"THE WORDS AND MUSIC OF CLARA SCHUMANN, ROBERT SCHUMANN AND JOHANNES BRAHMS," THE COMPOSER SERIES, First Unitarian Church, Sunday.
How should one attempt to present the life and creative achievements of famous artists of the past to a modern audience? One way, as conceived by pianist Marjorie Janove and actor Katharine Clark Reilly, is to tell a story through dialogue with musical accompaniment.
"The Words and Music of Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms," performed Sunday evening, is the latest in "The Composer Series," a project of ongoing musical/theatrical productions created by Janove and Reilly in which artists' lives are recounted in their own words.
The concept is original, and as realized by Janove and Reilly, this latest installment in the series became an engaging and compelling look into the intertwined lives of the Schumanns and Brahmses. At slightly more than two hours it was somewhat overly long — the presentation could have benefited from some trimming that would have tightened the storyline. But nevertheless, it told an engrossing story effectively and simply.
The first half of the play recounted the growing and eventually ardent love between Robert and Clara Schumann and their life together, detailing the difficulties Robert encountered, struggling to maintain his conducting position in Dusseldorf despite his gradual mental breakdown, and Clara's challenge of pursuing her performing career as a pianist while raising seven children.
The second half introduced Brahms, first as a young man whom the Schumanns admired as a promising composer and loved as a dear friend. After Robert's tragic death in an insane asylum in 1856, the story continued by probing the relationship between Brahms and Clara, and their collaboration in editing Robert's musical oeuvre for publication.
The script for the play is taken from the personal correspondence of the three protagonists, with fictional dialogue. The play also takes a stand on an issue that has never been fully resolved — whether, after Robert's death, Brahms and Clara became lovers or remained close friends. In the Janove/Reilly version, Brahms hopes for a fuller relationship with the older woman, but Clara declines his advances and hopes the two still can remain devoted to each other.
Reilly as Clara, Mark Gollaher as Robert and David Stevens as Brahms gave convincing performances, although Stevens seemed a little unsure of his part. Gollaher's portrayal was particularly striking, especially in his depiction of Robert's descent into madness.
Giselle Airriess, playing one of the Schumanns' daughters, narrated and offered continuity throughout the story and set the stage for several of the scenes.
Soprano Cheryl Hart sang four selections from Robert's "Frauenliebe und Leben" song cycle. Her voice, while breathy at times, is well suited to the tender moods expressed in this poignant set of lieder.
Janove was impressive throughout the evening. Once again she showed what a tremendous pianist she is, both as an accompanist to Hart and the three actors, and in her own right, playing pieces by Mendelssohn and other contemporaries, as well as excerpts from the music of the three composers. (Clara was not only one of the great piano virtuosos of her day, but also a talented composer.)