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Caroline Shaw

Kait Moreno

Caroline Shaw


Riding a Wave with Caroline Shaw

Acclaimed Composer Performs West Coast Premiere of Her Violin Concerto


Sooner or later, Caroline Shaw really has to write down the solo part of her violin concerto. Not that there’s any real rush. Sure, the Music Academy of the West’s Festival Orchestra will perform it Saturday, July 7, at The Granada Theatre. But the 35-year-old composer will be the soloist herself, as she was for the work’s 2015 premiere and all subsequent performances.

“It’s kind of fun to have a piece that’s my own,” she said. “I do pretty much the same thing every time I play it, but I will change things depending on the feel of the orchestra, the room, the audience. So it’s a little different every time,” she continued. “Originally, a lot more of it was improvised. I was feeling out the piece and what it could be. It’s a little more structured now.”

The Brooklyn-based, Pulitzer Prize–winning composer has become a regular presence in our region. She’s a veteran of the Ojai Music Festival and performed at the Music Academy last year with the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.

For this, her second summer as a guest artist at the Music Academy, she will oversee an evening of her own works on Monday, July 9, at Hahn Hall. But the highest-profile event will be the performance of her “tidy” 17-minute concerto, which she discussed in a telephone interview.

How did this piece come to be? It was co-commissioned by several orchestras and premiered as part of the Cincinnati Symphony’s MusicNOW festival. This will be its first performance west of Ohio. The original idea was to write a piece for orchestra, but I didn’t feel totally comfortable just writing something and sitting back [while others played it]. So I wrote myself into the piece! I think of it as a piece for orchestra with a violin threaded through it.

Do the soloist and the orchestra function as antagonists or collaborators? Ultimately, the relationship is very collaborative — side by side rather than one against the other. There are several moments when I play with the first violins, in the style of Mozart concertos. I love it when the soloist becomes a part of the section. But it also opens up into solo violin, in the simplest way possible.

There are nods to other pieces for violin and orchestra, including the Berg concerto. Other parts have a Barber-esque quality. The orchestra part enters the world of Sibelius and Mendelssohn a little bit. It seemed like a fun conversation to have with composers of the past.

Did you write this with your own strengths as a player in mind? Definitely. There are places where I give myself a challenge, but for the most part, it’s written for things I feel comfortable playing and things I like to hear on the violin. I don’t dwell up high a lot because I don’t like that sound that much.

How did you learn how to orchestrate? I drew from my experience playing in an orchestra, which I did for a long time. I’m less interested in finding unique moments of color than in creating a really compelling wave for the musicians to ride on. That’s what I really enjoy as a player. I love playing Brahms and Mozart, especially, for that reason. A lot of music is beautifully orchestrated but really not that fun to play. That informed a lot of my decisions.

By “riding a wave,” do you mean music that has a sense that it’s taking you somewhere? That’s a great way to put it. I like a sense that the music is always changing and always moving. I hope there’s a logical through line that people feel invited to be a part of, rather than something that is distant and mysterious. I think of music as a writer telling a story. But of course, there are all kinds of music and all kinds of storytelling.

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Larry Rachleff conducts the Music Academy Orchestra in music of Leonard Bernstein, Jean Sibelius, and Caroline Shaw Saturday, July 7, 7:30 p.m., at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). For ticket information, call 969-8787 or see musicacademy.org.

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