After winning a Grammy for jazz composition, Minnesota-bred Maria Schneider is writing her first classical piece for soprano Dawn Upshaw. She's terrified.
Maria Schneider, you've just won a Grammy for jazz composing. What are you going to do next?
Write a classical piece for opera star Dawn Upshaw and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Really? Yes, really.
"I haven't left the house in three days," the Windom, Minn.-bred composer/conductor said last Sunday from her New York apartment. "It's terrifying but exciting."
It's also been slow and stressful, to hear her describe it, but she will take a break this week to visit St. Paul for clinics with the Macalester College jazz band and a performance of her material with the group on Wednesday.
The foray into classical music wasn't her idea. Upshaw approached Schneider to compose music for some (translated) lyrics by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade that she will sing with the SPCO. The soprano, who does both opera and art songs, began a three-year stint this season as one of the orchestra's artistic partners.
Upshaw, who lives near New York City, has met Schneider and attended performances by her jazz orchestra.
"It feels safer to start out at home with a chamber orchestra and with Dawn, who knows my music and likes me," said Schneider, who'd turned down a previous request to write for a symphony orchestra. "She has a total faith in me. I'm like, 'Dawn, I don't know what I'm doing. But OK.' But I'm really having fun, and I'm really hearing her voice on what I'm writing. Twice we were supposed to get together, but she got sick and then I got sick so it hasn't happened. So I'm just flying on my instincts."
The five-section, 15-minute piece will be performed in October at the Ordway, with Schneider conducting. Meanwhile, she has another commission that she hasn't started -- a piece that her orchestra will premiere in September at the Monterey Jazz Festival -- and a summer tour of Europe with her ensemble. But this classical debut has been forcing her to "buckle down."
"It's totally new for me. I've never written for a classical singer; normally I'm composing instrumental music. And I've never written for classical orchestra, chamber orchestra or symphony," said the perky and unpretentious Schneider. "I'm not trying to turn myself into a different kind of composer than I am. It's just a new realm. I've been in my safe world for maybe a little too long. It's high time that I stand at the edge and take a leap."
She just hopes that Pulitzer-winning composer Dominick Argento, her composition teacher at the University of Minnesota, doesn't come to hear it.
Her second Grammy
Last month, Schneider, 47, earned a Grammy for best jazz composition for "Cerulean Skies," commissioned for a Mozart festival in Vienna.
"I was actually shocked," she said of her win. "It was a really hard category because it had lots of different kinds of music -- everything from film music to Philip Glass and Harry Connick and me. I was expecting that Philip Glass would get it. It's just nice. I'll take anything -- any way it comes."
First nominated for a Grammy in 1997, Schneider finally won in 2005 for her album "Concert in the Garden" -- the first disc available exclusively via the Web to be honored by the academy. That Grammy made "everything more financially feasible" in her once-struggling career, she said.
Her albums on the ArtistShare label/website have created a buzz in the business. The concept is that fans invest money, allowing the artist to pay for her recording project. Both of her Grammy-winning albums on ArtistShare have been profitable.
Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who runs his own record label, wrote in his blog about Schneider's approach. He speculated that she'd spent $18,000 to record her latest album.
"I'm like 'Hello?' I had like 20-some people in my orchestra on the last record," said Schneider. "My last record cost $170,000 to make. If you consider that I made that money back on that project through my website in this day and age -- and it's a big band -- it tells you that that's a pretty amazing business model. No record company is managing [to do] that these days."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719