Saturday 21 January 2023

Advocating for a sense of classicism: conductor Alexander Shelley on recording the music of Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann

Alexander Shelley and NAC Orchestra (Photo: Dwayne Brown)
Alexander Shelley and NAC Orchestra (Photo: Dwayne Brown)

The conductor Alexander Shelley has been the music director of the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra in Ottawa since 2015, and he is also principal associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. With the NAC Orchestra, Shelley is part of the way through a cycle of four double-CD sets on Analekta devoted to the music of Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, with the third disc in the set to be released on 3 March 2023. This new release features the third symphonies of Schumann and Brahms with songs, piano music and the Piano Trio by Clara Schumann, performed by Alexander Shelley and the NAC Orchestra with soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, pianists Liz Upchurch, Gabriela Montero, and Stewart Goodyear, violinist Yosuke Kawasaki (concertmaster of the NAC Orchestra) and cellist Rachel Mercier (principal cello of the NAC Orchestra).

Each of the double CD sets features one of the four symphonies both by Robert Schumann (with the later version of Schumann's Symphony No. 4) and Brahms along with chamber music, songs and instrumental music by Clara Schumann.

There is little orchestral music by Clara Schumann except her Piano Concerto featured on the first release with pianist Gabriela Montero, so the series engages with her other music and this knits together each programme. Alexander points out that in the 19th century, it was very common for concert programmes to mix symphonic music with chamber music, instrumental music and song, this was a common way of listening, and he feels that this is a nice experience for the modern audience. Also, improvisation was important during the 19th century, and both the solo pianists on the disc, Gabriela Montero and Stewart Goodyear, are composers and improvisers.  Alexander sees the series as trying to create something that is an exploration of the music of the three composers, Clara, Robert, and Johannes, inspired by the way music was consumed during their lifetimes.

The discs pair the same numbered symphonies of Robert and Johannes together, but it is important to note that there is a significant gap between Robert's final symphony and Johannes' first; Alexander points out that Wagner wrote the Ring Cycle between the two! That said, he feels that the symphonies of the two composers do speak to each other. Of the two on the new album, both have sonata form first movements which are in triple time (Brahms' first movement is in fact in six), each movement plays with hemiolas, and has an element of the dance to it as well as a sense of instability. In both symphonies, the opening bars provide challenges and questions for the listeners. 

Alexander Shelley and NAC Orchestra (Photo Freestyle Photography)
Alexander Shelley and NAC Orchestra (Photo Freestyle Photography)

There is also a link between the symphonies by the very nature of who the composers were, both were improvisers, yet both inherently conformed to classical structures and strictures. And whilst both pulled at the strings of classical structure, neither did so in a way that broke the structure down, and it is this aspect of their music, particularly that of Brahms, that Alexander finds most attractive. His music speaks to human experience and is connected to and formed by what Brahms has been. Yet, it moves forward as well, albeit in a way that is very tautly constructed and intellectual. Alexander feels these qualities make Brahms' music most expressive and form a big lesson for us in the interaction of the arts and sciences, the interaction of freedom and structure. So that we find beauty and fulfilment in the intellectual interaction with music, looking at a score, in the same way that a scientist gets aesthetic fulfilment from a mathematical problem. Similarly, something connects rigour, structure, form and beauty in the natural world too. 

Alexander comments that for him the interpretative side of Schumann and Brahms' music is linked to his perception of what is important and meaningful in the music. He aims to do things like avoiding pulling tempi about too much, pointing out that a ten per cent drop in tempo is a significant change, but there are beautiful versions of Brahms' symphonies which have 30 to 40 per cent drops in tempo in places. Alexander sees the music through a lens of classicism, he is respectful that the composers chose to stick to classical structures. He does manipulate and move tempo, after all, there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is what the composers implied, but he respects that the music stays in the canvas. He also points out that everything that is done is his choice. So the opening for the first movement of Brahms' first symphony which is 'Un poco sostenuto', he takes faster than some as he interprets this tempo in the context of the sonata form movement. Thus for Alexander, the introduction is somewhat slower than the coda, but not half or one-third the speed, as happens with some versions,  He finds it exciting to advocate for this sense of classicism in the music.

Though Alexander is from the UK, he has known the orchestra for a long time, and it is a wonderful ensemble with a terrific live presence. The previous music director was Pinchas Zukerman and previous to him it was Trevor Pinnock, so there is an interesting mix of backgrounds. For Alexander, the ensemble has a profoundly beautiful, flexible sound. It began over 50 years ago as a large chamber orchestra playing the Baroque and classical repertoire, One of the strengths of the orchestra is that it is very much a blank canvas. As well as the Clara, Robert, and Johannes project, they record new music as well as other projects. Having cycles of core repertoire, like the current project, appeals to Alexander in the way one can make comparisons between the sound, articulation and approach to form in the different works, and this plays to many of the strengths of the orchestra. At the core of the ensemble is a Meiningen-sized orchestra which works well for Schumann and Brahms' symphonies. 

Alexander Shelley and NAC Orchestra (Photo: Dwayne Brown)
Alexander Shelley and NAC Orchestra (Photo: Dwayne Brown)

Alexander lived in Germany for nearly 20 years, having studied there from the age of 18, and he formed an orchestra, the Robert Schumann Camerata. The music of Schumann and Brahms has been a big part of his life, the relationship between structure and expression in their music is important to him and he sees this relationship as a unique selling point of classical music.

Given that we are familiar with the biographical complexities of Clara, Robert, and Johannes' relationships, it is tricky to say whether the relationship of the music speaks of this. But Alexander feels you can hear that they all come at music through the same lens, and have the same musical language in their DNA. And Alexander also sees the relationship between the larger scale works and song and lyricism; even in the tautest musical arguments, you can hear quotations of his songs in Brahms' music. That is one of the reasons why Clara's songs are featured on the disc, so we can hear that these are three intertwined voices. And the project also speaks to our modern-day concerns, and the way society is more actively exploring the feminine voice in music.

Clara Schumann's is not really a hidden story. When Alexander dived into the project, he found that contrary to the modern prevailing perception of her, Clara had perhaps the biggest solo career of the three. She was the most famous of them as a pianist, renowned and respected. Alexander points out that in addition to his musical career, he is married with two children, and that seems plenty in a busy life. Clara had eight children and a highly demanding husband. All three, Clara, Robert, and Johannes, must have been extraordinary in their own way but her achievements remain outstanding, though she had far more to give as a composer than she felt able to.

One of the other emphases of Alexander's work with the orchestra is the creation of new work, including genre-crossing works such as installations and ballet. He points out that some of the most exciting new works created in the past have been for the stage, and that the bringing together of media of all sorts is a boon to creative artists. The current age emphasises this meeting of different media and he wants to capitalise on this. Previous cross-genre projects have included UnDisrupted, linking culture to the social justice movement, Encount3rs, creating new ballets, Life Reflected, exploring the lives of four remarkable Canadian women.

Looking ahead, in February they are giving the live premiere of the orchestral version Jake Heggie's Songs for Murdered Sisters, setting poems by Margaret Atwood [see NAC website for details] This features the baritone Joshua Hopkins. Hopkins' sister was one of three women murdered by the same man, one of the worst crimes of domestic violence in Canadian history. Hopkins wanted to create a memorial for his sister, and Heggie's new work (a co-commission with NAC and Houston Grand Opera) is the result. Initially, Hopkins wrote to the Canadian author Margaret Atwood; it turned out that she knew two other women, murdered in similar circumstances. She wrote poems for Joshua Hopkins, who then contacted Jake Heggie about setting them. This work leans into the idea that work with the orchestra can intersect with conversations that people are having in society.

This also helps to create points of entry for the audience into abstract sound. Whilst pure abstraction certainly has a role in music, Alexander feels that there is an important place for works which are inspired by concrete ideas and events. And he points out that as humans, we concentrate more if there is a narrative. A story makes things memorable and then can lead audiences to works that are not contextualised.

Forthcoming this year are large-scale works including Holst's The Planets and Strauss' Alpine Symphony. And these performances of two works inspired by the national world also refer back to the opening of the season, where Sphere was a week of events, music and talks inspired by the Earth. Richard Strauss is a composer that Alexander plans to hone in on with the orchestra in future seasons. It helps that the orchestra has a central core of musicians who play together all the time. Then there is a second group who are used to augment the ensemble for larger works. So performances of larger-scale works like Strauss' Alpine Symphony bring with them a sense of the music radiating out from the core group to the extras. Alexander finds the results of this are strong. He is also interested in the inner lines and inner workings of the music, the approach helps to bring these out.  

Alexander Shelley (Photo Rémi Thériault)
Alexander Shelley (Photo Rémi Thériault)

Coming up he is in North America and Europe, but will be back in the UK in April when he conducts concerts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, having last conducted them in November 2022 in Mendelssohn's complete incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream with linking narrations from the actor Tama Matheson. 

On 5 April 2023, Alexander conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall in Delius' Piano Concerto with Mark Bebbington, Walton's suite from Henry V and music by Coleridge Taylor and Lili Boulanger. Full details from the Cadogan Hall website.

For Alexander's concerts with the NAC Orchestra, see the NAC website.

Alexander Shelley and NAC Orchestra's Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms series on Analketa

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