Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Schumann Trio Plays (Naturally Enough) Some Schumann

Now that we’ve survived the Old Year (in so many ways) and are headed into the New 2013, it’s time for January’s program with Market Square Concerts. This first concert of the year features an unusual trio which includes three musicians you might be familiar with.

They call themselves the Schumann Trio but they’re not, as you might think, a piano trio in the technical sense. In this case, it’s with clarinet, viola and piano. There’s not a lot written for that combination, but they’re scheduled to open the program with a work by the trio’s namesake, Robert Schumann, his Märchenerzälungen or “Fairy Tales,” and include along the way three pieces for clarinet and piano by English composer Rebecca Clarke, along with a few of the pieces written for the trio by Max Bruch.

And, repertoire being scarce, it should come as no surprise that they dip into another rare combination for clarinet, cello and piano by Johannes Brahms, for one of his valedictory works, his Clarinet Trio in A Minor – the viola can play the cello part an octave higher. (You can read about how this work came about, here.)

You can hear them Tuesday evening at Whitaker Center beginning at 8pm.

Incidentally, you’ll also be able to hear a young performer as a “warm-up act” for this concert. Pianist Daniel Glessner, currently studying at Penn State, will perform one of the Transcendental Etudes by Franz Liszt. It’s an opportunity for us to hear some of the many fine young musicians in the area: hearing great performers is one thing but it’s always nice to know the future of classical music is in good hands.

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Of our Schumann Trio, Violist Michael Tree has been best known as one-fourth of the legendary Guarneri Quartet who, during their long and illustrious career as one of the finest string quartets in the world, made frequent and welcome stops in Harrisburg with Market Square Concerts Past – most recently, in 2009, one of their very last concerts together. You may remember an additional and unexpected bit of excitement about that performance when concert-time had arrived but the quartet’s second violinist hadn’t, yet, being stuck somewhere in traffic – and so the program began with a series of anecdotes told by those players present (perhaps a quorum in the political sense but not good for Haydn, Dohnanyi or Ravel). You can read about that aspect of the performance, here.

Clarinetist Anthony McGill will be familiar, if not by name, as one of four performers, along with violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Gabriela Montero, freezing their combined assets off during the outdoor swearing-in ceremony at Barak Obama’s 1st Inauguration, playing a work by John Williams based on the Shaker Hymn, “Simple Gifts.” (I would imagine any of them no longer complain about playing outdoor concerts on hot humid summer days…)

Pianist Anna Polonsky, pursuing her own career as a soloist and chamber musician, has appeared in the region in past summers – speaking of outdoor concerts – with Gretna Music, among her appearances in Vienna, Amsterdam or New York City, appearing here as both solo recitalist and combining with string players for some little-heard music by Ernest Chausson. She has also joined the Guarneri Quartet, among others, for chamber music, playing at major chamber music festivals around the country. Incidentally, as a child, she attended the same music school in Moscow which MSC’s Artistic Director Peter Sirotin had also attended, even though he first heard her at a concert at Bard College – music can be a small world.

Now, with “Flu Season” in full swing – and we hope all of you are well and don’t want anyone to miss this performance – it’s perhaps a good time to mention that there’s always a possibility that expression “program subject to change” may be invoked. Executive Director Ya-Ting Chang has been deluged with a blizzard of last minute program changes for each of the remaining concerts of the season, a concert presenter’s nightmare. At least they came in before the program for these concerts went to press. Should there be any changes to this program, let’s say Clara Schumann knew all about these issues…

Which brings me to the Trio’s namesake and the first piece on the program which is by Robert Schumann, who spent much of his life as a writer about music and a composer trying to make his way in the world while married to one of the greatest pianists of the day and was, subsequently, often regarded as Mr. Clara Schumann. (As one of Clara Schumann’s admirers once asked the husband, standing idly by at a post-concert reception, “Are you a musician, too?”)

I often define chamber music as “music played by friends for friends.” Before the advent of smaller concert halls especially for the presentation of chamber music, chamber music concerts usually took place in people’s homes which could have been a specifically designated music room whether it was in Count Razumovsky’s palace in Beethoven’s day or the rather substantial house in Berlin where Felix Mendelssohn grew up and frequently performed (and composed for) Sunday afternoon musicales, or, for that matter, in the parlors (or living rooms) of professional or amateur musicians across Europe, whether your name was Robert Schumann or Johann Nepomuck Publik.

For instance, the summer that Schumann so industriously poured forth with his three string quartets, the piano quintet and the piano quartet (among other pieces), the unofficial world premiere of Schumann’s famous Piano Quintet took place in their living room, his wife Clara joined by friends of theirs for the occasion. There was a second performance planned (prior to its first public performance) in which Clara Schumann, pregnant with her second child, Elise, was to perform but illness prevented this and, at the last minute, Felix Mendelssohn stepped in and sight-read the part. (Therein, by the way, lies a hint…)

Most of Schumann’s well-known chamber music was written that busy year of 1842, overshadowing much of his later music. Another thing overshadowing his later music is his health and our attitudes about it. Throughout his life, Schumann was plagued with what had been called “manic depression” or, more recently, “bi-polar disorder.” Frequent bouts of creativity – such as the summer of 1842 – were balanced by its aftermath when, drained of energy, Schumann was unable to create and sank into periods of depression.

In the last years of his life, stuck in the provincial world of Düsseldorf as the town music director, his lack of skills as a conductor eventually made things worse: the orchestra refused to play under him as had the chorus. His bouts of illness, beginning with a “rheumatic attack” in the spring of 1852, should not imply a period of constant sickness: again, there were ups and downs and he was still quite prolific as a composer. And it was not an entirely unhappy time, either. It wasn’t until the fall of 1853 that the Schumanns met a young visitor by the name of Johannes Brahms, a 20-year-old friend of the violinist Joseph Joachim (for whom Schumann had written a Fantasie with orchestra as well as a violin concerto).

During this time, he wrote a number of “make-work” pieces, “mechanical” things like arrangements of earlier orchestral works for piano (for amateur study and performance) or writing piano accompaniments for some of Bach’s works for solo violin or solo cello, primarily to keep himself creatively active. But he also wrote a “Festive Overture” with chorus on the Rheinweinlied which was a popular success at its premiere along with his recently revised and now completed 4th Symphony (a work written initially in 1841 but set aside as unsatisfactory).

Not long after Brahms arrived on his doorstep, Schumann composed four short pieces for clarinet, viola and piano he called Märchenerzälungen or “Fairy Tales,” a nondescript image he had used for other, similar short pieces in the past (there's also a set of Märchenbilder or "Fairy Pictures" though often also translated as "Fairy Tales," written only two years earlier). They were written between October 9th and 11th. The following week, he wrote some short piano pieces (similar to many of his more famous earlier miniatures) which he called Gesänge der Frühe or “Songs of the Early Morning” which, as Schumann wrote to his publisher, “depict the emotions on the approach and advance of morning, but more an expression of feeling rather than painting.” Then he went back to writing accompaniments for, among other works, Paganini’s famous 24th Caprice.

By the end of the month, there was a little music-making in the Schumann parlor when several friends joined to honor Joseph Joachim (it is often described as a birthday celebration, though he was born in June and had just turned 22). There was a collaborative violin sonata which made use of Joachim’s favorite expression, “Frei aber einsam” (free but lonely) converted into the pitches F, A and E. Schumann wrote two movements, Brahms wrote the scherzo and another Schumann pupil, Albert Dietrich, wrote the first movement. Joachim and Clara played through them, and the violinist was to guess who composed them.

Unfortunately, the following year he was exhibiting “painful aural symptoms” (in the manner of hallucinations) and eventually, momentarily left unguarded while the family gathered for dinner, a distraught Schumann ran out of the house and jumped off the bridge into the Rhine. (You can read more about this in a post on my other blog, here.) Saved from drowning, Schumann was nonetheless sent off immediately to an asylum where he died two-and-a-half years later, shortly after his 46th birthday.

These “Fairy Tale” Pieces are typical of Schumann’s miniatures which often implied a story rather than depicted one in music. Growing up in a family where his father was a book-seller, Schumann developed an early love for “spinning tales” and, inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman (himself a writer as well as a composer), he was torn between wanting to become a writer and wanting to become a musician. Many of his early piano pieces tell or imply stories: Carnaval, Kreisleriana, Kinderszenen or even Waldscenen with pieces entitled Prophet Bird.

Again, these particular tales – identified only by descriptive tempo markings, more “with tender expression” rather than story-titles like “The Princess and the Pea” or whatever – create more the mood of a tale or set an appropriate tale-telling ambience than suggesting much less setting any specific story.

There are four of these in this set:
Lebhaft, nicht zu schnell (Light but not too fast);
Lebhaft und sehr markirt (Light and very marked [in rhythm]);  
Ruhiges Tempo, mit zartem Ausdruck (Quiet Tempo with sweet expression) and
Lebhaft, sehr markirt (Light, very marked, with a middle section in a Somewhat Quieter Tempo before the opening section returns).

Though this would not be my ideal preference for a performance, it gives you an idea of what to expect with Schumann’s very comfortable tale-spinning. Imagine yourself in a warm domestic atmosphere surrounded by friends listening to some delightful music. (And you get to follow along with the score - without having to turn pages.)
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- Dick Strawser

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