Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Caroline Shaw & the Gardens of Dumbarton Oaks

Who: The Dover Quartet
What: Caroline Shaw's "Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks)", Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor ("From My Life"), and Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 2 in A Major
When: Sunday afternoon, February 26th, at 3:00, with a pre-concert talk by Dr. Truman Bullard at 2:15
Where: Temple Ohev Sholom, on N. Front Street in uptown Harrisburg between Seneca & Emerald Streets.
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"How do you capture the tragic, beautiful loneliness of existence, and the complete, ecstatic joy of existence?" asks composer Caroline Shaw. “The way that I am able at least to get at some of that stuff for myself is through music. What is it about music that is different from other things?”

Considering the work following her “Dumbarton Oaks” quartet on this weekend's concert with the Dover Quartet – officially, it's Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks) – is the quartet Bedřich Smetana subtitled “From My Life,” ending with its famous evocation of his impending deafness, perhaps this might be a good question to preface the entire program: music can entertain, but it can also bring meaning to our existence – and it can bring meaning and expression to the lives of its composers.

We tend to think of composers who get up in the morning and write a piece of music which we will listen to and think “that's nice” or “I didn't like that so much as that other one” often without imagining these composers exist within time, within a period of history during which things happen, during which events affect our lives, during which people who create create in response to events either by engaging them or by disengaging from them.

It is interesting and perhaps curious, 16 years later, to look back on what artists thought about their art and their role as creative artists after September 11th, what impact anything they could create might have in a world changed by current events, events that perhaps trivialize everything else. Now, with political and social events unfolding daily around us with the new administration in Washington, artists are again wondering “how to respond” (I recommend Alex Ross's New Yorker article, “Making Art in a Time of Rage”).

This weekend, the most recent winners of Chamber Music America's Cleveland Quartet Prize, the Dover Quartet, will come to Harrisburg for a concert that includes three works – none of them by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or any other of those typical great Classical composers one expects to find on programs of chamber music: there's a new work (though premiered in 2015, the first work has occasionally been listed as “Commissioned Work TBA”) by a composer who is described as the “youngest winner of a Pulitzer Prize” in Music; the closest thing to a war-horse on the program is Smetana's Quartet “From My Life”; and the second half is the second of Shostakovich's 15 string quartets which rarely get performed in this country (except for the autobiographical No. 8).

(You can read about Shostakovich's 2nd Quartet in this post and Smetana's Quartet “From My Life” in this one.)

But the Dover Quartet – who do perform Beethoven and Mozart and the rest – have chosen a program that may be more thought provoking than mere entertainment, but then “entertainment” is a loaded term in itself that doesn't have to mean “banal” to be entertaining. Whether you remember television being described as “a vast wasteland” in a speech by President Kennedy's newly appointed FCC chairman in 1961 or not, with its string of “game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons” (today, one could replace the Western with, say, Reality TV shows), you might wonder “what is the world coming to?” You might add, with the help of the arts, we have found a way to survive the past.

In this context, we might find Smetana's Quartet “a touch of reality” as it describes various points in its composer's life as Smetana seeks to express “tragic, beautiful loneliness of existence, and the complete, ecstatic joy of existence.” And Shostakovich, writing his quartet at the height of World War II and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, as an example how a composer “disengages from reality” to create something that transcends it and by its very nature finds in the act of creation a way to resist.

And how does Shaw's tribute to “Dumbarton Oaks” fit into this?

Actually, I've no idea, not having heard the work, except to know that any artist these days contends with so much reality – both hopeful and distressing: again, the very act of creativity is to resist and transcend that reality – perhaps by turning chaos into order, by finding beauty in things easily overlooked, by finding ways of expressing joy or catharsis, art reminds us that, despite everything going on around you, you still have a soul.

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Say to a musician or music-lover “Dumbarton Oaks” and a Bach-like string of notes comes cascading out of a work by Igor Stravinsky, his Concerto in E-flat for chamber orchestra which had been commissioned by Robert and Mildred Bliss to celebrate their 30th Wedding Anniversary at their estate in Georgetown, Washington D.C., a place they called “Dumbarton Oaks.” Hence the subtitle by which Stravinsky's three-movement, classically-inspired work is always known.

Caroline Shaw was the first “Early-Career Musician in Residence” at Dumbarton Oaks which is now operated as a museum and research center by Harvard University to whom the Blisses gave the house with its grounds and gardens in 1940. Ms. Shaw was commissioned to write a piece to celebrate the museum's 75th Anniversary while working in the house which has its own rich history.

Originally part of a grant from Queen Anne to Colonel Ninian Beall in 1702, which he called the “Rock of Dumbarton” after his homeland in Scotland, the central part of the existing house was built around 1801 and served as the residence for Vice-President John C. Calhoun in the 1820s. It was enlarged in the mid-19th Century and named “The Oaks.” In 1920, the Blisses bought it and combined the names as “Dumbarton Oaks,” embarking on a renovation and expansion project for both the house and its grounds.

During the late summer and early fall of 1944, at the height of World War II – also the same exact time Shostakovich was composing his 2nd String Quartet – the mansion hosted a conference that resulted in the founding of the United Nations.

Currently under further renovation, the museums will not be open to the public until the Spring of 2017, but the gardens are still open during public hours.

a screen capture of the garden in autumn from the Dumbarton Oaks website

In this clip, Caroline Shaw and Dumbarton director Jan Ziolkowski talk about her being the “Early Career Musician,” what being “in residence” at Dumbarton Oaks meant and how she was preparing to write a new piece for its 75th Anniversary:

“Before her new work’s performance, Shaw explained briefly that the title Plan & Elevation carries a double meaning. It refers not just to architects’ drawings of structures from above and on each side, but also to how Fellows at Dumbarton Oaks, in Shaw’s words, often 'have a plan that develops and changes over their time here in ways they didn’t expect.' Plan & Elevation takes inspiration from the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens – you can explore them with this link, here – and consists of five movements, each named after one of the 'rooms' of the gardens: the Ellipse, the Cutting Garden, the Herbaceous Border, the Orangery, and the Beech Tree (Shaw’s personal favorite).”

It may be February, in fact it may be warm for February, but what nicer way to spend a Sunday afternoon than wandering through the gardens of a historic house like Dumbarton Oaks, musically as well as metaphorically?

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As I mentioned earlier, Caroline Shaw, a triple-threat of a composer, violinist (who plays the viola), and singer, won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2013 for her "Partita for 8 Voices,"  written for her a capella vocal group, Roomful of Teeth. There's a curious dichotomy, here: with a name like "Roomful of Teeth," the title "Partita" seems rather out-of-place, not just because a "partita" is an 18th-Century instrumental form being performed, here, by singers. 

A partita is, among many things, a "suite" in Baroque days, and usually a suite of formulaic and often stereotypical dances, bringing to mind the sarabandes and gavottes that populate much of the instrumental music of the early-1700s, not all of them masterpieces offered to posterity compared to Bach's Partitas for keyboard or for solo violin (or the suites for solo cello or the Orchestral Suites, for that matter). And like Bach's D Minor Partita for solo violin which ends with that magnificent Chaconne (originally a dance-form), Shaw ends her four-movement suite, following an Allemande, a Sarabande and a Courante, with another similar old dance, a Passacaglia, however brief.

Sounds very old-fashioned, no? Until you listen to it.

Partita,” the composer explains, “is a simple piece. Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another. It was written with and for my dear friends in Roomful of Teeth. Inspired by Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 305.”

“This is a deceptive sort of music,” blogger J. Bryan Lowder writes, “with an elegant, easy smoothness built from distinct and fascinating bits-and-pieces. Listening to it is a little like examining a great mosaic, both from a distance and occasionally with a magnifying glass, the better to see the grout between the tiles. Perhaps coincidentally, one of Shaw’s idiosyncratic style guidelines is “silk shoes gliding over marble mosaic.” She’s trying to tell her musicians how to sound, but she might as well have been telling us how to listen—no description could be more apt.” (Read the entire post from Slate's Culture Blog, here.) 

Here is just the final movement of the Partita, recorded at its World Premiere in 2009 by Roomful of Teeth with the composer, third from the left.

Keeping in mind that not all works by one composer necessarily sound alike, style and "voice" aside, and that the challenges of writing for an 8-voice a capella group and for a string quartet each have their different inspirations and their problems-to-solve (technical and aesthetic), I think whatever you may think of this music you will recognize she has an exceptional creative voice (puns intended) and I look forward to hearing this more recent piece to see how she expresses herself further, with or without the considerable pressure of having won a Pulitzer Prize so early in her career.

- Dick Strawser

"Stay tuned" for further posts on the quartets by Shostakovich and Smetana.

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