Caroline Shaw’s name has come up a lot recently. Shaw, 33, the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music (she was awarded it in 2013), combines a wholly uncalculated indie-classical sensibility and a lot of talent. Anne Sofie von Otter, the mezzo-soprano, has included one of Shaw’s songs on her upcoming contemporary-music recording and singled her out for special praise when I talked to her last week. Kanye West, the rapper, recently released a couple of tracks in collaboration with Shaw, blending a 2008 song with her distinctive vocals.
And on Sunday, Shaw appeared in a concert celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington as both composer, offering the world premiere of a piece she wrote last year as the institution’s first composer-in-residence, and violist, joining the Dover Quartet in a string quintet by Mozart.
Shaw, indeed, is great. The concert, and her piece, were a little underwhelming.
The problem was a pitfall common to indie-classical composers who are embraced by an establishment eager to find younger artists and audiences. The offbeat, alternative sensibility that fueled the works that catapulted the composers to success may be challenging to sustain within more conventional classical music forms and trappings.
The premiering piece is a quartet in five movements called “Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks),” which refers, as Shaw explained in brief remarks, not only to the architectural term but also to the plan of study or work that fellows bring to a residency, and what happens to that plan in the residency’s course. The movements were named for parts of Dumbarton Oaks’s famous gardens: “The Herbaceous Border,” “The Beech Tree” (the latter, Shaw said, being her favorite part of the garden).
This piece, though, could use more cultivating. Shaw’s music, in general, has a refreshing directness and simplicity, but in this work she seemed to be struggling to make the simplicity add up to more than the musical material — based largely on three- and four-note repeating figures — could sustain.
“Plan & Elevation” is an episodic piece, featuring breaks within movements and seamless transitions between them so that it wasn’t always clear which movement one was in. There was, however, a consistency of approach: Start with a few tentative notes in a solo instrument; build to a wild, passionate cacophony of sound; and pull away again. There were ascending patterns that went up very high before descending. There were some lovely moments: pizzicatos like falling dewdrops. There was an aspiration to the organic. But the piece didn’t quite arrive at whatever it was going for.
The Dover Quartet, in a room small enough that you felt as though you were inside it, was strong without being fully cohesive. The players did not entirely convince in the Mozart, which sounded vivid and a bit anodyne. Shaw, here, was pulled out of her element in another way: A violinist playing the viola is not an unknown quantity, but it is a bit of a challenge. She acquitted herself well, confirming that she is a triple threat at the very least. Nonetheless, the evening was more successful as a commemoration than as a musical event.
The quartet, and “Plan & Elevation,” will return in March on the regular concert series. Perhaps the piece, and the performance, will have gelled more by then.