Jazz and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco

Schneider, Webern, Crumb, Bartók, Grieg: Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (artistic director and lead violin), presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California, 14.6.2011 (HS)

Maria Schneider blurs the borders between jazz and classical music with absolutely none of the self-consciousness or preciousness that often dogs crossovers. In the world premiere of Winter Morning Walks, a song cycle by Maria Schneider written for the soprano Dawn Upshaw, an attentive listener can hear deft use of counterpoint and polyphony as the musical lines move confidently through lush jazz harmonies. Years of scoring for her own 17-piece jazz band and film music produce subtle colors in the writing for chamber orchestra, and her keen intelligence makes the melodic line follow the rhythms and shape of the language.

Schneider’s nine-song work, a Cal Performances commission, was the highlight of a strong program. It was the second concert in a series called Ojai North!, done in association with the Ojai Music Festival, of which Upshaw is the music director. The week opened with a performance by Schneider’s jazz orchestra, and concludes with performances Thursday and Saturday of George Crumb’s The Winds of Destiny.

Upshaw, Schneider and poet Ted Kooser (who was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006) all hail from the American Midwest. Kooser’s spare verses use plain language and taut imagery. A flashlight pre-dawn becomes “the moon on a leash.” An older couple huddle at home, where “the house has cupped its hands around the steady candle of our marriage.” Phrases such as “the sky rippled with geese,” and “the pond, still numb from months of ice” draw a smile for their aptness.

Schneider sets these words to music that evokes the starkness of the American plains, but fills in the open harmonies, not so much Copland as Bill Evans, richer and more complex from being tinged with more colorful harmonies. The music is attentive to the words, expanding upon the emotions that lie behind simple ideas such as the appreciation of nature and waking before the day.

Upshaw sang these songs written for her with characteristic purity and silky lyric soprano sound. Unusually for her voice type, however, Schneider gives her some low passages to make use of Upshaw’s smoothly articulate lower register. She’s no mezzo, but the voice doesn’t disappear below the staff, as happens with some lyric sopranos. There’s a womanliness in that part of her voice that belies the girlishness of the high passages.

From the very first quiet chords of “Perfectly Still This Solstice Morning,” the ingratiating musical language made the audience relax. Schneider often starts a song simply, and if the harmonies become more complex, sometimes dissonant, they always resolve, even as they move in unexpected directions. Rhythms vary from stately to moderate, the most agitated coming in the nostalgia of “I Saw a Dust Devil This Morning.” The walking tempos make perfect sense for this cycle, and this composer knows not to ask the Australian Chamber Orchestra, a classical string ensemble, to do jazz licks or go up tempo. Instead, she uses the strings as a billowing curtain of harmonic sound, and leaves the jazz elements to accomplished jazz artists: reed player Scott Robinson, pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Jay Anderson, who executed their parts with distinction and taste. This is music that ought to be heard, its warmth and sheer beauty in service of a masterful text.

Upshaw returned after intermission in Five Hungarian Folk Songs for Soprano and String Orchestra, Bartók’s “discovered” folk songs orchestrated by the Australian group’s leader, Richard Tognetti. The arrangements had vigor and color, and Upshaw sang them with flair.

Tognetti’s string orchestra version of the Grieg String Quartet in G Minor concluded the program. The big, broad strokes, such as the unisons and octaves in the opening and closing pages, gained considerably power with 11 musicians (and a bass) playing instead of four. But some of the more intricate passages lacked clarity.

To open the program, Tognetti juxtaposed Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, in the composer’s version for string orchestra, with Tognetti’s string orchestra arrangement of George Crumb’s 1971 string quartet Black Angels. This is mostly quiet music, and it made a most tasty first course. Webern has a reputation for being dissonant and difficult, but next to Crumb’s language his early 20th-century atonal music sounded positively lush, almost Romantic.

The encore, a gorgeous performance of the Astor Piazzolla tango “Oblivion,” segued into a Finnish fiddle tune, another example of musically strange bedfellows coming together to make something new.

Harvey Steiman