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Maria Schneider Flies into Boston: "Look, Up in the Sky! It's an Orchestra!"

Jason West By

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Maria Schneider Orchestra
Berklee Performance Hall
Boston, Massachusetts
November 17, 2007
The power of Maria Schneider's musical imagery calls to mind a variation on a superhero movie tagline: "You will believe a band can fly." And fly they did on what was their Boston debut, with the orchestra's diminutive blonde bandleader, adorned in matching black slacks and blouse, piloting her 18-piece supergroup and a capacity audience on an expansive, multifarious aural flight around the globe.
First on the itinerary, "Green Piece" provided piano soloist Frank Kimbrough bright fertile landscapes in a major mode to soar over. Next stop, Brazil, and the rich countrapuntal rhythms of "Choro Dençado." A close relative of the Argentinean tango, this choro's staccato pulse seemed the perfect spot for accordionist Will Holshouser to assume the controls. No, too obvious. Solo honors instead fell to MSO founding member saxophonist Rich Perry. Then it was off to Spain for a breath of "El Viento." Flamenco- style rhythms and dramatic diminished harmonies served to bring to the fore the orchestra's dynamic range, causing it to breathe as if a single body, inhaling and exhaling in unison. The brassy, full-bodied tone of trumpet soloist Kenny Rampton ripped through the hall, bouncing off the rafters like Zorro's slashing blade.

Yet the culmination of this evening's orchestral odyssey proved to be "Cerulean Skies," a representation of migratory birds on their long-distance journey, replete with piccolo birdcalls, flapping-wing dynamics, accordion warbles, the gale-like force of in-your-face horn gusts, and a super avian sex drive personified by the punctuated honks, squeaks and mic-thumping gyrations of tenor soloist Donny McCaslin. The tune, featured on MSO's newest release Blue Sky (Artistshare, 2007), was prefaced by Ms. Schneider's commentary, testifying to a love of birds, a fondness for birdwatching, the attraction of Central Park in this regard, and other ornithological details of interest to the many-faceted musician. (Generally, a lengthy pre-song explanation is considered bad form from a bandleader, but Ms. Schneider's honest enthusiasm was easy to forgive and, in hindsight, made for an appropriate introduction to the remarkable sonic impressions that followed.)

The orchestra's Boston debut was a coup for the Berklee College of Music, which shared presentation honors with the Celebrity Series of Boston, made even more notable by a week of MSO-led workshops and masterclasses leading up to the band's featured performance. Undoubtedly, Ms. Schneider and her orchestra will be welcomed guests on their inevitable return to Berklee, judging from the favorable post- concert buzz.

Once back on earth, a throng of satisfied concert-goers retained heady impressions of a rare and extraordinary musical excursion. As they slowly emerged into the brisk night air, one young music student was overheard on his cell phone exclaiming, "I just heard the best concert of my life!"

The best? Even a jazz connoisseur would admit it was up there.

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