Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Grammy-winning Maria Schneider Orchestra to perform world premiere of co-commissioned music

By John Mark Rafacz

Maria Schneider, who NPR describes as “a national treasure,” calls her own shots. That and her immeasurable talent have helped her and the orchestra she guides to earn five Grammy Awards in three genres (jazz, classical and rock), twelve Grammy nominations, and the acclaim of critics and music lovers.

She added two Grammys this year, one for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for The Thompson Fields and a second for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals, for her collaboration with David Bowie on his single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” The song is from Bowie’s final album, Blackstar.

“To work so collaboratively with David Bowie on such a unique piece as ‘Sue’ was one of the most thrilling things to ever happen to me musically. So to receive this Grammy is deeply meaningful,” says Schneider, who leads her orchestra in concert April 14 at Penn State.

“And The Thompson Fields is the most personal work that I’ve ever created with my own band,” she adds. “And I feel that the playing within my band has reached an extraordinary peak. For all of us to be recognized for that, as well, is overwhelming.”

It’s been ten years since New York City’s Maria Schneider Orchestra first performed at Eisenhower Auditorium in a concert featuring “The ‘Pretty’ Road,” a composition co-commissioned by the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State. The orchestra returns to Eisenhower April 14 in a performance featuring the world premiere of another Center for the Performing Arts co-commission.

“She puts together stories that speak with the clarity of Ernest Hemingway and the musical grace of Aaron Copland,” writes Bob Karlovits of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“From the lustrous opening chords of a Maria Schneider concert, you can feel you are swept off your feet and falling through space,” writes John Fordham in The Guardian, “but with the certainty that someone with a lot of emotional intelligence is there to catch you.”

Schneider’s youth in rural Minnesota inspired The Thompson Fields. “This marriage of sounds, words, and images is ultimately breathtaking, a testament not simply to the hipness of jazz but to the uplifting and sustaining powers of art,” raves Peter Hum for the Ottawa Citizen.

The Thompson Fields breaks through to a new level,” insists Stereophile’s Fred Kaplan. “It’s her most ambitious recording, and her most accomplished; it places her in the pantheon of big-band composer-leaders, just below Ellington, Strayhorn, and Gil Evans at his very best; it’s a masterpiece.”

In previous years, the Jazz Journalists Association and the Down Beat critics poll named her Concert in the Garden and Sky Blue, in turn, “jazz album of the year.”

“For Schneider, the question is no longer whether she can sustain the heights she has attained on earlier recordings; it is now how far her musical journey will take her,” Downbeat’s James Hale writes.

The composer/arranger/bandleader and her orchestra gained attention in 1994 with the release of their debut recording, Evanescence. It was then that Schneider began developing her personal writing style to highlight the virtuoso musician voices in what would become an eighteen-member collective.

The orchestra has performed at concert venues and festivals around the world. Schneider has reaped many commissions and guest-conducting gigs, working with more than eighty-five groups from more than thirty countries.

She’s passionate about artists controlling their rights to music, recordings, and fan base. All of her music is self-released through ArtistShare. Her strong voice for music advocacy prompted her to testify in 2014 about digital rights before the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on Intellectual Property.

“We make the music and we hold the cards,” she said in her 2016 Grammy pre-telecast acceptance speech. “It’s our future to either give away or keep.”

John Mark Rafacz is the Center for the Performing Arts editorial manager.