Inspired by Beethoven, a Caroline Shaw Premiere in Seattle

07/02/2019

Beethoven, Shaw, Shostakovich: Jonathan Biss (piano), Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 2.2.2019. (ZC)

Caroline Shaw (c) Kait Moreno

Beethoven — Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37

Caroline Shaw — Watermark (world premiere)

Shostakovich — Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10

Not too many years ago, Caroline Shaw was a PhD. student in composition, vocalist with Roomful of Teeth, and a sometime instrumentalist. She was little known outside a small group of classical music opinion-makers. But in 2013, when Shaw became the youngest person to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, that changed. Immediately, her winning composition, Partita, became a subversive favorite, even if it wasn’t performed in its entirety until later in 2013. Six years later, Shaw has continued to impress audiences and critics alike with a growing list of compositions, as well as vocal performances. Shaw and Roomful of Teeth were last in Seattle to perform Berio’s Sinfonia. This last weekend, the composer returned to unveil her latest work, Watermark, a concerto for piano and orchestra, in this concert by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

Shaw’s premiere followed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3, and the pairing was no accident. Watermark is part of a project by Jonathan Biss (who joined the orchestra for both works), who commissioned five new piano concertos, each inspired by one of Beethoven’s own. Shaw’s opus is the fourth of the project. Biss continues to show a recent interest in Beethoven; the pianist is in the process, for example, of recording all 32 piano sonatas.

Shaw’s concerto plays with Beethoven’s form and ideas to create narratives that are new, yet also familiar, and in homage, she generously employs phrases from the composer’s Third — at times, quoting Beethoven note-for-note in multiple bars. But more often than not, her references are concealed by her own inventive manipulations.

It helped that the Beethoven, which preceded the Shaw, was given a sinewy interpretation by Biss, the orchestra, and conductor Ludovic Morlot — a reading that resembled a period performance more than a grand modern orchestra statement. But the clarity suitably foreshadowed Shaw’s effort, and as a result, the audience could draw clear connections between the two.

Her Beethoven-like permutations are only part of what made Watermark an enjoyable listen. Shimmering, colorful passages conveyed ambiguity — opposite Beethoven’s purposeful force. Morlot and the orchestra wrapped Biss’s lucid playing in a lush blanket of sound. Hours later, I was left feeling that Shaw had created an approachable work that a novice could enjoy immediately, but also one that would engage and satisfy more seasoned listeners.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No.1 closed the evening. Apparently Morlot added it to the program, along with the composer’s 15th Symphony later this season, as a comparison — a small musical journey for Seattle audience members. For the First Symphony, Morlot and the orchestra whipped up a kinetic, crisp performance that balanced ferocity with humor. But an opportunity was missed, it seems, to connect Shostakovich’s masterful early success with Shaw’s precocious talent. The two halves of this concert belonged together more than the audience may have realized.

Zach Carstensen

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