Two-time Grammy-winning composer Maria Schneider made her first foray into writing for a classical orchestra with this week's Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concerts at Ordway Center. Her song cycle, "Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories," written for soprano and SPCO artistic partner Dawn Upshaw, was also her first attempt at writing for the voice.
You would never have guessed that from the results, Schneider, well known as a jazz arranger and bandleader, proved to be a compelling musical storyteller at home in the orchestral idiom. She was equally successful conducting Thursday night, her first time fronting a classical orchestra.
She wisely chose to set the poems of Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. They were rich in imagery and emotion, but spare enough to be enhanced by music. Whether depicting loss (in "The Dead in Frock Coats") or bucolic nostalgia (in "Souvenir of the Ancient World") she employed a panoply of styles, from jazz and pop to traditional art song and Brazilian flavors, to bring the words to life.
There was an intensity to "Don't Kill Yourself" and a laugh-out-loud wit to "Quadrille." Throughout, the results were both original and mesmerizing.
The cycle was well-served by the performance. As conductor, Schneider maintained a stronger sense of ensemble and commitment than was in evidence at any other time of the evening. And Upshaw's passionate interpretation and flawless diction made each moment come alive.
The rest of the 20th-century program, conducted by Scott Yoo, left plenty to be desired.
Upshaw sang another cycle, one by Maurice Delage, a student of Ravel's. "Four Hindu Poems" for Soprano and Ensemble was minor music. And while Upshaw made the most of it, it lacked the impact of the Schneider.
There was some impassioned wind playing in the Ravel "Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess)," but it needed greater rhythmic propulsion. Likewise, the Webern orchestration of a movement from Bach's "The Musical Offering" felt enervated. Hindemith's "Kammermusik" No. 3 for Obligato Cello and 10 Solo Instruments was technically proficient but bloodless.
Upshaw's performance of Schneider's song cycle was the one performance of the evening that I would like to hear again. With any luck, there is a recording in its future.
William Randall Beard writes regularly about music.