Plan & Elevation

Composed by Caroline Shaw

In 2014-2015, Pulitzer-prize winning composer Caroline Shaw was named the inaugural music fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, a historic estate in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. that boasts an archive, museum space, and a vast garden. For her commissioned work, she took inspiration from the famous gardens, with their meandering paths and lush foliage. Shaw—a conservatory-trained violinist and violist—has always had writing for strings at the heart of her work, and so the resultant piece, Plan & Elevation, was cast as a string quartet.

The title refers to the two standard views of an architectural drawing: the plan, a birds-eye view of the site, and the elevation, a view from the side that shows the proposed building’s façade. It is a fitting name for Shaw’s sparse, architectural, and spacious composition. In this way, the work may feel like a palate cleanser from the busy activity that dominated Mozart’s K. 387.

In Shaw’s words, the opening movement of the quartet, “The Ellipse,” “considers the notion of infinite repetition.” A simple melodic fragment—descending mi-re-do—is repeated over and over again, reharmonized and recast with fury, whimsy, spaciousness, and everything in between. The second movement, “The Cutting Garden,” is the quartet’s scherzo, or “joke” movement: fragmentary quotations from mainstays of the string quartet repertoire float by, including Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, three of Shaw’s own works for quartet, and yes, Mozart’s K. 387—only just heard moments ago on this program.

What follows is a sparse series of chords at the outset of “The Herbaceous Border”; these quickly build into a texture that is simultaneously skittering and grand as the ensemble moves to extremes of its range. The movement ends with a whisper of plucking. The fourth movement, “The Orangery,” is united by big arpeggiations in the violin; according to Shaw, the movement “evokes the slim, fractured shadows in that room as the light tries to peek through the leaves of the aging fig vine.” Plan & Elevation closes with Shaw’s “favorite spot in the garden,” “The Beech Tree.” Grand strummed chords in the cello are answered by a dense melody carried by the whole ensemble. In a mood that may remind some of Maurice Ravel’s celebrated finale to his Mother Goose Suite, this conclusion evokes a fairy garden, full of ageless shimmer.