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Pulitzer Prize Winner, Choral Ensemble Shine a Light on Displacement

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When Robert Istad encountered Caroline Shaw’s “To the Hands” last spring, he found himself in tears. The professor of music felt compelled to share it with the University Singers — and to reach out to the composer to ask if she would be interested in sharing her artistic experience with the ensemble. 

“I was shocked to receive an almost-immediate response from her,” said Istad, who directs the university’s choral program.

Last week, Shaw traveled from Manhattan to join the University Singers on campus and share notes about their interpretation as they prepare to perform “To the Hands” at the March 14-17 American Choral Directors Association Western Division Conference in Pasadena, where they will join performing groups from five states. 

Shaw is the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for music, for “Partita for 8 Voices.” The vocalist, violinist, composer and producer wrote “To the Hands” as a response to “Ad Manus,” from composer Dieterich Buxtehude’s 17th-century “Membra Jesu Nostri.” 

“It is, subtly, about various issues of displacement — the refugee crisis globally, but also homelessness locally,” shared Shaw with the choral group.

“We have labored in love to bring the piece to life with staging by Jim Taulli [professor of theatre and dance] and in collaboration with Kimo Furumoto [associate professor of music] and our University Symphony Orchestra,” said Istad. “In addition, the students and I have engaged in a variety of service projects dedicated to serving the homeless in Orange County. I am incredibly moved by the passion our students have displayed in these important efforts.

“She was as moved by our students as they were by her.” 

Following the University Singers’ performance of her six-movement piece on campus, Shaw praised the ensemble for bringing it to life in a way that was “powerful, yet quiet and intimate.” 

“The piece,” said Shaw, “is not mine anymore. It goes out to you.”