The “Breath and Bow” concert at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room last Thursday did many things. It showcased the homecoming of a few stellar North Carolina musicians: violinist and mandolin player Jennifer Curtis, the event’s impresario, and composer, violinist, vocalist and Pulitzer-Prize-winner Caroline Shaw. Shaw grew up in Greenville, while Curtis grew up in Chapel Hill, but their paths have been intertwined for years. So this was a show about their friendship and their shared musical adventures. It also concerned Curtis’ vision of her musical “home” and the community that grows around it. And last, this was a concert of folk music, relating the idea of the lullaby in a small rock club.
Singer Ella Bertram set the mood early with “Rocking Chair, Rock Me to Sleep.” Her voice sounds straight from an old 78, rich and assured but with the sort of fragile vulnerability that sends you somewhere else. I could have listened to her all night. Shaw extended that mood with a short improvisation of lovely looping textures and simple melodies. The second half of the show began with a long set of lullabies from various traditions, including the “Hobo Lullaby,” a Polish piece, and a short tune by Romanian composer George Enescu. All the musicians involved delivered a rollicking round of “Don’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.”
Three movements of Shaw’s “By and By” for string quartet followed. The piece “liquefies” the harmonies for tunes such as “O Death” and “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown.” Her setting of “I’ll Fly Away” was beautiful and haunting, with undulating lines in the strings and traded bits of melody. Eventually, the entire audience joined in for a sing-along. It was lovely. What’s more, they ended the show as a 10-piece Balkan dance band.
Connecting these many disparate threads was Zoltán Kodály’s Duo for violin and cello. The work, from 1914, condenses a number of Hungarian folk tunes into something resembling classical form. Over the course of three movements, Kodály gradually unravels the structure until it sounds like a couple of old-timers sitting on a porch, exchanging half-remembered bits of song, occasionally interrupted by bursts of virtuosic unison writing. Curtis and cellist Brook Speltz made the work feel easy, spontaneous.
At one point, Shaw told a story about the previous night’s rehearsal. As the evening wore on, the group stopped rehearsing and started reading string quartets, beginning with early Beethoven, passing through his opus 127 (which is “always hard”), and ending at some wee hour of the morning with the Debussy string quartet. She admitted to being tired, but that she wouldn’t have missed that chance to make music with friends for anything. That anecdote—the energy, friendship, familiarity and warmth it represented—permeated the concert, from the choice of repertory to the quilts on stage, from Shaw’s and Curtis’s off-the-cuff comments to Shaw forgetting one of the verses to “I’ll Fly Away,” allowing its expansive and disparate journey to cohere.
This show is the first in a series of concerts curated by Curtis. Future events will include composer Gabriel Kahane and a performance of Bach’s Art of the Fugue with Ciompi Quartet violinist Eric Pritchard. It should be interesting to see how each set of collaborators shape each show.
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated Jennifer Curtis’ hometown.