Shaw is a little younger than the average classical listener (who is 45, according to a survey of listeners across eight countries). She was born in 1982, in Greenville, North Carolina. Her mother, a singer and violin teacher, was her first mentor, introducing Shaw to her instrument at the age of 2. “I started on a 64th-size violin,” she recalls. Shaw fell in love with classical music—singing in a church choir and watching Amadeus over and over. She had a Lisa Loeb tape and a passing acquaintance with 4 Non Blondes, but by middle school, classical music was key to her identity.
At 14, Shaw attended the music camp Kinhaven, in Vermont. The experience was a revelation. “That’s when I figured out there are other kids in the world doing this and they are better than I am, and they know more things,” she told me. “Someone would put on a recording of the Ravel String Quartet and talk about it like their mind was going crazy. I’d never heard this piece before, and I was just interested in why they were interested in it.”
Of course, Shaw and her Kinhaven peers were the exception. As recently as the mid-20th century, classical music was a mainstream genre in the United States; today, it’s a niche preference. (By 2019, the genre accounted for only 1 percent of all music consumption in the country, according to Nielsen’s end-of-year report.)
Throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s, the major labels were casting about for ways to introduce classical music to new audiences. They had some reason for optimism: When the Three Tenors, a trio of well-known opera singers, performed the aria “Nessun Dorma,” from Puccini’s Turandot, at the 1990 soccer World Cup, an estimated 800 million viewers around the world tuned in. Whole pieces were filleted for their signature tunes and used for advertising or movie soundtracks, and photogenic musicians such as Nigel Kennedy, Joshua Bell, and Vanessa-Mae were marketed as unbuttoning the sometimes stuffy genre.
But if these tactics were designed to turn masses of young people into fans of classical music, they didn’t exactly work. Lately, though, classical composers like Shaw have been reaching younger listeners through the unlikely means of modern pop. And a new generation of ambitious artists, Shaw among them, has helped break down the formerly rigid boundaries between genres.
After graduating from Rice and then Yale, where she studied performance, Shaw began composing in earnest. “I wanted to take the music I was playing, that I didn’t really like very much,” she told me, “and ask, ‘What would I do differently?’ ” In the summer of 2008, during the financial crisis, she moved to New York. “It was really scary, because I didn’t know how to make enough money to pay all of my bills,” Shaw said. She worked with the choir at Trinity Church Wall Street, and picked up jobs as an accompanist for ballet classes at various dance academies in New York.