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Mission Chamber Orchestra Shines a Clear Light on a Neglected Composer

The opening concert of Mission Chamber Orchestra’s 23rd season this Saturday night is one of special interest to Santa Clara music lovers if only for its name: Tribute to Clara.

But the Clara in question isn’t Santa Clara’s namesake, St. Clare. This Clara is Clara Schumann (1819-1896), whose 200th birthday was Sept. 13. The concert features her Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 7 played by pianist Adam Marks.

Schumann was eclipsed by her husband, composer Robert Schumann, during the century following her death. But in the last 20 years there has been renewed interest in this child prodigy who performed her first concert before she was 10 and published her first composition at 11. Attesting to that renewed interest, in 1989 her portrait graced a 100 Deutsche Mark note.

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“What we’ve all been taught [is that] she was the wife of the great composer Robert Schumann,” said Marks. “But the truth is that it’s the other way around. Robert Schumann was the husband of the virtuoso pianist and composer Clara Schumann. Robert was never a successful pianist.

“I don’t like the term ‘woman composer,” continued Marks. “After all, we don’t say ‘woman teacher’ or ‘woman scientist.’ I’ve been focusing on composers who have been corralled like her, who deserve more of the spotlight than they’ve been given.”

At the end of her life, Schumann lost confidence in herself, writing in her diary, “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?”

During her lifetime Clara Schumann was more successful than her husband, earning most of the family income. She stopped composing after Roberts’s death, devoting herself to performing his works.

“The only reason we know about Robert is because of her,” explained Marks. “She was a huge name that Robert attached himself to. The thing that separates her from Robert is that she was a world class pianist, on a par with Franz Liszt.”

Marks says that there are two particulars of Clara Schumann’s concerto that set it apart from the music of her husband.

“First, the virtuosic writing for the piano.  She wrote the concerto when she was 13,” said Marks. “I’m humbled by the fact that I’m struggling to practice this music at 40. I can tell you that at the age of 13 I would not have been able to play this piece with real accuracy.”

“Second you can hear the teenage ‘voice’ in it,” Marks said. “A concerto is a dialog between a soloist and the [orchestral] ensemble. She doesn’t let the orchestra get a word in very much. They get the first few minutes and then I hear Clara saying, ‘step aside, I got this.’ She takes over and doesn’t let up.”

Not all of Clara Schumann’s music is for virtuosos, however. “A lot of her music is pretty accessible for not-so-virtuosic pianists, for example the Romance Opus 3,” explained Marks, describing it as very lyrical.

Marks, a San José native, is delighted to be back in the Bay Area for his third performance with the Mission Chamber Orchestra.

“They really care about the music they play,” he said. “They’re very adventurous for a small orchestra. That allows players and audience to share music they wouldn’t ordinarily.”

He adds, “Getting to come back to San José and share this with family and friends is a privilege and a pleasure.”

Tribute to Clara plays Saturday, Sept. 21, 7:30 p.m. at the Hammer Theatre Center, 101 Paseo De San Antonio, San José. For information and tickets visit missionchamber.org. The Mission Chamber Orchestra got its start at Mission College in Santa Clara.

In addition to the Saturday concert, Noon Arts & Lectures is presenting a free lecture-concert Friday 12:10 p.m. at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, Dr. MLK Jr. Library (5th floor), 150 E. San Fernando St. in San José — giving listeners two opportunities to hear the work.

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