This interview originally aired on September 16, 2020 . We rebroadcast it on March 17, 2021.
Julie Amacher, Classical MPR
When it comes to Baroque music, very little is written on the page, so it's up to the musicians to imagine and bring their own ideas to light. That's one reason Caroline Shaw was so excited to write her first oratorio for chorus and period instrument orchestra. It's titled, "Listeners," and it's one of two new works featured on a new recording with Nicholas McGegan, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and chorale. Mezzo-soprano Anne-Sophie Von Otter is also the featured soloist in a song-cycle composed just for her titled, "Is a Rose."
Caroline Shaw is probably best known for being the youngest recipient ever to win a Pulitzer-Prize back in 2013. "And now it's been seven years or so and quite a lot has changed. So I'm really grateful for a lot of the opportunities to work with musicians that I never thought that I would ever meet like Anne Sophie von Otter and Renee Fleming and people that I'm just really lucky to get to work with them and and a chance to grow. And I feel like with every piece that I've been able to, you know, have the opportunity to write since then, I've learned a lot and grown a lot. And I'm really grateful for that.
Your song trilogy "Is a Rose" was written for mezzo-soprano Anne-Sophie Von Otter. Why was she the right choice to bring this song cycle to life?
"You know, there are many singers in the world, but she's one that I've admired for a long time. We met maybe in 2015 when I wrote a a little song for her and Brooklyn Rider, the string quartet.
You know, when I'm writing music I think about the person, the real personality that I'm writing for. If I can, if that's the opportunity, and I often imagine someone or something kind of holding my hand while writing the piece, it's part of the motivation, but also helps with decision making. And so getting to write for Anne-Sophie von Otter or someone like that is a is a gift for a composer."
Your first major work for chorus and period orchestra is an oratorio called "The Listeners." Who are the listeners?
"No one really asks me about the title. I appreciate that. We are certainly the listeners in the sort of context of that. I wanted it to be ambiguous. You know, certainly it kind of started from the idea of the Voyager golden record, which was Carl Sagan's kooky, absurd, beautiful, funny, crazy project to put a record of sounds from around the world onto the side of a spacecraft and launch it out.
And that, you know, begs the question of who's listening, who will be listening? Do we think about who's listening and who are we as the listeners? And then there's a point in the piece which really sort of turns away from looking, gazing out at the stars and wondering who's listening out there to, you know, who are we here on Earth and how are we divided ourselves and and what do we choose to listen to? And also who is included in that? Who's included in the concert hall. So, but really actually book ending the whole piece in the Prologue and epilogue. If you listen closely, it's a slow down and re-harmonized version of 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,' which is, you know, the first song I ever learned as a kid. A lot of kids learn that at the beginning. But the you know, the essence of that song is 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. How I wonder what you are.' It's this really naive, innocent, wondering out at the stars.
At the end of one's experience of this piece, I, I do want someone to to ask a question or think about something in a different way than they may have before the piece. And if that's all I did, that seems worth it. And in the meantime, maybe I wrote some nice harmonies that that sort of help it along. But they're just a vehicle for a deep sort of questioning the human condition and addressing the human condition."
Caroline Shaw, asking us to listen on her latest release with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and chorale.
To hear the rest of my conversation, download the extended podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.