Maria Schneider’s acclaimed classical composition Winter Morning Walks began with a scrap of poetry, which reached her ears before she encountered it on the page.
Schneider, a peerless composer for big band, had previously composed a classical song cycle incorporating language by the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andade. Her vocal collaborator was the illustrious soprano Dawn Upshaw, who responded with enthusiasm to the idea of another, full-length piece.
“I had remembered hearing Terry Gross interview a poet [on NPR’s Fresh Air],” Schneider recalls recently, speaking by phone from her home state, Minnesota. “So I went to Barnes & Noble and literally opened up every book, because I knew if I saw just a slice of this poetry, I would know the poet.”
He turned out to be Ted Kooser, a former United States Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner. Born in Iowa and based in Nebraska, Kooser has a hardy yet sensitive poetic voice, and his unostentatious way with language and image spoke to Schneider right away. He wrote his 2001 collection Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison while recovering from cancer.
“He started going on early-morning walks before the sun came up.” Schneider explains. “After each walk he started writing a poem on a postcard and sending it to Jim Harrison, who was a friend of his.”
Drawing on Kooser’s poems and her own experience with the landscape of the plains, Schneider composed Winter Morning Walks with Upshaw’s considerable strengths in mind. “She finds a way of really drawing the intent of the words,” Schneider says, “making it feel like it is sincerely coming from her heart, [and] expressing it to somebody else through the music. That is, I think, highly unusual. I also love that her voice feels unmanufactured: so natural, so human, so warm and kind.”
Schneider recorded and released Winter Morning Walks on ArtistShare, with Upshaw, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and three key collaborators from the ranks of her incomparably expressive big band: multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Jay Anderson. The album won three Grammy Awards: Best Contemporary Classical Composition, Best Classical Vocal Solo Performance, and Best Engineered Album, Classical.
Upshaw and the piece’s featured soloists — Anderson, Kimbrough and Robinson — will all join the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in performing Winter Morning Walks in concert this week. The performances will take place on Jan. 18 at Richardson Auditorium in Princeton; Jan. 19 at Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank; and Jan. 20 at NJPAC in Newark. The NJSO’s music director, Xian Zhang, will conduct the piece along with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, also featuring Upshaw.
In our conversation, Schneider discusses the unique skillset required to perform Winter Morning Walks, as well as what she has learned — especially about the interaction of words and melody — by working with Upshaw.