The Houston Symphony’s Schumann Festival notwithstanding, it’s a miracle Robert Schumann isn’t better-known already.
Hollywood has already given us the 1947 film “Song of Love,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Paul Henreid of “Casablanca.” Yet despite a fascinating biography, he lacks the lofty reputation (and box-office clout) of many 19th-century peers and successors whose music is much better-known today: Chopin, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and even Brahms, who was a close friend and protege of Schumann’s.
So for an orchestra of this caliber to devote two straight weekends and a handful of weeknights to Schumann’s music only shows how much faith music director Andres Orozco and his players have not just in Schumann’s music but in their own subscribers. And when that audience turns out in force, as it did last Saturday, obviously the feeling is mutual.
For the festival, which continues through next weekend, the symphony has also added context-rich events such as last Thursday’s gallery tour of Romantic-era art at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Prefacing Saturday’s concert was a lecture by psychiatrist and Juilliard-trained pianist Dr. Richard Kogan, who detailed a number of Schumann’s unorthodox practices linked to his presumed bipolarity before illustrating them through pieces like the enthralling “Carnaval.”
Of course these embellishments would hardly be necessary if Schumann hadn’t provided such a wealth of material. He was a meticulous diarist and letter-writer, while the twin musical alter egos he created — the fiery Florestan and tuneful Eusebius — confounded many contemporaries but won over the likes of Felix Mendelssohn and Schumann’s wife Clara, who sang his praises for decades after his untimely death in 1856. He was merely 46.
For further verisimilitude, Jay Sullivan from the Alley Theatre’s resident acting company read snippets of Schumann’s letters throughout Saturday’s concert. Clad in a black waistcoat and seated at a desk toward the back of the stage, he arose every so often to offer a few succinct stage directions. The Symphony No. 1, subtitled “Spring,” is meant to evoke the “bursting forth of life,” he explained
Under Orozco-Estrada’s baton, the power of Schumann’s suggestions was strong indeed. The opening movement began with a rousing trumpet call and lush string chorale that eventually resolved into a bold main theme, brimming with warm harmonies and melodies that felt like a refreshing breeze.
Marked by gentle cello and rich interplay between various wind instruments, the second movement alternated steadily growing intensity and dusky calm, almost like a nocturnal wedding dance. The third was a triple-meter lark — Florestan and Eusebius romping through a lush meadow — while bird-like flutes and vibrant horns accented the pulse-quickening finale.
Written a few months after his first symphony, still in a newlywed haze, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor is a sort of inside joke between him and Clara, perhaps the most gifted concert pianist of her era: the notes of the A minor chord spell out his preferred nickname for her. Friday’s chamber-music program at the Hobby Center will explore the couple’s love story in greater detail.
Saturday, soloist Benjamin Grosvenor played the concerto with solid melodic instincts and a keen appreciation for how the spaces between notes can inform a piece’s personality as much as what’s on the printed page. The young Brit is not an especially flashy performer, nor did he need to be: every so often he would pound the keys with relish, but overall his understated style served the rich, dark melodies well.
An equal partner with the orchestra throughout most of the work, Grosvenor at last pulled ahead in the closing moments by transforming Schumann’s already-jovial theme into something marvelous.
Schumann’s mental state was cloudier a few years later, reflected in the muted opening and foreboding melody of the opening movement of his Symphony No. 2. But an extended tug-of-war between sections ended on a note of jubilation that promptly carried over into the second movement, where the feverish violins mirrored the composer’s racing imagination.
Explicitly patterned after the funeral march of Beethoven’s third symphony, the third movement used plaintive oboe and distant trumpet to suggest a feeling of deep longing but also — perhaps — Schumann’s long-sought inner peace. The energetic finale captured the composer’s determination to “charge forward,” Sullivan noted, as staccato horn calls and quicksilver strings built up to an exalted ending.
When all is said and done, this Schumann Festival is as likely to leave audiences with as much newfound appreciation for the orchestra as for the composer. Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra repeat the entire cycle next weekend, starting with Symphonies 3 and 4 on Saturday night.
Chris Gray is a Houston-based writer.