Maria Schneider is both painter and aural poet, able to provide the listener with a variety of textures, tempos, feelings and facets in her music. Her compositions, moreover, are presented by a superb collection of musicians, as evidenced during her Feb. 9 concert at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, N.Y.
Her band toured Europe and South America last year, an endeavor that admittedly tired Schneider, who said before the concert that she had natural misgivings about embarking on tours: "I just want to quit. Then we make music and I say, 'This is so great.' It's like childbirth. You forget." She added, "It's the same thing when I make an album."
But from the start of the performance, which showcased music from an array of her albums, including the Grammy-winning Concert in the Garden, it was evident Schneider was in a creative artist's special place, conducting, smiling. She got lost in the solos, and grinned and nodded. For sure, her musicians were presenting sounds that pleased her, that brought her music to life. It also was apparent that she enjoyed the historic Music Hall, known for its fine acoustics.
Starting with "Evanescence, the title cut from her 1995 album, and running through two sets that ended with "Hang Gliding, the orchestra was in top form. But the hero was unmistakably Schneider, from whose heart and mind came the melodies and harmonies, and whose passion comprised the breath and breadth of the music.
Evanescence started softly and dreamlike, as was the case in many segments though the evening. But Schneider knows how to contrast the intricate gentleness with a more hard-edged complexity and intensity. By the time the excellent trumpeter Tim Hagans went from serene to impassioned in his solo, the pattern for the rest of the piece was set. "El Viento (The Wind) was flowing and swirling, the 17 musicians under Schneider, her true instrument, creating music with a fresh looseness and openness, the parts not as significant as the whole. When Donny McCaslin's sax entered, it spewed gusts with energy and frenzy. If his voice was the wind, it was saying "you can't contain me. Clarence Penn's drums, here and elsewhere, were central not only to the pulse but the sound, the music of nature.
Sky Blue, the title cut from an album to be released in June, featured Steve Wilson on soprano sax, displaying a beautiful tone and unfailing creativity on the instrument, over the delicate support of the ensemble, which at one time featured all the brass on flugelhorn plus the four winds behind Wilson on tenor sax, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet. It was a song of emotion and deep sentiment; sweet but not saccharin. "Green Piece, featuring Scott Robinson on baritone sax and Frank Kimbrough on piano, was rich with wondrous textures, showing the multi-hued palette Schneider paints from, with colors that stretch from her hometown of Windom, Minn., to New York City, where she's lived for the last two decades.
From Concert in the Garden the composer-conductor selected a suite of three Latin-tinged movements ("Choro Dancado, "Pas de Deux, and "Danca Ilusoria ), the presentation of each as exquisite as the scoring was fresh. The closer was a piece of memorable, lingering beauty. "Hang Gliding, which featured the cool and melodic flugelhorn of Tony Kadleck and McCaslin's hot tenor, depicted the personal story of Schneider's hang-gliding experience in Brazil. It proved moving and joyous, leaving the listener with a blissful feeling of freedom. McCaslin was exuberant, soaring, and just a tad funky; Penn was the push of the wind.
A magnificent show. Yet, in the case of this extraordinary artist, typical of her work and her spirit.