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Ensemble Connect Fellow Mika Sasaki on Working with Caroline Shaw

Ensemble Connect collaborated with Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Caroline Shaw on her new piece titled Stucco & Brocatelle. The piece was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for its 125 Commissions Project as part of Carnegie Hall’s La Serenissima festival celebrating the music and arts from the Venetian Republic. Shaw joined the Ensemble Connect fellows on violin for the world premiere during the ensemble’s 20th residency at Skidmore College and at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. Ensemble Connect fellow Mika Sasaki describes working with Shaw to debut this new piece.

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Six months into my two-year fellowship with Ensemble Connect, I am continuously reminded of our aspirations as teaching and performing artists, and amazed by the strong ties the program has with its wonderful alumni and partnering organizations. How can we work together to communicate our love and passion for music with our students, audiences, and the community, and engage as many people as we can in the process? I felt those ties very closely during our residency at Skidmore College in February, where we were welcomed so warmly—not only by the music department and college campus, but by the Saratoga Springs community at large.

Weeks prior to the residency, my colleagues and I eagerly checked for updates to see what our residency schedules would look like. Student composition readings, individual piano lessons, a study-break performance at a hot chocolate bar on campus, an interactive performance for 150 elementary school students, chamber music coaching sessions, playing side by side with the college ensembles—the twice-annual residency is designed so that we share music and engage with the students and community in a variety of settings, and that’s exactly what we did for five days. I loved every moment of it, and we could not have been luckier with the amazing group of people we played for and worked with, including our own alumni.

Ensemble Connect (Jennifer Taylor)
Ensemble Connect fellows perform in Weill Recital Hall.

Each residency culminates in a concert that includes a world premiere of a commissioned work. This time, it was even more special—our composer extraordinaire, Caroline Shaw, became a dear collaborator on violin, and rehearsed and performed her piece with us! Stucco & Brocatelle quickly became a favorite for everyone in the ensemble. I think we felt an even stronger connection because Caroline was right there with us as we put the piece together: guiding us through abstract ideas and musical inspirations as the composer, making rehearsal choices with us as a member of the ensemble, and also letting us make our own decisions as interpreters. It was so reassuring to hear her enthusiasm—“I loved that!”—when we’d try something different in rehearsal that worked. It was a strong reminder to us all that we’re not just recreating what can be heard in recordings, but that there’s something so remarkable about the process of creating, interpreting, and performing.

I found the five-day residency reinvigorating in many ways, and came home to New York City with some unforgettable memories that will continue to inspire me. Some of these moments include the huge smiles and looks of wonder and amusement from our third- and fourth-grade audience members as we explored dramatic moments in Dvořák’s Piano Quintet together. So many raised hands, and so many great responses! Even the weather graced us during a composition reading session—my colleagues and I were completely focused on reading a Skidmore student’s piano quintet (not to mention how nerve-wracking it is to sight-read a piece in front of the composer!), and when we finished and turned around, it was snowing outside. The music, the beautiful scenery, and falling snow made it all so magical.

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Happy 10th birthday, Ensemble Connect, and happy 10th anniversary to our relationship with Skidmore College! I am certain that the residency will continue to inspire everyone involved. Looking forward to many more!

—Mika Sasaki

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