Friday, November 11, 2022

A Human Legacy Honored at Pacific SO’s Café Ludwig

The Café Ludwig audience prepares for the concert.


“Clara Schumann’s Legacy,” Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Under the radar indeed! As the pianist Orli Shaham (right) noted in her introduction to the first of the season’s Café Ludwig chamber concerts at the Segerstrom Center’s Samueli Theater, this is the series’ 15th year with her as curator, and on the basis of what we heard on the first Sunday in November (and with a very special additional circumstance, of which more later), Café Ludwig is one of the unsung treasures of music-making in Orange County.

But while the intimate informal atmosphere—audience members seated four-to-a-table for the consumption of coffee and treats while listening—certainly contributes to the sense of specialness, it’s the music-making which is key, and Ms. Shaham, with section-Principal colleagues from the Pacific Symphony, under whose auspices the Café Ludwig series is presented, had devised a program that was as inventively conceived around the theme of “Clara Schumann’s Legacy” as it was vividly performed.

Clara Schumann  in 1838,
painted by Andreas Staub.
That legacy, eloquently outlined by Ms. Shaham, was manifold and far-reaching. Clara’s six-decade career as a keyboard virtuoso permanently reshaped both the nature of piano recital content and how it was delivered, while her teaching of playing technique and expressive intent went on to influence deeply subsequent generations of performers. Alongside all this, her equally life-long devotion to promoting her husband Robert’s music ensured its enshrining as a core element of 19th century repertoire.

All this variously curtailed and overshadowed Clara’s own composing activities (of which her diaries show her to be almost distressingly self-deprecatory). To illuminate this third strand of her legacy, therefore, Ms. Shaham began with one of Clara Schumann’s own works, the Three Romances, Op. 22, composed in 1853 (and thus one of her last compositions). Originally written for violin and piano, it was presented in a new transcription for cello, in which Ms. Shaham was joined by Warren Hagerty, Principal Cellist of the Pacific Symphony (below).

Reviewing a previous performance of the Romances, I found them “not hugely differentiated in mood and pace.” This time, however, they seemed much more varied, perhaps due to a closer observance of the initial tempo indications: Andante molto, Allegretto, and Leidenschaftlich schnell—a sequence of fairly slow / fairly quick / passionately fast that added up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Also, maybe due to the dark ochre tones of the cello replacing the lighter timbres of the violin, the Romances this time seemed to embody a greater emotional richness that belied their brief duration. 

Joseph Joachim.
Joseph Joachim earned his place on the program due to his long-term violin/piano recital partnership and close friendship with Clara, and as with her, his celebrity as a platform virtuoso has overshadowed his achievements as a composer. For Joachim’s Hebrew Melodies Op. 9 for viola and piano, Pacific Symphony Principal Meredith Crawford took Mr. Hagerty’s place on the platform, but any thought that the smaller instrument might bring a lightening of expression and texture was quickly belied.

Meredith Crawford.
She and Ms. Shaham played only two of the three Melodies. No. 1, a richly measured Sostenuto, would stand perfectly well on its own, as indeed would the longer and weightier Grave that succeeds it, but without the gentler Andante cantabile that concludes the set the pair formed an unrelievedly somber and somewhat unbalanced duo, particularly as the performers gave full measure to both the tempo and expressive implications of No. 2’s Grave marking.

Given the closeness of both the Schumanns and Joachim with Johannes Brahms, it would have been an easy repertoire choice to follow this with one of the latter's violin sonatas, but Ms. Shaham’s program took a far more imaginative route—and for me, the storming performance by her and Pacific Symphony Concertmaster Dennis Kim of Amanda Maier’s Violin Sonata in B minor was the musical highlight of the afternoon.

Amanda Maier and Julius Röntgen (1885-1932),
who became one of the most prolific, though
little-known, symphonists of the 20th century.
Who? The violinist Amanda Maier (1853-1894) was celebrated, particularly in her native Sweden, both as a performer and composer until her marriage in 1880 to Julius Röntgen, the son of her violin teacher Engelbert Röntgen. The couple settled in Amsterdam, where they frequently hosted musical gatherings, where their guests sometimes included Brahms and Clara Schumann. Their marriage, and Amanda’s declining health, brought her touring career to an end but she continued to compose, though some of her works have been lost.

Orli Shaham’s enthusiasm for this Violin Sonata (1873, rev 1878) was unbounded, and fully justified by the performance. The first movement Allegro immediately engages the ear with a climbing, striving main theme on the violin over rippling piano arpeggios. A sharply contrasted five-note, arch-shaped motif, un poco tranquillo, soon appears, followed by the lyrical second subject proper, and Maier adeptly evolves a large-scale structure from these elements.

Dennis Kim.
The second movement Andantino sets off with a rocking, lullaby-like melody but soon the music moves into a faster central section before returning to the opening theme, giving the effect of enclosing a miniature scherzo within a slow movement. The finale, Allegro molto vivace, is positively Beethovenian in its propulsive energy, but with more than a touch of Brahmsian Hungarian Dance to further flavor the mix. 

The end comes with a hectic cadential pile-up, executed with hair-raising virtuosity by Shaham and Kim that brought the audience cheering to its feet. My only regret about the performance was that time constraints (presumably) prevented the repeat of the first movement’s exposition—with music as fine and memorable as this, the more you can hear of it, the better!

After the interval, all four players delivered an equally fine performance of Robert Schumann’s great Piano Quartet in E-flat major Op. 47, composed in 1842 under Clara’s ever-watchful, loving eye—in numerous performances of which she played in the years and decades to come. Equally impressive were the flavors of late Beethoven in the hymn-like opening to the first movement, the shadowy, somewhat Mendelssohnian scurrying of the scherzo, the glorious lyricism of the Andante cantabile, and the volatile, cascading unpredictability of the finale.

Robert Schumann's Piano Quartet comes to a triumphant conclusion.

This, however, was not the end of the afternoon. What elevated the concert into a unique occasion was the presence in the audience of one of the Schumanns’ great-great-grandchildren.

Elizabeth Schumann Brumfield (left)—a long-time resident of Orange County—is the granddaughter of Felix Schumann, who emigrated to New York in the early 1900s, and who was himself the son of Ferdinand, Robert and Clara Schumann’s sixth child and their second son to survive beyond infancy. A poignant family footnote is that the aging Clara took Ferdinand’s family under her wing after his early death in 1891.

Clara Schumann in 1878.
Ms. Schumann Brumfield joined Orla Shaham on the platform for a conversation; naturally, she said, she had always been aware of the family history, but she had only recently come to realize that Clara, alongside all her other achievements and formidable resourcefulness, had been a composer of considerable quality, to say the least, and she now looked forward to discovering more about this aspect of her great ancestor’s work.

In conclusion, she eloquently summarized the value of a life like that of Clara Schumann, which enriched in so many ways those who surrounded her, from her immediate family, to her many musical friends, partners and collaborators, and outwards to the innumerable audience members whose musical experience was enriched by hearing her play. And that enrichment has continued to our time, with audiences rediscovering her legacy through concerts such as we had just heard. In our fractured world the human and humane value of such a musical and personal legacy could not be overstated. 


Orli Shaham and friends, Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, Sunday, November 6, 2022, 3 p.m.
Images: The performance: Doug Gifford; the composers: Wikimedia Commons.

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