in his String Quintet in B-flat major constantly reminds the listener that its creator was responsible for one of the greatest violin concertos in the repertory. Daniel Ching carried out his daunting assignment with an exuberance than never compromised the crystalline precision of his phrasing or his splendidly tapered dynamics. I should add without hesitation that second violin William Fedkenheuer matched his colleague’s flair and robust sonority—he simply had fewer chances to flaunt his prowess.

From the eloquent, elegiac third movement, “Adagio e lento,” to the powerful, dramatic closing “Allegro molto vivace,” the Miró Quartet and Caroline Shaw gave The Conrad audience a memorable dose of Mendelssohn.

Wednesday’s second SummerFest concert moved to the comfort and intimacy of the JAI, a marvelously high ceilinged room adjacent to the Baker-Baum Concert Hall with table seating that accommodates an audience of about 100. Food and drink is available, but I have never noted any diminution of attention to music performance under these more relaxed conditions.

Shaw’s “Thousandth Orange” opened the JAI program, a recent work for piano quartet that Shaw explained was a sequel to her earlier orange-themed opus for string quartet, “Valencia.” The latter piece has been performed in San Diego by both Art of Élan (May, 2019) and the Hausmann Quartet (February, 2020).

The heart of “Thousandth Orange” is a short chord progression largely owned by the piano, deftly supplied by SummerFest Music Director Inon Barnatan. Mainly a one-handed ostinato, the progression is taken to foreign keys with unexpected overlappings by the violin, viola and cello. Shaw’s piece takes on the character of a chaconne, but one that indulges in jazzy syncopations.

The Miró Quartet decided to intersperse three shorter Shaw pieces between the four movements of the Maurice Ravel String Quartet in F Major, an idea that worked out splendidly. Miró possesses the sonic breadth that lends brilliance to the fast, impassioned sections of the Ravel String Quartet, yet can turn magically transparent and mysterious in Ravel’s tender moments. Hearing Miró play Ravel in the JAI–where even the back of the room is extraordinarily close to the performers–is almost like having the Miró Quartet play in one’s living room. And the deft structures of Shaw’s music complemented the Ravel in unexpected ways.

Shaw’s “And So” for voice and string quartet presents a collage of poetic references to roses, including the famous Gertrude Stein line, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Shaw as composer surrounds the voice with a halo of gentle string chords, but Shaw as vocalist carried weakly over the light voicing of the strings. To “Cant voi l’aube,” the text of a 12th-century trouvère song in Old French whose music is lost, Shaw crafted her own melodic line and a sweet accompaniment that at times echoed the patterns of Ars Nova secular motets but also relaxed into a contemporary parlando that encompassed the lengthy text gracefully.

Shaw’s “The Cutting Garden,’ a solo piece for string quartet that references her own earlier works “Entr’acte” and “Valencia” again lavishes compelling cello themes that ground the work and allow his colleagues to comment in wry fashion on his musical ideas.

These two concerts were presented by the La Jolla Music Society on Wednesday, August 24, 2022, at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla.


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