Regina Carter Plays David Schiff's 4 Sisters Concerto in Celebration of African-American Artists

Schiff’s 4 Sisters part of an evening to celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans in classical music and raise funds for equity work

DSO’s 39th Annual Classical Roots Celebration honors Regina Carter and Terence Blanchard

(PORTLAND, OREGON)—Portland, Oregon-based composer David Schiff’s 4 Sisters Concerto for Jazz Violin and Orchestra will make its return to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) in a pair of concerts on Friday, March 3, 2017 with renowned jazz violinist and MacArthur Fellow Regina Carter as soloist. The evening event, DSO’s 39th Annual Classical Roots Celebration, aims to increase awareness of and opportunities for African-American composers and musicians and showcases the artistic mastery and selections of honorees Terence Blanchard and Regina Carter. Carter, who made her debut as a concerto soloist with the DSO playing Schiff’s piece in 2004, remarks on choosing the piece for this special occasion, 

Image by David Katzenstein

Image by David Katzenstein

I am thrilled to perform David Schiff’s 4 Sisters for Jazz Violin and Orchestra with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the 39th annual Classical Roots Celebration. This piece honors Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan, four very important and distinct voices in American music. These women all had to deal with racial discrimination, and through their determination and artistry, they found a way to rise above the ugliness and offer the world a bit of hope during turbulent times. Performing 4 Sisters now has new meaning for me. It offers a beautiful respite and hope in the face of the political unrest we are currently experiencing.

In Schiff’s 24-minute piece, the four women are portrayed in their own movements “Soul,” “Scat,” “Satin,” and “Sassy,” corresponding with Franklin, Fitzgerald, Holiday, and Vaughan respectively. Carter, who sites Ella Fitzgerald the single most important influence on her musical career, is known as the foremost jazz violinist of her generation. David Schiff remarks on having his piece chosen by her for the occasion, "Regina Carter is the perfect performer for my concerto because she doesn't just play the violin, she makes the violin sing, with feeling, humor--and swing. Her performances of 4 Sisters with the DSO in 2004 gave me the greatest of pleasure, and I am delighted and honored that she will be playing the work again on the occasion of this Classical Roots Celebration."

As for the piece itself, Mark Stryker pointed out in his 2004 Detroit Free Press article that 4 Sisters “is not a crossover work -- a shotgun marriage of classical and jazz elements -- but rather a concerto written in the jazz idiom.” Lawrence B. Johnson of The Detroit News called 4 Sisters “a smartly focused essay that swings . . . laced with the kind of improvised virtuosity that has earned Carter her place as queen of the jazz fiddle.” Schiff’s “clever profiles cast the violin in energetic, funky and certainly soulful relief against an orchestra that evoked the high-voltage spirit, if not exactly the colors, of a big jazz band.”

Quoted in the same Free Press article, Schiff said, “This is like the dream of a lifetime. The perfect person for my piece is going to play it.” Expect to see Schiff, giddy, in the audience when the perfect person plays it again March 3rd for the piece’s 20th anniversary.

Tickets and complete program information for the Detroit celebration are available at and 313.576.5111. 


Composer’s Program Note: 4 Sisters, concerto for jazz violin and orchestra, is a tribute to four great American singers: Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. The first three movements—“Soul,” “Scat,” and “Satin”—are played without interruption, and the final movement, “Sassy,” then follows after a short pause. The concerto begins with Aretha Franklin because her voice and her music exemplify the spiritual element that is the foundation for music in all times and in all cultures. The second movement takes us out of church and onto the New York subway, headed uptown. Ella Fitzgerald could sing the words of a song with the deepest feeling, but she could also scat-sing, improvising notes and sounds with verve, wit and of course, consummate swing. Often she quoted other melodies in her improvisations and if you listen closely you will hear some other tunes, including “ A tisket, a tasket,” the song that made her famous. The third movement moves from the big, brightly-lit stage of “Scat” to a more intimate venue, after midnight, and invites the soloist to explore two sides--tragic and resilient--of the great Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan is the modernist among our four voices, and the final movement brings us into the worlds of bebop, modern jazz and beyond, and asks the soloist to improvise in a free manner, without the constraints of “changes.” Free improvisation underscores the theme of freedom which rings out in every note that these four great artists sang, and which inspired me to compose this concerto.

I originally wrote 4 Sisters in 1997, and it had its first performance in Cambridge, England (where I attended university) with violinist Will Street, conducted by Peter Britton. In 2004 I was delighted to hear that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had decided to program the work for Regina Carter’s first performances with the orchestra, and I composed a new solo at the very beginning of the work just for her. I was already a huge fan of Regina’s playing, but we met for the first time just two days before the first of four performances. With the first notes that she played at the very first rehearsal, Regina demonstrated that she owned the piece even though we had not had the opportunity to talk about it before that. About one-half of the solo part is improvised and with each of the four performances in 2004, Regina found delightful new things to say. Naturally, I was thrilled beyond words when I learned that she has chosen to perform 4 Sisters at the 39th Annual Roots Celebration which will honor her and Terence Blanchard for their lifetime achievements.  — David Schiff


The creator of a unique synthesis of musical styles that include jazz, rock, klezmer, modernism, minimalism, and musical theater, David Schiff has been honored with performances at major festivals in the USA, Europe, and Asia, and his writings about composers as diverse as George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Elliott Carter have become standard works on their subjects. His opera Gimpel the Fool has been recorded twice for Naxos; his jazz violin concerto, 4 Sisters, received its American premiere with Regina Carter and the Detroit Symphony; his orchestral work Stomp was recorded by the Baltimore Symphony conducted by David Zinman. His works have also been performed by the Oregon, Seattle, and Virginia symphonies, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Minnesota Orchestra as well as by Chamber Music Northwest, the Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood, Ravinia, and Aldeburgh (UK). Performances of his works have featured such soloists as David Shifrin, David Taylor, Marty Ehrlich, David Krakauer, Nadine Asin and Peter Kogan. Since 1980, David Schiff has taught at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he is the is the R.P. Wollenberg Professor of Music. He is the author of The Music of Elliott Carter (Cornell University Press) and George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (Cambridge University Press) as well as many articles on music for the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Opera News, and Tempo. Read More



For David Schiff        
Kim Morris, Vespertine Works

For Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Matthew Carlson, Dir. Communications & Media Relations