It’s been 20 months since the Shriver Hall Concert Series last presented a live concert, but this weekend marks a return to a hopeful normal as the organization known for its headlining chamber music acts launches its 2021-2022 season with a return to in-person shows.
“We are thrilled to be returning to the joys of live performance in the newly renovated Shriver Hall,” said series executive director Catherine Cochran, referring to the $14 million renovations that were completed in early 2019.
The season starts with a performance by the Miró Quartet. For 26 years, the string quartet has distinguished itself as a finessed ambassador for classical standards and new music alike, and Sunday’s performance offers each: renditions of Mozart’s “Hunt” Quartet and Beethoven’s breathtaking String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 — along with the world premiere of a work by Caroline Shaw.
That Shriver co-commissioned Shaw’s piece makes the season debut especially meaningful.
Those seeking to whet their appetite for new music would do well to start with Shaw. Hers is a name worth knowing: She won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2013 at the age of 30, making her the youngest winner in the prize’s history. A vocalist and violinist, she writes music that showcases a kind of alien lyricism, ear-catching and otherworldly, but rarely just about itself: Shaw frequently draws inspiration from poetry, visual art and nature.
Sunday’s premiere, “Microfictions [Vol. I],” promises to be one of those pieces. Shaw credited Joan Miró (the Miró Quartet’s namesake) as the inspiration for her textural approach to the material, but a larger debt is owed to T.R. Darling, author of speculative microfiction, or very short stories — concise enough for a tweet.
“I love how evocative [Darling’s] small, tiny morsels are,” Shaw said. “I think really visually when I’m writing; so as you create a little scene or image or texture, that generates material, form and colors. I wanted to write a piece that worked in the way of these [collections] of miniatures that are very distinct and feel like little stories in themselves.”
To that end, Shaw wrote her own microfictions to accompany each of the six two-to-three minute pieces — impressionistic vignettes that blend visual and musical language, as in the description for the sixth movement: “The mountains folded in among themselves, as the day grew on. Their songs could only be heard in heavy fragments, obliquely, from years and miles below.”
For Joshua Gindele, cellist and founding member of the Miró Quartet, it’s the strength of the ensemble’s relationship with Shaw that allows for successful performances. In the third movement, for instance, Shaw instructs that the music “does not need to be metrically accurate or together.”
“That’s one of the hardest directions to observe … because it’s the exact opposite of what we’re trained to do,” Gindele said. “That’s why it’s important to work with these composers. It goes back to that relationship. When you love your time together, you can get a lot closer to what you’re looking for.”
Mozart and Beethoven offer more familiarity for both audiences and performers, but no less excitement. The Beethoven quartets in particular “are the cornerstone of our repertoire,” Gindele said. (The ensemble’s 2019 recording of the full Beethoven quartets should be a staple in any collection.) And, sandwiched between the two, Shaw’s language will “pop,” according to Gindele. “Her music has a lightness and airiness to it that otherwise doesn’t exist in this program.”
Shaw will be present at the performance, joining WBJC radio host Jonathan Palevsky for a preconcert talk. Those attending should note that masks and proof of vaccination are required to enter.
If you go
Shriver Hall Concert Series presents the Miró Quartet and a world premiere by Caroline Shaw on Sunday, Nov. 14, 5:30 p.m. at Shriver Hall, 3400 N. Charles St. on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University. Student tickets are $10; general admission is $44. Livestreaming is available for ticket holders. Learn more at shriverconcerts.org.