Caroline Shaw – Orange (CD Review)

Caroline Shaw – Orange

Attaca Quartet

Nonesuch/New Amsterdam CD

Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2013, Caroline Shaw has been a busy musician in the years following, performing as a vocalist with Roomful of Teeth (which recorded her prizewinning work Partita), violinist with ACME, and recording with Kanye West (yes, that Kanye West!). Shaw’s versatility and abundant creativity has kept her in demand for new commissions. Despite all this, Orange is the first portrait CD of her music. It is the first recording in a new partnership between Nonesuch and New Amsterdam Records. Given her own string instrument background, it seems especially appropriate that the CD contains chamber works performed by the estimable Attacca Quartet.  

Shaw frequently evokes the work of earlier composers in her own music, with snippets reminiscent of Beethoven and Bach in Punctum, Dowland’s consort music in Entr’acte, and Purcell in Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a. But this channeling of the past never feels like pastiche or ironic critique. The composer’s juxtapositions instead seem celebratory in character. The adroit deployment of a plethora of styles, from earlier models to the postminimalism, totalism, and postmodern aesthetics of more recent music accumulate into a singular voice; one buoyed by keen knowledge of the repertoire and flawless technique in writing for strings.

The latter quality is amply displayed in Valencia, in which pizzicato, sliding fiddle tunes, and high-lying arpeggios combine to create a fascinating, multifaceted texture. Entr’acte uses a lament motive as its ostinato, building from a simple descending chord progression to rich verticals and, later, plucked passages redolent in supple harmonies. Punctum builds rich chords to contrast repeated notes and undulating repetitions.

Plan and Elevation is a multi-movement work that celebrates gardens, “the herbaceous border” that outlines them, trees, and the fruit that they bear. These pastoral images inspire some of the most beautiful and expansive music on the CD. Once again, a descending minor key ground is a significant part of the piece’s organization, appearing in multiple movements.

The album’s closer, Limestone and Felt, is a one-movement miniature for viola and cello, combining pizzicato, percussive thumps on the bodies of the instruments, and several canons. It serves as an excellent encapsulation of the simultaneous joy and rigor that embodies so much of Caroline Shaw’s music.

  • Christian Carey

Best Contemporary Opera Recording 2017: Andriessen’s “Theatre of the World”

Louis Andriessen

Theatre of the World

Leigh Melrose, Lindsey Kesselman, Marcel Beekman, Steven van Watermeulen, Mattijs van de Woerd, Cristina Zavalloni, vocal soloists

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor

Nonesuch 2xCD

 

Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s 2016 opera, Theatre of the World, subtitled “A Grotesque in Nine Scenes,” is a fantastical portrait of Seventeenth century polymath Athanasius Kircher. Commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a recording of the live performance of this production was released in 2017 on Nonesuch.

 

In a nonlinear narrative propelled by effusively polystylistic music, played with assuredness and flexibility by LA Phil under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw, Kircher’s thwarted late life ambition to find a theory for essentially everything is vividly but quixotically depicted. Among the variety of formal and stylistic devices are Renaissance style counterpoint and dances, post-minimal figurations, neoclassicism in the mold of Stravinsky, and oodles of pop ranging from Latin dances to doo wop to Krautrock. Amplified voices alongside acoustic instruments (apart from an electric guitar and synthesizer) allowing for even the most muscular sections of the orchestration never to overwhelm the singing. The vocalists are uniformly up for the significant demands placed upon them by the score. Particularly fine performances are given by Leigh Melrose in the title role, Lindsey Kesselman playing the boy/Devil, and Cristina Zavalloni as a nun who corresponds with Kircher, serving as intellectual foil, inspiration, and even at times confessor.

 

On a quest for knowledge, Kircher and his companions are misled by the Devil and periodically waylaid by witches and an ominous executioner: hence the grotesqueries. The production’s visuals apparently evoke nightmarish vistas, like an entropic funhouse full of circus mirrors. While a video recording of the opera would be a fascinating document, particularly if the production team were able to further enhance already significant onstage use of multimedia, one still gets a strong sense of the its atmosphere from the audio recording alone. That said, even with libretto and booklet notes in hand, the quick shifts between characters and of plot, demeanor, sung language (I counted seven), and musical tropes makes Theatre of the World a formidable piece to ascertain. Those willing to provide an attentive ear will find themselves richly rewarded by Andriessen’s compelling use of the aforementioned plethora of material to stymy stale operatic conventions and, in their place, embrace a richly hued, multimedia theatrical environment. Theatre of the World is the most imaginative and ambitious piece that LA Philharmonic has commissioned and presented to date. Nonesuch’s excellent CD of it is my pick for Best Contemporary Opera Recording 2017.

Offa Rex: “The Queen of Hearts” (Video)

Offa Rex’s “The Queen of Hearts” (Nonesuch).

Offa Rex, a collaboration between alt-folk vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Olivia Chaney and indie rock stalwarts the Decemberists, released their debut LP, Queen of Hearts, today via Nonesuch Records. Check out a video for the title track below.

Nickel Creek is back! New recording and tour dates

Tour Dates
Friday and Saturday, April 18 and 19
Nashville, TN
Ryman Auditorium

Tuesday, April 29
New York, NY
Beacon Theatre

Thursday, May 1
Boston, MA
House of Blues

Saturday, May 3
Washington, DC
9:30 Club

Friday, May 9
Chicago, IL
Riviera Theater

Monday, May 19
Oakland, CA
Fox Theater

June 19-22
Telluride, CO
Telluride Bluegrass Festival