Pianist brings Clara Schumann to life and brings ‘Great Women in Music’ series to Aspen
For her acclaimed “Great Women in Music” series, Karolina Syrovatkova marshals her skills as a concert pianist, actor and scholar to illuminate the forgotten contributions of women to the history of classical music.
Her “Variations on Love” is a dramatic performance — a hybrid one-woman show and concert — that brings to life Clara Schumann, tracking her life from her days as a child prodigy through the love triangle between her, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Syrovatkova will perform the piece Tuesday at the Wheeler Opera House.
She developed the “Great Women” series to appeal both to classical music aficionados and to the uninitiated. The stories of these talented women and the dramatic productions, she hopes, will draw people who don’t know the music and wouldn’t normally attend a recital.
“These kinds of performances are very immersive,” she said. “The things I’ve been hearing from people are comments like, ‘I was really transported into Clara’s living room in the 19th century,’ and, ‘I felt like I was sitting there with her.’”
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The series also has included entries on Caroline von Esterhazy, Fanny Mendelssohn, Olga Janacek, Vitezslava Kapralova and Anna Magdalena Bach.
“They had their own voices and they didn’t get recognition in their lifetimes,” she said of her subjects. “So I can give them a voice and I can help people to realize how amazing they were.”
She’s studied their lives deeply, in order to write these dramatic concerts and play these women on stage.
“I read everything about the composers, I try to find out — like a detective — what was going on in their lives because all of that matters in how I play the music,” she said.
Clara Schumann, Syrovatkova said, is an ideal subject. While most women struggled to be recognized for their work in music composition and performance in 19th century Europe, she excelled as a concert pianist and composer — out-earning her father and Robert Schumann.
Along with her artistic brilliance and stardom, Clara’s life is punctuated with melodramatic episodes. When she fell in love with Robert Schumann, her father forbade her from seeing the penniless ne’er-do-well for an 18-month period. Unable to communicate, even by letter, he wrote his timeless Fantasy in C Major for her, embedding the piece with secret messages in it for his beloved that she would understand. The pair would become the power couple of music’s Romantic era. Years later, after Robert Schumann died after a long struggle with mental illness, the composer Johannes Brahms fell in love with her and attempted to woo her.
“He wanted to marry her, but she said, ‘Absolutely not,’” said Syrovatkova.
Her productions aim to reach a general audience through these soap opera-like storylines and the weirder-than-fiction stories of composers’ lives, providing an entry point for new listeners and bringing fresh ears to the often-intimidating world of classical concert halls.
“I want them to feel comfortable and one way to do that is to bring them into the drama,” she said. “It puts them at ease.”
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