The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural artist-in-residence, Orli Shaham, will perform Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in concerts at Skyview High School this weekend.
The “Messa di Gloria” for choir, soloists and orchestra by opera composer Giacomo Puccini will fill out the second half of the program. The concert will open with the rarely heard intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s opera “Amica.”
Shaham has been a popular guest artist with the Vancouver orchestra, appearing three times (2014, 2017 and 2021). She teaches piano and chamber music at The Juilliard School, and last year she served on the juries of both the Cliburn and Honens International Piano Competitions. Shaham also co-hosts “From the Top” on National Public Radio. Her discography includes all six of Mozart’s piano sonatas on the Canary Classics label with the last three scheduled to be released later this year.
Schumann, one of the great composers from the Romantic era, wrote only one piano concerto, but it has been considered a gem ever since it was first performed by his wife, Clara, in 1845.
“The first movement of Schumann’s Piano Concerto is unusual in its form because it has a built-in slow movement in the center,” Shaham said. “He originally intended that single movement to be the concerto, and it was a huge success. But Clara was the one who said to him, ‘My Dear Robert, you need a second and third movement for this.’ Four years later, he wrote them. So this great piano concerto would not have come to its final three-movement form without the insistence of Clara.”
Shaham always finds the Schumann Piano Concerto a refreshing experience.
“I get so energized by Schumann’s ability to play with rhythm and play across the bar line in a way that I think that he was the first to understand,” Shaham noted. “He has these glorious melodies, but he is always pushing you off of where you think might be landing. It’s like an extra bit of propulsion that he gives to his music.”
Schumann unfortunately suffered from a mental illness and died at age 46 of pneumonia, but his concerto proved to be a winner.
“For years afterwards, while Robert was alive and after he died, one of the biggest sources of income for the Schumann family was Clara’s performances of this concerto,” Shaham said. “She ended up performing it over a hundred times. The writing of the concerto itself didn’t bring much money at all. But her performances of it helped to sustain their family.”
After intermission, the orchestra will perform Puccini’s “Messa di Gloria” with the Portland Symphonic Choir and soloists tenor Katherine Goforth and baritone Anton Belov.
Before writing “La Boheme,” “Tosca,” “Madame Butterfly” and “Turandot,” Puccini attended the music school in his hometown of Lucca, Italy. For his graduation, he wrote the “Messa a Quattro Voci” (“Mass for Four Voices”), which was very fitting because he came from a long line of church musicians.
Puccini’s mass, commonly known as the “Messa di Gloria,” was not published during his lifetime but was rediscovered among his papers in 1951. It has an operatic style and contains some music that can be heard years later in “Manon Lescaut” and “Tosca.”
Alissa Deeter, artistic director of the Portland Symphonic Choir, is preparing the singers for the Puccini.
“ ‘The Messa di Gloria’ requires a lot of stamina,” Deeter said. “The chorus doesn’t get much of a break. They have to sing for 45 minutes. The piece has aria-like passages for the choir that make you feel like you are in one of Puccini’s operas.”
Deeter’s strong affinity for opera includes her doctorate at Florida State University and performances with Santa Fe Opera, Central City Opera and other companies.
“The choir has enjoyed singing this piece. We are singing about a religious idea, but it feels like we should be out on the streets of Paris in waistcoats walking around with a baguette. Puccini was only 22 when he wrote the piece, and he was experimenting. His fugue starts delightfully. It follows all of the rules and then it goes off the rails. Either he got bored or he was just done with the academic part of the fugue and plays with it. You just have to go for the ride.”
One of the soloists, Goforth, is a native of Vancouver. She also noted Puccini’s youthful style.
“It’s a bit of a weird piece,” Goforth said. “You can tell that he was a student because he was in a rush to finish it. The harmony and structure are unusual at times, like the three two-bar phrases in the first section of the tenor aria. He does some unique inversion of chords and odd resolutions.”
The concert will open with the intermezzo to Mascagni’s “Amica,” an opera that is rarely produced. But Puccini and Mascagni roomed together while studying at the Milan Conservatory. So the Mascagni piece, which is very emotional, aptly wraps the concert with a neat musical ribbon.