If you were in San Francisco last October and had $250 to spare, chances are you may have seen President Obama at the Warfield Theater, opening for an unlikely headliner: Kanye West.
And if you caught Kanye's set, you also experienced its incredible intro: a woman dramatically pushing her vocal chords to the limit, processing her vocals in a hypnotizing loop while the curtain rose on the set's opener, “Power.”
The woman stayed onstage for much of Kanye's set; I was in the crowd that morning, curious as to who she was. The news broke later that she was none other then Caroline Shaw, the classical composer, violinist and vocalist who appears at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in residency this week, including a free performance and discussion on Thursday, March 3.
You can read reams of internet debate over Kanye (who once tweeted “Classical music is tight yo”) and his choice to swap an original version of “Wolves” with a new mix featuring Shaw on his new album, The Life of Pablo; what matters is that Shaw likely didn't need the boost anyway. She's the youngest person to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music (at 30), possesses a dizzying compositional vision, and seems to thrive on elements of joy and surprise.
Take one of the pieces she performs this week: “I'll Fly Away,” the 1929 gospel hymn rediscovered by many through its inclusion on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Shaw's arrangement starts out with a quartet playing open strings, the instantly recognizable sound of an ensemble tuning up. Shaw's vocals float above the setting before the chords morph to a root drone, the mood eventually shifting to delicate, pizzicato notes, carrying Shaw's narration up to the skies.
As one of classical music's rising stars, Shaw shouldn't be missed -- and you can't beat the door price.
Shaw appears in a free performance and discussion at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Thursday, March 3, with the Thalia Quartet. Details here.