Review: London Symphonia renders a smouldering 19th-century love story

If the word “love” denotes deep affection, yearning and commitment, and if the word “story” means a series of events connected to a each other over a period of time, then the relationship between pianist Clara Schumann and composer Johannes Brahms was a love story indeed — one which may or may not have been consummated.

That was the mystery teased out by London Symphonia and its guest performers last night at Metropolitan United Church, under the baton of Saskatoon-based conductor Eric Paetkau.

Marion Adler
Marion Adler

The program, conceived by actor and singer Marion Adler (currently playing Grandma Elliot in the Stratford Festival’s extended run of Billy Elliot The Musical), stitches together the music of Schumann, her husband Robert Schumann, and Brahms in a way that tells a story of deep friendship, longing and undying commitment. Adler played the part of Clara Schumann; her husband, Stratford-based actor and director Scott Wentworth, read the lines penned by Brahms.

Only a handful of the dozens of letters exchanged between Schumann and Brahms survive. But the careful interspersing of text and music is an inspired way of relaying, to today’s audiences, a complex relationship more than century in the past. The extracts harken back to a time when desire, yearning and longing were essential elements of love and being in love; when instant gratification was uncouth and digital connectedness unimaginable.

Among the excerpts from Schumann were hints of satisfaction over the applause that greeted and stirred her in Vienna, but also the tedium that awaited her among the musically unwashed masses of Belgium. There were flashes of jealousy over “your new lady pupils.” She wrote of her deep appreciation for the music of her husband, Robert, and the depths of her sadness over his death, especially when “they bore him away.” She repeatedly yearned to see Brahms again, expressing ecstasy over his most recent compositions and, more practically, hoping that each of her seven children would, by the time they are 20, be able to earn their own livings.

From the pen of Brahms flowed frustration over his vocation (“It is really no fun to teach children”), the distance between himself and Clara (“Your portrait is looking kindly down upon me . . . I am thinking too much of you”) and the “kisses too intangible” between them. And as the concert drew to a close, Brahms’ declarations became ever more plain and direct: “I love you more than myself, more than anyone else.”

Orchestra and piano tied the letters together. London Symphonia played beautifully through all four movements of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90(though they were separated by the actors’ recitations), Variation I and Variation IV from Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann, Op. 9, and four sections from Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a.

Augmenting those performances was the brilliance of pianist Stéphan Sylvestre, an associate professor in the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western University, who punctuated the Schumann-Brahms story with four of Robert Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, Op. 99, as well as four selections from Clara Schumann’s Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann, Op. 20. Sylvestre’s performance of Variation V was a statement in itself about his virtuosity — absolutely thrilling.

The concert demonstrated — and validated — what London Symphonia sees as an important goal this season: the use of music, drama and spoken word to tell stories and explore contemporary themes, not in a didactic way, but through a playfulness and accomplished musicianship that stirs listeners’ spirits, engages their minds and prods their imaginations.

The evening’s printed program also included a prominent tribute to London Symphonia’s founding board chair, Paul Weaver, who passed away in May. Members of his family were in attendance. An online obituary is here.

London Symphonia’s next concert, Take Me to the Cabaret, is scheduled for Oct. 29 at Talbot Street Church.

Author: Cornies

I'm a columnist and writer with continuing interests in arts journalism, Canadian politics and culture, and journalism ethics. I teach occasionally at Western University in London, Ontario. Past lives include coordinating the journalism program at Conestoga College, teaching at Ryerson University's School of Journalism, editing A-section news pages at The Globe and Mail, and various roles at The London Free Press, including arts and entertainment editor and editorial page editor.

2 thoughts on “Review: London Symphonia renders a smouldering 19th-century love story”

  1. My husband and I attended the concert. The music and the innovative programming was outstanding. But we sat in the balcony and it was very difficult to hear the readings because the actors were not amplified. It seemed that there was no sound check prior to the performance. This was a real detriment to the performance since the letters were an integral part of the overall effectiveness.

  2. My husband and I LOVED your recent concert – it was so imaginatively conceived, and performed by all the participants with sensitivity and grace. Just superb – I cannot imagine a concert a anywhere in the world to top this ! It was truly magnificent.

    Just wanted to say also, that the London Symphonia has brought a new life and innovative spirit to the symphonic scene here in London. The London Symphony Orchestra was good, but the Symphonia is superb in most of its performances, and exciting in the programming. An entrepreneurial spirit shines through the enormous effort it has taken to keep symphonic music in front of audiences here in London, and it is appreciated beyond your knowing – and the new spirit that the collapse of Orchestra London has engendered in the Symphonia is inspiring!

    We’ll keep coming and bringing friends.

    Sincerely, Hilary Alderson Moon

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