Albany Symphony shines a light on Clara Schumann

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ALBANY, N.Y. — To 19th century music fans, concert pianist Clara Schumann was a rock star.

For 60 years she performed and toured throughout her native Germany, Europe and the United Kingdom, audiences clamoring to hear her in person.

She played with top orchestras of her time, such as venerated hometown Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and knew and premiered works by great composers including Mendelssohn, Liszt and her beloved husband, Robert.

A composer, teacher, business person — and mother of eight children — how she got that done is anybody's guess, said Albany Symphony Orchestra music director David Alan Miller in a pre-season interview with executive director Anna Kuwabara at ASO's Palace Theatre home base.

This weekend, the orchestra commemorates the 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann's birth with a festival at historic Troy Savings Bank Music Hall featuring a centerpiece ASO concert and two recitals of Clara's piano, chamber and vocal works performed by Bard College Conservatory students.

The festival anchors ASO's season-long celebration of women — on the stage, on the score page and on the podium.

"2020 is the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote." Miller said. The season presents "just an incredible number of exciting artists, most of whom are women."

With this festival, "we're focusing on [Clara] as one of the great early modern women, who did it all within the very narrow confines of what was expected of 19th century women."

"She's at the epicenter of this season in her role as one of the first really major figures in the classical music world who happened to be a woman."

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Clara's legacy has been overshadowed by husband Robert, Miller explained, something the ASO hopes to redress. "His stature is very different from hers in posterity, he was principally a composer, and she was [mostly] a performer and a lot more ephemeral."

"While we might now think of Clara as Robert Schumann's wife," Kuwabara noted, "in her time Robert Schumann was [known as] Clara's husband."

Saturday evening's headline concert (repeated Sunday afternoon) features two Schumann piano concerti — one by Clara, the other by Robert — performed by award-winning Canadian piano prodigy Harmony Zhu.

Making her ASO debut at 14 years old, Zhu is the same age Clara Schumann was when she wrote her Piano Concerto.

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Also a composer, violinist, World Youth Chess Champion — and youngest Juilliard student at age 9 — Zhu has performed with major orchestras including Detroit and Chicago Symphonies and Israel Philharmonic, and at Carnegie Hall.

"She's a brilliant young New York-based artist," Miller said.

Also on the program is Brahms' tempestuous "Tragic Overture." A close friend and mutual admirer of the Schumanns, Brahms helped support and console Clara after Robert entered a mental institution in 1854 and died two years later; she performed his work throughout her long career.

The concert includes the world premiere of "muse.mute.mate.made," the second ASO commission from award-winning composer Loren Loiacono. Educated at Cornell and Yale and a former Bang on a Can Fellow in North Adams, Mass., Loiacono's work is widely performed from Connecticut to Colorado.

"We've done so much here at the Albany Symphony with young emerging composers," Miller said. "It seems like a perfect opportunity to showcase wonderful compelling, exciting and original composers who happen to be women writing magnificent works of art."

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That approach invites engagement, added Kuwabara. "Commissioning is really important, giving composers the opportunity to create new works. It opens the door for people to connect and express themselves."

SUNY Fredonia's Institute for Composer Diversity, she noted, consistently lists ASO atop its annual US review of programming featuring women and composers of color.

"We play more works by living composers per capita than possibly any other orchestra in the country," Miller said, "and we're very proud of that. And a great number of [them] are women."

Miller joined Albany Symphony as music director in 1992. The Grammy Award-winner has guest-conducted major orchestras from Boston to his native Los Angeles and internationally.

With configurations ranging from 35 to 90 players and four performing venues — Albany's Palace Theatre, Proctors in Schenectady, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, and RPI's EMPAC, also in Troy — the 70-member ASO celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2020.

Being peripatetic "puts us into different communities," Kuwabara noted. "The roots are already there, it's just nurturing what's fertile ground."

The Capital District and Berkshires offer "a very enlightened, engaged, intellectually curious community," Miller said. "That's why adventurous orchestras like ours which push the envelope are so successful."

"We want as best we can to reflect our society, and [its] interests and trends. Women composers are here to stay, and there's no logical reason why they wouldn't be."


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