[Scene Magazine] Triangulated German passions
The Santa Barbara Symphony joins forces with Ensemble Theatre Company to present the theatrical retelling of the famous love triangle involving Robert Schumann, his wife Clara, and Johannes Brahms
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
For the symphony-going public, it might be possible to soak in the eloquent mid-19th-century sounds of music by Robert Schumann, his wife Clara and Mr. Schumann's protégé Johannes Brahms, appreciating the concert purely for music's sake. But, of course, historically and contextually, there is more than meets the ear with this special Valentine's Day program, having to do with the dramatic tale of the Schumanns and young Mr. Brahms, and, after Robert's descent into madness and early death, a would-be love interest of Clara.
It's a love triangle thing, which can't help but put an extra-musical spin on the agenda.
This weekend's program features Santa Barbara-based and world-traveled pianist Natasha Kislenko, Ojai-based actor Peter Strauss and the debut guest conducting appearance of Steven Sloane, who comes well-equipped for the task, and with Southern California roots. Though now based in Berlin and having led the respected German Bochum Symphony for 20 years, in addition to a busy life as guest conductor and opera conductor, Mr. Sloane grew up in Los Angeles and went to UCLA. He spent a decade in Israel, where, in fact, he met the then up-and-coming Santa Barbara Symphony music director Nir Kabaretti.
Mr. Sloane has worked in Southern California, conducting the premiere of the opera "Grendel" with the LA Opera several years ago, and he just recently led that same opera's double-bill of "Dido and Aeneas" and "Bluebeard's Castle." Not incidentally, he is a passionate advocate of Mr. Schumann, with and without life and love backstories attached.
He was in Göteborg, Sweden on musical duty last week when we caught up with him.
News-Press: You have worked a great deal in opera over the years, and this intriguing program with the Santa Barbara Symphony may have a conceptual arc and maybe even something operatic involved.
Steven Sloane: (Laughs) Well, anytime there is a love triangle, attempted suicide, mental institutions, unrequited love — between (Johannes) Brahms and Clara Schumann, who had a very complicated relationship — from that point of view, it's very theatrical, I would agree.
NP: Have you done this kind of a program before?
SS: I've not this particular program before. I really do like to do programs that are not only with interesting pieces but somehow connect, either just musically or, in this case, historically, and also stylistically. I really think it's interesting when concerts themselves are an event, of all different types. I think this program is reflective of that.
NP: And just in time for Valentine's Day.
SS: Yes, that's another interesting coincidence (laughs).
NP: With certain composers, especially tragic figures like Mr. Schumann, their dramatic backstories color your perception of the music. Do you feel that way?
SS: It certainly does add a different context to what we hear, as listeners and as performers. Schumann's music is, I would say, a constant progression of dissonance and resolutions. I would underline the word "dissonance." There is so much dissonance in his musical language, harmonically and melodically.
It's hard not to hear his music or look at his music and also take note of what he, in his own life, went through. He was dealing with true mental illness, and dying at a rather young age. You do hear that in his music.
NP: Mr. Schumann helped nudge music in a more expressive direction within the Romantic era, whereas Brahms was more the fruition of the high Romantic period, wouldn't you say?
SS: Well, yes. Schumann led Brahms. Brahms was around 20 or so when he met Schumann, who was almost 25 years older. Schumann was an incredibly important German composer, and was completely enamored with the palette of Brahms, and adopted him, like a son, and helped and took him around.
But it's true that Brahms continued to develop it, as you call, the high German Romantic style — although if you ask me, as a conductor, I view the music of Schumann as much more from a tortured soul. Brahms, in my view, as a person, had a much healthier outlook on the world and on life. You do also hear that in his music, as well.
NP: And then, in the middle, is Clara, whose own music was overshadowed by them, right?
SS: Yes, but she was still an intense and important musical personality at the time. She was a brilliant pianist. When Robert Schumann first heard her, he just couldn't believe it. She was nine years younger than Robert, and Brahms was 14 years younger than Clara. They were the hot musical couple in the Rhineland. The two of them were really kind of famous. Clara was also trying to become well-known as a composer.
Keep in mind, she also had a house to run. They had seven children and she was pregnant with the eighth when Robert died. The home and the whole life around that was, of course, a big part of their life.
But Brahms fell hopelessly in love with her. Even before Robert passed away, Brahms actually lived with them for a while, helped her when Robert was in the hospital, being admitted for being crazy, and also before he died. Brahms was in love with her. As much as we know about it, this love was never really consummated. In fact, after Robert died, Brahms declared his love for her, but then kind of brutally left her. We don't know what exactly transpired between them.
But we do know, to the end of her life, there was this incredible connection between the two of them.
NP: You have also presented Mr. Schumann's only opera, "Genoveva." Have you found yourself becoming obsessive about his music? Or maybe "obsessive" is too strong a word.
SS: Well, I adore Schumann. I think he is misunderstood. He gets his due as a great melody writer, but many believe he was not good with orchestration. But I find his orchestration quite marvelous. There is a real style that is particular to Schumann. I did a big production of "Genoveva" for the Edinburgh Festival years ago. He was an amazing composer, really.
All three of them hold their own. I think what's wonderful about the piano concerto is that it combines Clara's two loves: composition and piano. The piano writing for the concerto is particularly luscious and inspired.
NP: To leap ahead to another era and style, you gave the American premiere of the Mark-Anthony Turnage opera, "Anna Nicole," in Brooklyn. Is contemporary music another thing you like to champion in your work?
SS: I do. I do quite a lot of contemporary work. I spent many years with the American Composers Orchestra in New York and a fair amount with my orchestra in Germany, as well as in America. I did the production of "Grendel" with the LA Opera several years ago. In San Francisco, I did "The Bonesetter's Daughter" and now "Anna Nicole." I really do admire composers who try to keep the contemporary opera world going.
I really love Mark-Anthony Turnage's work. He's fabulous. In fact, he is the artist-in-residence with my orchestra in Germany.
NP: Do you feel that you have arrived at an ideal balance, among your orchestra you have led for 20 years, international guest conducting and other projects?
SS: You're hitting the nail right on the head. The other thing I'm doing right now is that, in my main base, in Berlin, I took on a professorship at the University of the Arts. I really love teaching and working with young people.
I'm very grateful to have all of this balance in my life, as a conductor working with an orchestra and operas and a variety of different kinds of repertoire. I'm a bit of a Mahler specialist, as well, and Jan·cek. These are two composers I champion. I'm very happy and grateful.
NP: Is this what you would have ideally imagined, as a young conductor getting into the field?
SS: Growing up in LA, I grew up in Brentwood, and I really loved music. I was singing and played viola. But my big love was basketball. What I really wanted to do was to play for the Lakers. Alas, I'm not only too short, but don't have very much talent in that area. I'm still a wildly avid fan of the Lakers and the Dodgers.
When you ask about what I envisioned when I was growing up, I would have loved playing for those teams, but it didn't work out that way.
I really had no idea how a career would happen. When I went to Israel, I was conducting children's choirs for the first several years. I was very fortunate that things have turned out the way they have.
NP: You have done very well for your second-choice career.
SS: (Laughs) But I still play basketball.