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I think Jason Treuting said it best: this concert was about playing "new things for new audiences." With two premieres and an imaginative reinvention of the singer-songwriter dynamic, the concert was nothing short of novel. Even inside the recital hall, nothing about this concert read "classical music." No maestro, just friends. No tradition just for tradition's sake. And most importantly, jeans and jumpsuits instead of tuxedos.
Sō Percussion eased us into the first half with an original by bandmate Eric Cha-Beach. Cha-Beach's 4+9 feels like it's in the same world of minimalist style where precision and time is everything as interlocking parts fit together like clockwork. And on the surface, the piece shows off the rhythmic integrity and independence of each player, but all I could think about was color, color, color! The seamless transitions and maintenance of total cohesion created this iridescent kind of effect, where each minute change in timbre felt like a different flicker of color catching the light.
The percussion ensemble lends itself to contemporary music, but Jason Treuting, Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, and Adam Sliwinski of Sō Percussion are pushing the boundaries for contemporary instrumental music. The ensemble's performance of Angélica Negrón's "gone," "go back," and Nathalie Joachim's Note to Self took the audience to a completely different sound world where Bricolo robots and Dutch ovens, snare drums, and vocal samplings all crash together. Even though these pieces weren't Sō originals, I could hear how much the ensemble and the music were influenced by each other. They seemed inseparably bound together, to the point that I couldn't imagine anyone other than Sō performing these works.
As I mentioned before, this concert was presented as a primarily collaborative project. But Caroline Shaw has a quiet, compelling star-power that is impossible to ignore. For readers unfamiliar with the name, Caroline Shaw reached international acclaim in 2013 after becoming one of the youngest Pulitzer Prize winners in history for her work Partita for 8 Voices. I've been a superfan of Shaw's since I listened to the Roomful of Teeth recording of the Partita for the first time during my undergrad and I felt more than a little starstruck watching her in concert (and still feel a little bit while writing this review). But this concert in particular was a special down-to-Earth kind of performance. As a North Carolina native on a Kennedy Center and NYC-sized tour, this was a warm, hometown concert for the longtime friends and family in the audience.
Co-composed by Sō Percussion and Shaw, the second half of the concert featured Shaw as singer-songwriter in a live performance of their 2021 album Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part. And I use the expression "singer-songwriter" in the most complimentary way! Like the work of a singer-songwriter, each song resonated with the careful, devoted craftmanship of music driven by and toward honest self-expression. Recalling for me the striking tone of the Partita, Shaw combined the clear, acoustic timbre of her voice with a vocal modulator, resulting in a sound which I can only describe as the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, Imogen Heap. I truly felt like I was hearing new combinations of sounds for the very first time. Performing the title track for the album, Shaw's voice pairs beautifully with the harp-like accompaniment of solo steel pan. In the greatest ABBA cover I've ever heard, the sound of silence is just as important as Shaw's vocal freedom in a swelling chorale of recorded vocals and 4-person marimba. And in "Some Bright Morning," Sō setup up an undulating drone for Shaw to muse on the lyrics of Johnny Cash in liturgical plain chant stylings. Caroline Shaw is only getting started.
Here, writing really falls short in its ability to describe a musical experience like this one. The whole show was just electric. And I use the word "show" because it wasn't only the music that brought me to my feet after the last number. The thoughtfulness of lighting, the playfulness and sensitivity of placement and movement onstage, and the way the sounds of electronics seemed to touch me in my seat, created a holistic sensory encounter. Sō Percussion and Caroline Shaw's boldness to experiment with new sounds is no doubt a result of the comradery and safety they feel collaborating with each other, and I can't praise their attitude of risk-taking enough.