Byron Schenkman & Friends combine instrumental and vocal pieces in their program celebrating the multifaceted musical poetry of Robert and Clara Schumann.
For Robert Schumann, the Romantic concept of poetry was the common denominator that inspired him to compose across a wide range of genres.
And while he stands out among classical composers for his refined literary sensibility, it didn’t matter whether words were involved: “Music is poetry raised to a higher power,” Schumann wrote in his teenage diary.
“Everything that he composes seems so text-based to me, even if there isn’t an actual text,” says Byron Schenkman. “Schumann is always telling a story.”
Byron Schenkman & Friends: “The Poet Speaks”
7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St, Seattle; $10-$42 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org/concerttickets/calendar/2017-2018/benaroyahall/byron2)
That insight is the unifying principle of the upcoming program from Byron Schenkman & Friends, a chamber-music series that the Seattle-based keyboard master and music director launched in 2013 and is now in its fifth season. Programs designed around particular themes are part of Schenkman’s strategy to provide fresh contexts for thinking about familiar composers — and encountering some of their neglected peers.
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Presenters of classical music tend to compartmentalize instrumental and vocal works — and there are notable differences in the respective audiences these attract — but that’s an artificial division in the world of Schumann and his fellow Romantics.
Schenkman hopes to bridge that gap with “The Poet Speaks,” for which he will be joined by two musical friends to perform an evening of instrumental music as well as one of Schumann’s best-loved song cycles, “Dichterliebe” (“Poet’s Love”).
For the latter, Schenkman will accompany the tenor Ross Hauck, while he will be the soloist for Schumann’s early piano cycle “Kinderszenen” — among music’s most touching evocations of the poetry of childhood. Schenkman will also duo with Seattle Symphony principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi in “Märchenbilder” (“Fairy-Tale Pictures”)
“I feel so drawn to Schumann’s music — and also to the music of his wife, Clara — because of its intense sincerity,” Schenkman says. Clara Schumann, a celebrity pianist of her era, and a composer in her own right, will be represented by her Op. 6 Nocturne.
“I believe Clara’s work is completely at the same level as that of her husband. This Nocturne is such a devastatingly beautiful piece, I was shocked when I realized she wrote it when she was a teenager.”
Schenkman has made a point to include at least one piece by a female composer on the majority of his programs. “One of my main motivations for doing that comes from a diary entry by Clara Schumann herself. It’s where she questions the very idea of a woman trying to compose. Every time I read that, it breaks my heart. I think of how Clara would have been encouraged if she had just known about some of these women who were successful and even famous in other eras.”
It was as an early-music performer focused on harpsichord music from the 17th and 18th centuries that Schenkman established his reputation. He recently expanded an already prolific discography with “The Art of the Harpsichord,” the culmination of years of becoming acquainted with the rare historical harpsichord collection of the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.
Being steeped in early music gives Schenkman an unusual perspective from which to consider the Romantics. He approaches their work less as music predating and laying the ground for modern developments, than as a continuation of the past — but a continuation that can astonish with its own moments of sounding “so modern and new.”
He also points to Schumann’s affinity for J.S. Bach, who was the centerpiece of last month’s season-opening program of Byron Schenkman & Friends. Along with actual musical influences, there’s the matter of attitude.
“Bach’s creativity is so totally for God, whereas some of the Romantics believed they were God. But both of the Schumanns had such deep humility about what they were doing. You never feel like anything is just for show. That’s similar to Bach.”
For Schenkman, this humility allows for Schumann’s brand of “thoughtful and introspective music. Every set on this program starts very quietly and ends even more quietly. Every piece takes us into the imagination of the composer and into our own imaginations. There is so much noise in our world that to be able to quiet ourselves down and look inward is really important right now.”