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Maria makes music: Composer-conductor returns with orchestra to her hometown

WINDOM -- Maria Schneider lives and works in New York City, but her profession takes her to venues around the world.

She won a Grammy, not just any Grammy, but one that was a first in the music business.

And although she hasn't lived there for many years and no longer has any family living there, Schneider calls southwest Minnesota -- specifically the small city of Windom -- home.

"I love Windom," she stated emphatically during a phone interview from her New York abode. "It's great. The whole platform of my life is there. ... I still have many friends there, and I go back when I can."

Thus it will be a homecoming for Schneider when she brings the 17-piece ensemble of musicians known as the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra to perform a concert at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Business, Arts and Recreation Center (BARC), 1012 Fifth Ave., Windom.

Schneider was born and raised in Windom, one of three daughters of Carl and Dori Schneider. Her dad ran the flax plant in Windom back then; now her parents live in the Twin Cities. A 1979 graduate of Windom High School, Schneider participated in all the school's musical activities -- band, choir, orchestra -- but she gives credit for igniting and stoking her musical abilities to her piano teacher, Evelyn Butler. Butler, a classically trained pianist from Chicago, moved to Windom to be closer to her daughter when Schneider was just 5 years old.

"She gave me an extraordinary musical education," Schneider said about her first musical mentor.

With that foundation, Schneider knew she'd pursue a career in music "of some sort -- just not sure exactly what I would be," she recalled. "I figured out that I would be a composer in college."

Schneider did her undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota, where she became more and more influenced by jazz, and went on to graduate school at the University of Miami and the Eastman School of Music. When she arrived in New York City in 1985, Schneider was lucky enough to make connections with two renowned jazz composers -- Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans. She studied composition privately with Brookmeyer and became an assistant to Evans. Before Evans' death in 1988, she worked with him on projects including compositions for the film "The Color of Money" and a 1987 tour with pop musician Sting.

"I eventually started my own group here in New York," Schneider explained. "We started playing regularly and developed a following. Once we got playing, it just sort of happened. But I've worked hard over these years, for sure. I'm leading a group of about 20 musicians, and putting it all together, touring and booking, is not easy."

Some of the musicians in the orchestra have been playing under the guidance of Schneider's baton for 18 years. The orchestra focuses on Schneider's own compositions and has been invited to perform at jazz festivals and concert halls across the United States, in Europe and South America. She's had many commissions and invitations to conduct her music with American and European orchestras.

Somewhere between those obligations, Schneider and her orchestra have also recorded her music. The debut recording, "Evanescence," was nominated for two Grammy Awards in 1995. The next two recordings, "Coming About" and "Allégresse," also received Grammy nominations. She was nominated seven times before coming home with the gramophone statue in 2005 for "Concert in the Garden." That was definitely a highpoint for Schneider and also had some significance to the recording industry.

"That was the biggest thing that has happened to me, and it was every bit as exciting as I guessed it could be," she reflected. "When we won that Grammy, it was the first Grammy ever won by somebody who was just selling their recordings through the Internet. So that made news all over the world. It showed that the business is changing. For so long, it was the corporations that the musicians had to count on for their career."

When it comes to composing music, Schneider admits it's a laborious process.

"Sometimes my pieces take months to write. Some take weeks. They never just take days," she said, struggling to put the composing process into words. "I come up with some idea, something that seems to have potential for character in it, some little motive. There will be a few notes, a chord, something in it that I like. A lot of times I'll just improvise with figuring out what it can be. It just starts to remind me of something. It just sort of attaches itself to some sort of memory, and I use the memory to bring it to fruition."

Since many of Schneider's early remembrances took place in Windom, naturally many of her compositions are reflective of the southwest Minnesota town.

"I write a lot of pieces about my hometown," she said, naming off pieces that recall places such as Fish Lake and the truck stop where she once waitressed.

The most recent composition that is rooted in her days growing up in Windom is one that she's anxious to play at Sunday's concert.

"I wrote a piece called 'The Pretty Road' that has some references to my past in Windom, my family. It's about remembering a road -- at the time when you came into Windom on this one particular road, at night, you'd see all the lights of Windom. My sisters and I named it the Pretty Road. We'd take it when we were coming back from a restaurant where we'd go out in the country, called the Driftwood Steakhouse. We'd say, 'Oh, Dad, let's take the Pretty Road.' So in this piece, it's as if you're looking at all those lights from Windom, the memories, this collage of things."

The Maria Schneider Orchestra played "The Pretty Road" during a recent concert at the Disney Hall in Los Angeles, one of the largest venues they've played. The concert was recorded for Minnesota Public Radio, and during it, Schneider talked about those growing-up years in Windom and how the piece was invoked by such memories.

"My music -- it's intricate and it may be complex, but it's not difficult," she reflected. "In general, I would characterize it as pretty, but it's not challenging, not intellectual. With all my pieces, I usually talk to the audience about them first."

Schneider also tries to connect people to the music through her Web site,, which utilizes a concept called artistShare, a patent-pending process created by one of her friends that "allows artists to fund new projects and grow their fan base by sharing the experience of their creation with their audience."

"The great thing is when people buy something through the Web site, everybody gets an account, and they can visit their account any time and get all sorts of stuff that relates to what they buy," Schneider explained. "For instance, we made a live CD, our Live project, and every time we go out on the road in these months that we've been working, we do these little videos backstage, film snippets of the concerts, that we share with the fans. So, in Windom, they're going to interview all sorts of people from Windom, talking about Windom, my past. So it gives a whole window into the artist. It's really incredible."

Schneider is looking forward to sharing some pieces of her hometown with her fans as well as reconnecting with her own roots.

"When you're from a town like Windom, you feel the support of the community," she said. "I like to visit my old house ... and I wish I could visit my Dad's hunting cabin, but it's probably too cold and there won't be a lot of time. But it's just fun to walk around the square, and I don't have to go too far to visit the old haunts in Windom."

For more information about Schneider's concert and ticket availability, contact BARC, (507) 831-2375;

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Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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