The North Carolina Symphony with Caroline Shaw
Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh
Friday, Nov. 6, 2015

Friday’s North Carolina Symphony concert was an undeniably affable affair. It began with a work that hasn’t been played by the orchestra, at least in anyone’s memory: Beethoven’s King Stephen overture, from 1811, which may be the composer’s most unabashedly gleeful work.

Conductor Edwin Outwater introduced it by way of the play’s author, August von Kotzebue, a famous and peculiar German writer who once penned an essay called “Why Do I Have So Many Enemies?” and was assassinated in 1819. The details of the play are fairly unimportant, but Beethoven’s music for it is delightful. Outwater brought out the drama and whimsy of the work, from the carefully ominous opening chords and the almost silly opening melody to the manic tempo shifts and the tastefully over the top pauses. I spent almost all of its seven minutes trying to suppress a goofy grin. I failed.

Next came the centerpiece of the show, Caroline Shaw’s Lo for violin and orchestra. The symphony co-commissioned Lo, featuring the composer on violin. She built on the good vibes of the Beethoven. The orchestra affords Shaw a new kind of complexity in her writing. Its two continuous movements are peppered with her characteristic gestures and textures, but they are layered more densely and inventively than in her other works.

opens with a rising scale in the solo portion, constantly overpowered by odd harmonies in varying groups of instruments, sounding at times like Copland and at times like Bartók. From there, Shaw assembles ever-shifting layers of sound, often using looped chords that are either from an English baroque dance or a hip-hop backing track, expressive glissandos and unusual effects in the strings. Her quasi-improvised solo part—she said roughly 75 percent of it is fixed at this point, but with enough flexibility that she still manages to surprise herself—weaved in and out of the orchestra, playing wonderfully vocal melodies and shimmering arpeggios. (I was actually shocked during intermission when I overheard someone in the audience ask, “What do kids today have against melody?”)

Nothing she did was overly flashy or excessively virtuosic, but that never felt like the point of the work. It just sounded like Shaw: humble, collaborative and always just a short step away from song. I especially liked when she joined a high oboe on a few melodies or let a figuration gradually evaporate into a glistening haze.

If you missed Lo this weekend, you’re not totally out of luck. The Symphony is planning to bring it back next year in preparation for the 2017 SHIFT Festival in Washington, D.C. And Shaw will be back with her vocal group Roomful of Teeth in April to perform her Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita.

After intermission, a 15-piece chamber orchestra played Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks, a neo-classical concerto that felt strangely cerebral and detached when compared to the sea of warmth that was the rest of the program. Otherwise, the closing reading of Beethoven’s eighth symphony soared. The eighth is Beethoven’s most compact symphony, and his most witty. Outwater’s conducting was bouncing and joyful; he often led to the line rather than the beat and occasionally started dancing when the music called for it. The orchestra followed his playful lead by playing with precise abandon: the drum-like violin part in the finale was crisp, and the dominant chord before the recapitulation in the first movement was absolutely ebullient. As with the King Stephen, I often found myself grinning uncontrollably.