PBO& Caroline Shaw

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PBO& Caroline Shaw
Released April 3, 2020

Since 2015, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale and Pulitzer Prize- and GRAMMY Award-winning composer Caroline Shaw have developed a strong artistic relationship. Alongside Shaw’s first commission for the organization, a song called “Red, Red Rose” composed for the Orchestra and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, PBO established its New Music for Old Instruments initiative, an effort to commission and perform new works written expressly for period instruments. Subsequently, Shaw wrote two more songs for PBO and von Otter (“And So” and “The Edge”), and in 2019 composed a large-scale oratorio for the Orchestra, Chorale, and soloists Avery Amereau and Dashon Burton entitled The Listeners. This CD encompasses PBO’s blossoming relationship with Caroline Shaw, featuring the full collection of PBO/Shaw commissions thus far.

“As it so often is, Shaw’s music here is a marvel of expressive efficiency. She doesn’t write many notes, but each one makes a gently urgent claim on the listener’s attention. ” —Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Shaw’s sensibility transforms simple gestures into music that resonates strongly with an audience…The performance was all you could wish for.” —Michael Zwiebach, San Francisco Classical Voice

“…it’s already clear how much the sounds of the old instruments, and the musical traditions they embody, have sparked Shaw’s imagination.” —Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

Featuring text by Robert Burns, living British poet Jacob Polley, and Caroline Shaw herself, the Is a Rose trilogy juxtaposes poetry from the 18th and 21st centuries, an appropriate complement to a Baroque orchestra playing contemporary music. The Listeners, Shaw’s first major work for chorus and period instrument orchestra, is a response to Carl Sagan’s Golden Record, launched into space in 1977. The oratorio’s libretto spans five centuries of poetry in Engish as well as recorded excerpts from the record as well a speech by Sagan, who compared the effort to a message in a bottle launched into the cosmic ocean.

This release was recorded live at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, CA on March 9–10 and October 19–20, 2019. It marks the Orchestra’s 12th recording under its Philharmonia Baroque Productions label, and marks the launch of its PBO& series, representing the collaborative relationships with composers who exhibit passion for and curiosity about the extraordinary sound world of period instrument performance and the range of musical possibilities.

Nicholas McGegan, music director and conductor
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Avery Amereau, contralto
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale
Bruce Lamott
, chorale director

Pieces featured:
Is a Rose: “The Edge”, “And So”, “Red, Red Rose”
The Listeners 

This recording is made possible by a generous gift from the Waverley Fund. © and ℗ 2019 Philharmonia Baroque Productions.

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Liner Notes
By Bruce Lamott

Bruce Lamott

Just as Wanda Landowska solicited new works for her custom Pleyel harpsichord from Manuel de Falla and Francis Poulenc in the 1920s, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale is commissioning composers of our own century to write for our resources of period instruments and vocalists. The collaboration with Caroline Shaw has been especially fruitful, resulting in both the brief song cycle and oratorio—her first extended work in the genre—heard on this recording. Unlike the works for Landowska, however, Shaw’s music taps into the forms, sonorities, and techniques of the eighteenth century in a wholly contemporary style that is not born out of an antiquarian “neoclassicism.”

Once heralded as “authentic instruments” in recordings of the 1970s, period instruments were originally introduced by historically informed performers in their effort to re-create the sound and style of instrumental music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, using unmodified stringed instruments played with Baroque bows on gut strings, valveless brass, single-keyed woodwinds, harpsichord, and organ. At first regarded by many symphonic musicians as Cro-Magnon precursors in a Darwinian evolution that produced the “improvements” of their modern counterparts, period instruments are now appreciated for their unique and highly differentiated tone qualities, keen intonation unobscured by vibrato or equal temperament, clarity of ensemble, and fleetness of execution. 

As a professional vocalist in the GRAMMY® winning and technically revolutionary vocal octet Roomful of Teeth and an accomplished Baroque violinist, Caroline Shaw is uniquely prepared to write works for period orchestra and voices. Her sensitivity to the delivery of the text is often unencumbered by specific rhythms subject to divisions of a beat, giving the singer the freedom to inflect the words according to the subtle accents of speech, an innovation called recitative that dates back to the very beginnings of the Baroque period circa 1600. Shaw eschews the excessive vocal gymnastics of the bravura arias of the High Baroque period, as well as the literal representations of the text known as “word-painting,” although those aspects are frequently assigned to the orchestral accompaniment in introductions, interludes, and postludes which illuminate—rather than overwhelm—the clarity of the text.

Is A Rose

The song trilogy Is A Rose, written for mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, juxtaposes poetry from the 18th and 21st centuries, an appropriate complement to a Baroque orchestra playing contemporary music. The first installment to be composed was Robert Burns’s ballad “Red, Red Rose” written in 1794 and composed in 2016. This was followed the next year by “The Edge,” to a text by the living British poet Jacob Polley. The centerpiece, written and composed in 2019, is Shaw’s own existential meta-musing on Burns, Gertrude Stein, and the composer’s creative task.

“The Edge” is most clearly related to its Baroque ancestors. Following an introduction described as warming from “steely” to “buoyant” with the entrance of an oboe solo, the orchestra introduces a recurring passage in the sarabande rhythm of Handel’s aria Lascia ch’io pianga that precedes, accompanies, and concludes the song. Unconstrained by this rhythm, the vocal line declaims the poem “with freedom & warmth.” In a rondo-like form, the recurrence of the introspective refrain “Where does the grace of the moment go” is separated by two climactic arcs of accelerating motion, rising pitch, and mounting dynamics. 

“And So” begins with harpsichord supporting the nonchalant text in the manner of a lute-song. Following a brief unaccompanied soliloquy, a fabric of lilting string figures, as circuitous as Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose,” underscores the voice. The poet/composer wryly reflects on her own condition by answering a couplet by Burns (“When a’ the seas rise high, my dear/And the rocks melt with the sun…”) with one of her own (“Will the memory of us/Still rhyme with anyone…”). Following a reprise of the lute-song texture, the strings and harpsichord return to the rhythmically repetitive motive, an endless clockwork in response to “And so we stay, on borrowed time.”

The metrical regularity and rhyme scheme of Burns’s Scottish song, “Red, Red Rose” invite a more traditional approach to the text. The folk-like ballad leisurely unfolds after a freely intoned introduction over a pizzicato bass. An undulating string ostinato, later taken up by the harpsichord, accompanies the entrance of the oboe in the second stanza. A churning figure in the lower strings (“And the rocks melt with the sun”) is picked up by the harpsichord, whose delicate brilliance evokes an image of the running sands of time. Following the final stanza, reminiscences of the text trail off into an ethereal humming by the orchestra players.

The Listeners

Caroline Shaw describes The Listeners, her first major work for chorus and period instrument orchestra, as an “oratorio,” inasmuch as its outward construction of multiple movements, contrasting forces of soloists, chorus, and orchestra, and its focus on a central theme reflect her admiration for the oratorios of Handel. Handel often tailored the solo parts to fit the voices and techniques of specific singers, as Shaw has done for contralto Avery Amereau and bass-baritone Dashon Burton on this recording. And, like Handel, she makes her work relevant to its contemporary audience by reflecting on historical events, albeit recent rather than biblical ones. 

In the most general terms, The Listeners is a response to the Golden Record carried by both Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 and traveling through interstellar space to this day. Attached to each were two twelve-inch phonograph disks of gold-plated copper containing photographic images, recorded messages, music, and other data representing the achievements and peaceful intents of Homo sapiens on planet Earth. The oratorio’s libretto—compiled by the composer—spans five centuries of poetry in English as well as recorded excerpts from both the Golden Record and a speech by the late scientist Carl Sagan, chair of the committee that selected the music for the disks, who compared the effort to a message in a bottle launched into the cosmic ocean.

The texts themselves form a kind of interstellar round-trip, first of poets contemplating the universe, and then of their reflections on our place in it. Walt Whitman ecstatically invokes us to “stand cool” before a million universes. William Drummond of Hawthornden, a Renaissance Scottish laird, introduces an element of self-awareness, as the entrancement of the stargazer transforms into a realization of our own insignificance. Echoing this humbling introspection, Tennyson asks if “poor earth’s pale history” is “but a trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million of Suns.” 

In contrast to poetic speculation, Carl Sagan’s voice is a prosaic reality-check. Earth as photographed by Voyager, he says, is a single pixel, a “pale blue dot,” a “lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark” in which no boundaries can be seen. Those cruel boundaries are the focus of Yesenia Montilla, who calls attention to the personal suffering and estrangement they create. This desperation is comforted by Lucille Clifton, who offers a valedictory benediction in the hope that human understanding will carry us “out beyond the face of fear.” 

Shaw exploits the resources of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and 24-voice Philharmonia Chorale in the stylistic language of the period. Repeated melodic and rhythmic patterns (ostinatos) animate slowly evolving chord progressions Her string writing is idiomatically “violinistic,” making frequent use of rapidly oscillating string-crossings (ondeggiando) and maximizing the use of open strings and their harmonics. The prominence of open octaves and fifths (vibrating in ratios of 1:2 and 2:3) bring to mind “the music of the spheres,” a concept that linked music with astronomy in classical education from antiquity to the Renaissance in the belief that celestial bodies moved in proportion to one another, creating harmonious but inaudible music.

I. Prologue. The prologue, introduced by a dreamy vocalise “like singing a half-remembered lullaby,” builds to a single Spanish exclamation ¡Brillas! (You shine!) followed by ecstatic choral wordlessness over the inexorable pulse of the timpani.

II. Let your soul stand cool (Walt Whitman). A static harmony is animated by the repetitive answering figures between the first and second violins that eventually accelerate into ondeggiando A’s and E’s, “the music of the spheres.” The spell is momentarily broken by a contradiction in the text (“And my spirit said No”) which suddenly destabilizes the static harmony. Order is restored with an ethereal haze of sustained violin harmonics while the oboes imitate the voice in canon. 

III. Greeting. Played on a “vintage” vinyl LP phonograph, a “period instrument” of the 1970s, the greetings of UN Secretary-General Waldheim followed by speakers in 55 living and dead languages (ending with Sagan’s 6-year-old son) are underscored with wordless harmonies from the choir. Their text then recalls the previous movement (“Let your soul stand cool”) and foreshadows Movement VII (“…and how the last time I saw you”).

IV. In world’s vast frame (William Drummond of Hawthornden). String parts marked “short, Vivaldiesque,” and a florid vocal line characterize this most Baroque of the movements. Drummond’s Elizabethan syntax lends itself to ornamental prolongation, though Shaw illuminates the rhetoric without pictorial “word painting.” The chorus sings ominously on behalf of earthly mortality: “In dust now must our greatness buried lie/Yet is it comfort with the world…” The rising intensity of voices and agitating ceases abruptly before the final rhyme: “to die.”

V. Of a million million (Alfred, Lord Tennyson). Basses toll a funereal pizzicato under Tennyson’s text, to be freely declaimed “like telling a bedtime story about the end of the world.” Rhythmic activity accumulates and unsynchronized rising chromatic scales accompany the “trouble of ants” while the timpani detunes and the players separate, individually articulating the rhythm of “what is it all” in futile independence.

VI. That’s us (Carl Sagan). Using another vintage technology, a tape cassette plays Sagan’s “lost lecture,” first given in 1994 at his 60th birthday symposium at Cornell. It was discovered on an archived Sony Betacam tape and released to the public in 2018 by his wife, Anne Druyan, who referred to it as her late husband’s “finest talk.”

VII. Maps (Yesenia Montilla). An intricate perpetuum mobile of interlocking oboes introduces the duality of maps: the arbitrary simplicity of their divisions and their capacity for alienation, separation, and grief. The spiky animation of a Baroque “motoric” rhythm is taken up by the violins, then the harpsichord as the soloists sing of an optimistic vision of a world without borders. A wavelike ostinato in 5/8 surges ahead as the question is posed, “What is a map but a useless prison? A reference to “south of el rio” confirms the contemporary reference by an Afro-Latina poet writing in 2017 when attention is fixed on the southern border of the US. The oboe filigree returns and as the choir sings that “a line drawn is always in the sand” and the motion flows endlessly. 

VIII. Sail through this to that (Lucille Clifton). Written in four-part chordal (homophonic) harmony and sung with minimal accompaniment, this movement recalls both the musical and spiritual function of a Bach chorale in a cantata or Passion. The text is delivered haltingly, sometimes repetitively, to assure that the listener both hears the text and has time to process its meaning. One of Shaw’s signature devices, the representation of flowing water, is heard as the voices enter one after the other in a mantra of murmured texts. Situated between two movements of greatest animation and intensity, this movement reassures the listener, as Shaw has said, “like an Irish blessing.” 

IX. Pulsar. In Handel oratorios, instrumental “sinfonias” depict battles, pastoral scenes, or, most famously, the arrival of the Queen of Sheba (Solomon). Pulsar positions the listener neither as a star-gazer nor alien observer but adrift in the midst of space, hurtling past a dizzying array of instrumental sonorities, each with its own rhythmic and melodic identity. Extravagant gestures of ondeggiando string-crossings are perforated with staccato harmonies by the oboes and bassoon and trumpet blasts. The harpsichord rolls freely (“like Couperin hurtling toward Mars”), and sizzling repeated notes crescendo and decrescendo with Doppler effects. At the end, as in Movement IV, Shaw hurls the unsuspecting listener into the silence of the void. 

X. Epilogue. The vocalise of the Prologue returns, but after the cosmic journey, the choir responds immediately. The orchestra builds to a rhythmically intensifying climax and the timpani prepares the reprise of the expansive harmonies of the opening. The soloists join the choir in exclamations of ¡Brillas! as the strings burst into a frenzy of accelerating ondeggiando.

Caroline Shaw’s approach to her first oratorio is more than an intergalactic musical excursion. It is a timely reflection on our universe and what we have done with our allotted portion of it. In that respect, she also emulates the model of Handel, who, after receiving a compliment on the “noble entertainment” of Messiah, responded, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.”