Jazz influences and Brazilian poetry come to the SPCOby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
What do you get when you cross a grammy award-winning jazz composer, one of the top sopranos in the world, and the words of a Brazilian poet?
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra fans will find out this weekend when the SPCO premiers a new work by Minnesota composer Maria Schneider commissioned for singer Dawn Upshaw.
St. Paul, Minn. — Maria Schneider has been at the top of the jazz world for years. The Windom native has won two grammys including for her album "Concert in the Garden."
Yet, when SPCO artistic partner Dawn Upshaw approached her about writing a piece for her to perform with the SPCO, Schneider came up with a bunch of reasons why she shouldn't.
"I looked at her, I said 'Dawn, ok, I am flattered, I love you and all, but I have never written for soprano, I have never written for orchestra, I've never written a classical piece per se - or set text to music,'" Schneider said.
But Upshaw, who describes herself as a Schneider fan, responded with some reasons why she should.
"Maria is so gifted has such a gift for melody, harmony and counterpoint," Upshaw said. "I love the way she orchestrates for her band. And her band is not all that much smaller than our band."
That band being the SPCO. As part of her three-year tenure as artistic partner at the SPCO, Upshaw gets to commission a piece a year and she really wanted to work with Schneider. She prevailed, and Schneider went looking for suitable texts.
"I bought so many books, and looked through so many books, and read so much bad poetry, I can't even tell you," she said.
Then she asked a Brazilian friend who immediately suggested the work of Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
"And she proceeded to tell me this poem, where it's 'John loved Teresa, who loved Raymond who loved Jack who loved Lily, who didn't love anybody," Schneider said.
Schneider said she was hooked by the simplicity and truth of the poems. She also quickly discovered the words conjured certain melodies and rhythms. For instance, there were the opening lines of a poem called "Souvenir of the Ancient World."
"So you have 'Clara strolled in the garden with the children,'" she said. "That has a rhythm to it that you have to honor in a way. So all of a sudden you have certain limitations."
Some artists might bristle at limitations, but Schneider said after writing instrumental music for her big band where the melodic and rhythmic possibilities were endless, having some restrictions imposed by the words was a relief.
"All of a sudden I said 'My God! I have been torturing myself. This is such a joy!'" she said. "As long as you have texts you love, it's like you are collaborating with the texts."
The orchestra is now rehearsing the music for the weekend concerts. However, Schneider likens it to sections of her "Concert in the Garden" album.
She said the Brazilian and flamenco musical influences in her jazz work translate well to an orchestral setting.
"Both musics have wonderful rhythm," she said. "Rhythm that is inside of the music, that isn't like swing music where you need a rhythm section playing the rhythms, but this is rhythm that is in the counterpoint so the orchestra is in its own groove."
Above it all will be Dawn Upshaw's voice, which Schneider said she is treating a little like an instrument in itself. She said sometime in the future she hopes Upshaw will sit in with her band and do some of the songs in a jazz concert. Upshaw agrees.
"I hope she really means that because I have dreams about it," she laughs.
The Carlos Drummond de Andrade Songs will be performed by the SPCO at concerts this weekend. A concert recording will air on Minnesota Public Radio's classical Music service in November.
- All Things Considered, 10/22/2008, 4:35 p.m.