REVIEW: Maria Schneider Orchestra at Cadogan Hall (EFG LJF)

Maria Schneider at Unterfahrt in Munich, November 2015
Photo credi: Ralf Dombrowski

Maria Schneider Orchestra.
(Cadogan Hall, EFG LJF. 17 November 2015. Review by Patrick Hadfield.)

The idea of having Liam Noble  playing solo piano to open for the Maria Schneider Orchestra was a stroke of genius: compared to the dense sonic possibilities of Ms Schneider's eighteen-strong band, Noble's piano work was at the other end of the spectrum, so his fine short set of originals and standards taken from his solo piano CD A Room Somewhere (REVIEWED HERE) acted as the perfect curtain-raiser.

But it doesn't do Noble a disservice to say that everyone was there for the main attraction. Schneider is a rare visitor to our shores, and the packed house at Cadogan Hall was full of expectation as they gave her an exceptionally warm welcome.

They opened with the gentle accordion of A Potter's Song, lulling us before the full power of the band comes in. Power, but under expert control: Schneider has her band purring like a large engine, only rarely pushing down on the throttle to release the full force of the big band.

This was clear on the next number, Nimbus. It also started quietly, with an impassioned alto solo from Steve Wilson, which grew and grew with intensity. The orchestra matched Wilson's soulfulness, growing similarly more forceful before Schneider gradually brought them and us back to the starting point.

Most of the tunes came from Schneider's new record, The Thomson Fields (REVIEWED HERE), and she spoke of how the music came about: rooted in the place she grew up, it is her impressions of the environment - such as Nimbus and The Thomson Fields - and how she feels about it, like Home. The music she produces is rich and luscious, full of nuance. It translated to the live environment exceptionally well, every instrument clear even at the loudest points.

She played Dance You Monster To My Soft Song from her first album, Evanescence, from 1994. Remarkably, several musicians from that debut still play in her band, and perhaps it is the continuity that enables her to get so much from her musicians. Whilst she directs the orchestra, coaxing them into a wide range of dynamics, the soloists have free rein, and express themselves volubly and passionately. 

This was exemplified on the closing number, Birds of Paradise, during which Scott Robinson on baritone and Donny McCaslin on tenor took their turns in, as Schneider put it, "strutting their stuff" with long solos, then exchange phrases, and finally competing by playing over each other. Egging each other on, and clearly enjoying it, they drew appreciative applause.

The audience brought Schneider back to the stage for an encore, two settings of poems by Ted Kooser which Schneider had arranged for the singer Dawn Upshaw. Schneider recited the evocative poems before the orchestra played the pieces. In the first, Walking By Flashlight, Scott Robinson surprised Schneider by setting down his saxophone and soloing instead on flugelhorn. Clearly multi-talented, and to much admiration from the trumpet section, he played a mellow, mournful solo. The second, All Night, In Gusty Winds, drew a truly memorable evening to an end and brought the audience to its feet. This is - so far -  my gig of the year.

Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. Twitter: @patrickhadfield.

The Maria Schneider Orchestra play Birmingham Symphony Hall on Thursday 19 November and and a quintet of players from the orchestra play Birmingham's CBSO Centre on Friday 20 November.

LINK: Ralf Dombrowski's report and photos of the Maria Schneider Orchestra at Unterfahrt.

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