Spending a short period of time working with an ensemble is a musical mingling, according to soprano Dawn Upshaw. When you're able to spend more time with an ensemble, the musical conversation can really grow. That's what she discovered working as an artistic partner with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
That new relationship six years ago allowed Dawn to open the door on another musical conversation — one that developed out of an annual Thanksgiving trek to the Jazz Standard in New York City, where she and her children would soak up the sounds of the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra.
"While I was sitting listening at one of those performances," Upshaw recalls, "I thought, I wonder if she would consider writing something for me. I know I'm not in her world, she's not in my world. So I got up the courage to ask her to consider this. At first I think it frightened her, but then she started thinking that she might really enjoy opening that new door."
"At the time of course, I had just begun my tenure with the SPCO as an artistic partner and I knew that I would have this luxury of a new piece written for me every year. And so I asked her to write one. That was the first piece, 'The Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories.'"
That piece derives from the poetry of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, one of Brazil's greatest poets. It appears on the first collaborative recording between Maria Schneider and Dawn Upshaw. After the premiere of those "Stories" in St. Paul, Minnesota, Dawn immediately wanted to ask Maria to write a second piece.
"And we had talked about a piece for an even smaller ensemble, bringing in some of her own jazz instrumental soloists from her band. I think for a lot of composers, you need one piece to get the next piece. It's a real journey. I felt like she was on this journey, she had just begun it, in fact she loved the idea of bringing in some of the jazz players. So that there was an element of improvisation brought into the mix. So then that next piece was "Winter Morning Walks."
Maria Schneider has called New York home for more than 30 years, yet it was her Minnesota roots that attracted her to the poetry of former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, who lives and teaches in Lincoln, Nebraska. "Maria was very drawn to the poetry of Ted Kooser and in particular, these poems that were written on post cards that he sent to a friend of his at a time when he was going through chemotherapy. He couldn't be out in the sunlight for some reason, so he would take these very early morning walks before, or just as the sun was rising."
"He had stopped writing poetry for a while, it was a very difficult time, and this was how he got back in to connecting to his creative self, by writing a poem a day after these walks.There's a book of these poems, 'Winter Morning Walks,' and Maria chose nine poems to set."
Dawn freely admits that "Walking by Flashlight," is a personal favorite:
Walking by flashlight at six in the morning, my circle of light on the gravel swinging side to side, coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow, each watching from darkness this man with the moon on a leash.
"I think the mood and color created musically matches the moments expressed in the poem so well," she explains. "I don't know — how do you put a gem of a song together? There's no magic formula, but this song just seems to be a pure gem. There's something pure and perfect about its structure, the harmonic progression, the lyric, the melody, the pace of it, the peacefulness."
Ted Kooser, Dawn Upshaw, and Maria Schneider have all fought cancer. Dawn's sister Dana lost her battle with cancer shortly after hearing these songs performed for the very first time. It was the last piece on this recording. 'How Important it must be,' that was most meaningful that night. "She came to the concert, and heard the piece, she was so excited about it, she was very involved in my work because she was sort of my business assistant for the last several years of her life. She loved music, she loved Maria's music, so she was so excited. It turned out it was the last concert that she attended. She didn't even hear the whole concert because she was so moved by Maria's music, and my presence in it, she had to sit in my dressing room and gather herself up."
How important it must be to someone that I am alive, and walking, and that I have written these poems. This morning the sun stood right at the end of the road and waited for me.