Attacca Quartet, Caroline Shaw team up for intimate program at the Phillips

Mon May 03, 2021 at 11:26 am

The Attacca Quartet and composer-vocalist Caroline Shaw performed in a streamed concert at the Phillips Collection. Photo: Phillips Collection

On Sunday the Phillips Collection streamed the latest installment of its virtual concert series, recorded in the music room. It was almost like being back in the music room of the house once owned by Duncan Phillips. With Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party to their left and Degas’s Dancers at the Barre to their right, the Attacca Quartet surveyed music of Caroline Shaw for string quartet, with the composer herself serving as vocalist.

The performance opened with Valencia, the centerpiece of the Attacca Quartet’s 2019 album devoted to Shaw’s music. A brief single movement for string quartet from 2012, the work began with the upper three strings sawing away on whistling tones, accompanying a pizzicato serenade by cellist Andrew Yee. Violist Nathan Schram joined his colleague on groaning glissando motifs, followed by all four musicians roaring on Doppler-effect crescendi.

With loud chords punctuated by left-hand pizzicato strikes, the closing part of this compact but intense piece seemed to lean into Shaw’s North Carolina roots, especially in fiddle-like sounds from violinists Amy Schroeder and Domenic Salerni. This active sort of hoedown section provided a final intense burst of energy.

Shaw stood in the middle of the four musicians for two sets of her songs, in arrangements for voice and string quartet. Contrary to her normal practice, Shaw sang without the assistance of a microphone, with the result that the four string players often outweighed her delicate voice in the ensemble balance. On the other hand, this felt like an acoustic version of Caroline Shaw songs, more private and revealing than her amplified or electronic performances.

Starting with “Other Song,” Shaw plied her precise, often vibrato-less tone to her own gently curling melodies. Originally inspired by the music of pop singer Sara Bareilles, who appeared at an NSO Pops concert where the work was premiered, the piece felt light and bubbly. There were no texts or subtitles provided, and although Shaw was punctilious about diction, the balance issues hindered one’s understanding of some words.

Much more substantial were the two songs from By and By, performed in reverse order. These are Southern Gospel hymns, quite freely paraphrased and arranged by Shaw, sometimes outfitting the text with a new tune cut from the same pentatonic cloth.

Shaw gave a nasal howl reminiscent of shape-note singing to “I’ll Fly Away,” an affecting hymn composed by Albert E. Brumley. Each stanza of the text received different sound washes from the strings, building to a climactic final verse and then vanishing upward into the ether. The balance was vastly improved in “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” because Shaw relied on a sparser pizzicato accompaniment.

The Attacca Quartet took a new position in the music room for the world premiere of Imago, commissioned by the Phillips Collection from D.C.-raised composer Inti Figgis-Vizueta. The piece began like a sort of variation set on a simple harmonic pattern, stated first by cellist Andrew Yee. With each repetition this kernel of sound became less and less recognizable, growing and waning in volume through a range of scratching and buzzing sounds, sometimes evaporating at the edge of human hearing.

The title of the piece refers to the final developmental stage of the cicada, whose mammoth Brood X is at this very moment beginning to emerge from the ground in the Washington area. Figgis-Vizueta drew visual inspiration from two works at the Phillips Collection, the hanging sculpture Allusion of Gravity by Alyson Shotz and the ink drawing Untitled by Linn Meyers, the latter displayed on the wall to the left of the quartet during the performance. Unfortunately, the piece ran out of interest after about half its 16-minute length.

Shaw composed a new modal-style melody for “Cant voi l’aube,” a trouvère aubade from the 12th century for which only the text has survived. The Attacca Quartet bounced happily through the perky, Bernstein-like accompaniment, created for mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. “And So,” the middle song of the trilogy Is a Rose, was utterly charming in this string quartet arrangement, a lovely text and tune with better balance between strings and voice.

The final selection, Blueprint, another single movement from 2016, was commissioned by Wolf Trap and dedicated to the Aizuri Quartet, whose name inspired the title. Shaw has described the work as a “a harmonic reduction – a kind of floor plan” of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 6. Some recognizable strains of that piece, especially its final movement, “La Malinconia,” are heard more or less indistinctly, as if run through a food processor. The rollicking triple-meter dance from the finale and its whirling Prestissimo coda were playfully evoked as a conclusion.

This recording can be streamed, along with other recordings from the museum’s virtual season.

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