Looking ahead to Festival Miami: Maria Schneider and Dawn Upshaw

Arts / Article

Dawn Upshaw (left) and Maria Schneider.

For more than three decades, the folks at the University of Miami have opened the South Florida musical season in expansive style with Festival Miami, presenting a month’s worth of concerts that start in October and last through early November.

A couple weeks ago, UM announced much of the lineup for this 31st iteration of the festival (though there’s more to come), and it features its familiar Miami-flavored mix of classical, jazz and Latin stylings along with pop staples such as its annual Songwriters Showcase, featuring an evening of new work from students in the Bruce Hornsby Creative American Music program.

But while there is some interesting pop and jazz star power (Keb’ Mo’, Jorma Kaukonen, Patti Austin and rising names including Gretchen Parlato and Gaby Moreno), there are other outstanding events coming to the festival worth mentioning now.

The big one for me is Dawn Upshaw, the splendid American soprano who, after making a major name for herself on the operatic stage, has done wonderful things for the American Songbook, with discs of music by Kurt Weill, Vernon Duke and Richard Rodgers, plus John Adams’s oratorio El Niño and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainamadar.

She has joined forces with the celebrated jazz composer and bandleader Maria Schneider, who has appeared at Festival Miami before, for a song cycle called Winter Morning Walks, a setting of poems by American poet Ted Kooser, who wrote them as postcards to another great American writer, Jim Harrison. This cycle won three 2014 Grammy Awards this year, including one for Upshaw (Best Classical Vocal Solo), Schneider (Best Classical Composition) and another for the three producers, David Frost, Tim Martyn and Brian Losch.

Upshaw and Schneider will be in town Oct. 25 to perform Winter Morning Walks at Festival Miami in its Florida premiere. Schneider, who studied for a year at UM in the mid-1980s, will lead the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra in the work.

One of the best things about this piece is that it is a crowdfunded venture through ArtistShare, a business founded by guitarist-composer Brian Camelio that allows participants to commission a work and watch over the shoulder of the creator as a piece comes to life. The first project funded by the ArtistShare model, in 2003, was a Grammy-winning album by Schneider (Concert in the Garden), and its projects have won eight other Grammys since.

Camelio has hit on something very important for the future of the music industry in that he understood a long time ago how computer technology was going to revolutionize cultural business models because it changed the literal means of production; in other words, anything that could be digitally downloaded was now fair game for anyone, unlike in the recent past, when copyright meant that the owner had the exclusive right to make copies of the work.

Schneider is one of those creators revered in her usual sphere — traditionally oriented jazz — who is not well-known to many people outside that niche. But she is a major American composer, a writer who manages to reinvigorate the large jazz ensemble repertory without turning to pop styles to sweeten its appeal. It’s a significant achievement; she writes jazz like generations of classical composers did in that she writes for a traditionally constituted ensemble and writes within its boundaries. The difference now is that the large jazz band, which was once designed to accompany dancing, is now more or less a classical chamber group, albeit one that draws on an ancestral repertory of early to mid-20th century American popular song (rather than the older progenitors of classical music, such as ancient folksong and music of the Catholic Church), and one in which improvisation is central to the aesthetic rather than mostly outside it.

In any event, this is going to be a major concert for devotees of good new American art music, and a terrific way to celebrate the 2014-15 season.

The festival schedule can be seen at festivalmiami.com, and tickets can be purchased via the website or by calling 305-284-4940.