Since becoming the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in music – age 30, in 2013 – Caroline Shaw has grown into something of a hot commodity. Her reputation has escaped even the tight orbit of classical music. The Guardian in London noted not long ago that after a 2014 concert of Shaw’s Pulitzer-winning piece, Partita for 8 Voices, Kanye West went backstage to ask for her phone number, and her sounds ended up on two tracks of his album The Life of Pablo.
Saturday night, Shaw’s work was front and center in Camden as Symphony in C and the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia unveiled a world premiere. If the two groups were hoping the new piece – a co-commission by Mendelssohn Club and Boston’s Back Bay Chorale – would be stylistically akin to the Partita, they got it, at least partly. Shaw is author of a particular sound, a tranquil glow that brightens, sharpens and flickers on a spiritual quest.
The work was billed as a companion piece to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, also performed by the two local groups. Shaw’s Seven Joys, though, is really anything but a companion piece in the usual sense of two similarly scored works. Like Beethoven, it uses chorus. But no orchestra. Written for chorus and a few solo voices rising from within it, the only instrumental presence is a brass quintet.
A canny move, the brass. Shaw traffics in color, Beethoven in melodies. If the two works never spoke to each other, except perhaps in their respective takes on joy, they at least contrasted mightily. I’m not sure the concert needed its curtain-raiser, Jonathan Dove’s In beauty may I walk, but the brief a capella lovely was etched with great clarity by the Mendelssohns, led by their artistic director, Paul Rardin.
Symphony in C’s leader, Stilian Kirov, was on the podium for the Beethoven, and though it had four fine vocal soloists –Antonina Chehovska, Siena Miller, Abraham Bretón and Ben Wager – it was a performance without many strong statements. Kirov took the alternately serene and liberating third movement at a sensible, slightly quicker-than-usual pace, and the orchestra of young post-grads had a standout in the singing sound of oboist Rita Mitsel. The Mendelssohn Club’s men were still reaching for a completely homogenous sound in the clarity of the Gordon Theater, Rutgers University-Camden (a deficit that might have ended up less obvious by the time the concert was repeated Sunday at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia).
The Shaw was the main event. Each of its seven movements draws on a different text, from 17th century to contemporary, each its own way to joy. Shaw’s compositional language doesn’t speak to me personally, but it is a genial style. It gives listeners a lot to grab hold of: an American sound that is both broad and serene; a pulsing, meditative expansion of sound that could have accompanied a glide over the Grand Canyon; the beauty and security of certain alternating harmonies; and brass chords that very vaguely suggested Bernstein’s “One Hand, One Heart.”
Stylistically, Shaw is hard to pin down, and that is part of her appeal. Seven Joys beautifully exploits coloristic alignments between the brass and voices. It is melodic, but tests the emotional effect of a melody varied slightly upon repetition, as in the first movement, “After a Storm.” Maybe most striking is the way she handles ambiguity. Joy, she seems to say, isn’t only the unalloyed kind you hear in Beethoven’s Ninth. Today, as in the distant past, it comes in flecks embedded in harsher realities, and we should take our joys where we find them.