The 200th Anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth, on Sept. 13, 1819, is passing by without much fanfare, not just locally in the United States but also around the globe. We could ask the question: why? Whether we gauge Schumann’s accomplishments against those of the male pianists in her time or by the progress and status of women in classical music during the 21st century, her triumphs remain phenomenal.
Fortunately, Schumann’s achievements have not gone completely unnoticed. This month, National Sawdust reflects on her legacy with the Season Five opener, exclusively devoted to women composers, on September 27. As a timely prelude to that occasion, the San Francisco-based pianist Lara Downes invited a cohort of women to celebrate Schumann on the exact anniversary of her birthday.
These concerts remind me of a quote from Schumann’s teenage diary: “I am girl within my own armor.” We can hear her determined fortitude. But her statement should haunt us, because we are still compelled to produce concerts exclusively advocating for women’s voices to be heard. This is where we are: We still need to arm ourselves for battle.
Considered one of the most influential composers and pianists of her century, Schumann was so popular at one time that police were called in to control the crowds at her concerts. Her resilience – she continued to perform amid the chaos of her own illness, domestic violence, and the institutionalization of her composer husband and a son – sustained her through a remarkable career. At 21, she was married; by 37, she was a widow with seven children.
But Schumann was more than the proverbial modern-day supermom; she also premiered many of the seminal works of the period. It was she who gave the first public performance of Beethoven’s technically demanding “Appassionata” Sonata. Schumann was – to employ the over-used modern term – a musical trailblazer.
Downes’s celebration coincided with the release of her newest album, For Love of You. A personal tribute to Clara Schumann, the recording positions as bookends two works by Robert Schumann – his Piano Concerto in A minor, with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, and Phantasiestücke (Op. 12) – around Clara’s Three Romances (Op. 11) as the centerpiece.
For this birthday soiree, Downes revisited tracks from her previous album, Holes in the Sky. That album’s name recalls a quote from artist Georgia O’Keeffe: “I want music that makes holes in the sky.” The evocative title inspired a genre-fluid, eclectic program ranging from Nina Simone to Meredith Monk. With a casual, languorous piano-bar feel, Downes held court at the piano, interspersing solos and collaborations with conversations about her career and personal discoveries with Clemency Burton-Hill, WQXR’s effusive Creative Director, Music and Arts.
Downes, an explorer whose imagination is fired by bringing notice to the underrepresented and forgotten, nodded to recently unearthed scores by the early 20th-century African-American composer Florence Price in Fantasie Negre. In duet with harpist Bridget Kibbey, Downes brought an antiphonal structure and lyricism to a rendition of the folk song “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” in an arrangement by Nina Simone. Alongside smoky Mexican jazz chanteuse Magos Herrera, Downes discovered a mellifluous, peaceful mood in a freely conceived evocation of a Mexican lullaby.
While I appreciated the restorative dreaminess of much of the evening’s music – perhaps better suited to National Sawdust’s default cabaret seating – this concert only brought our fullest attention with selections from Paola Prestini’s intriguing Limpopo Songs and the charged double-piano energy of Meredith Monk’s Ellis Island and Obsolete Objects, principally because the compositions are substantive works with vivid, probing themes. It was particularly thrilling, in the Monk duets, to have Simone Dinnerstein, a pianist who can truly be called a pioneer, back on the National Sawdust stage.
To understand the world of the female piano pioneer, and the prosperous spirit of Clara Schumann, is to understand the world of women and pianos. Yet to chronicle this moment reflects a story that is far from picture-perfect. We assume that the playing field in piano is level: that women are on an equal footing with their male counterparts most especially in piano, because there is nothing sexist in the equation. After all, the piano was deemed one the first instruments acceptable for women.
Yet the past and present experience of women’s agency in playing the piano is a gender-parity roller coaster. In our 21st century, some of the greatest pianists on our concert stages – from Yuja Wang to Khatia Buniatishvili – must shield themselves from commentary concerning their appearance, something with which men do not have to concern themselves.
We can only look forward to a time when advocacy is no longer required.
As an opera singer, writer, cultural commentator and curator Xenia Hanusiak contributes to the stage, the page, and the intervals in between. She holds a PhD in Literature and several degrees in classical music. Her works for the stage include the play Ward B, Un_labelled (Boosey & Hawkes/Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City); the libretto A thousand doors, a thousand windows (Melbourne International Arts Festival, Singapore Arts Festival, Venice Biennale); Earth Songs (Homart Korean Theatre); and the dramatic monologue The MsTaken Identity (Adelaide Festival of Arts/Australian String Quartet). www.xeniahanusiak.com