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WQXR Features

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Mixes It Up With Jazz Composer, Intrepid Soprano

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When soprano Dawn Upshaw asked Maria Schneider to compose an original work for her to sing with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Schneider told her that was crazy. Certainly, Schneider is one of the most respected composers and bandleaders in jazz today, the leader of her own New York-based big band for almost two decades and the recipient of two Grammys. But she had compelling reasons to deny Upshaw's request.

"Initially I was just terrified because I’ve never written anything for classical orchestra at that point,” Schneider told WQXR. “I’d never written for classical soprano. I was just dumbfounded. The other part that was scary was writing for words.”

“I was just in love with Maria’s music,” responded Upshaw. “She’s an extraordinary human being. Her joy, her warmth – you hear all those things in her music. I loved being surrounded by her music when I listened to it. I felt better.”

In 2007, Upshaw (pictured) was just embarking on a three-year artistic partnership with SPCO, a gig that found her tapping non-traditional artists as collaborators who would then use her own expressive voice as a kind of muse. Upshaw had begun following Schneider’s career at the suggestion of the composer Osvaldo Golijov, and attended her annual concerts at the Jazz Standard in New York City.

Terrified or not, Schneider accepted Upshaw’s commission, and in 2008 the SPCO premiered the Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories, Schneider's settings of poems by the Brazilian poet. The piece received enthusiastic reviews and became the linchpin in the SPCO’s Spring for Music program at Carnegie Hall on Friday night. Placed alongside the piece will be works by Haydn, Stravinsky and Bartok.

As Schneider explained in an interview with WQXR, writing original, lushly orchestrated works has long been a specialty. Many of her pieces bear the influence of her mentor, master arranger Gil Evans, best known for orchestrating the Miles Davis albums "Sketches of Spain" and "Porgy and Bess." “For years now I’ve been writing for big band,” she explained. “I’ve been trying to make it sound like an orchestra by using all sorts of woodwinds, using a lot of mutes in the brass and all sorts of different colors and combining with guitars.”

By fulfilling the SPCO commission, she continued, “I truly had French horns and truly had oboes and all these different things. And of course, the strings.”

The words were a different matter. Schneider spent several months researching poets while staying in contact with Upshaw by phone and e-mail. She settled on the poetry of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, arguably the most popular Brazilian poet of the 20th century. For the opening movement, Schneider used the Brazilian song form known as choro, with wordless “vocalese” singing by Upshaw. The following movements are based on four De Andrade poems and filtered through the Brazilian Quadrille, Spanish flamenco and other Latin sounds.

“These poems read like little stories,” said Schneider. “His poems are really loved by the Brazilian people. They have everything from a lot of drama to sweetness to out and out humor in them.”

Maria Schneider on writing for orchestra:

Dawn Upshaw on commissioning a jazz composer: