The Romantics: In Series’ tribute to Schubert and Goethe

Heurich House Museum. (Image via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0 license)
Heurich House Museum. (Image via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0 license)

WASHINGTON, April 19, 2014 – The In Series presented a uniquely special two-evening only recital last weekend, highlighting a selection of Franz Schubert’s exquisite art songs with an emphasis on music the composer set to the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, perhaps the world’s best known and honored German poet.

Statue of Goethe.
Statue of Goethe, left, kept company by fellow poet Schiller, right. (Via Flickr, Creative Commons license 2.0)

Aside from the music itself, what made this recital particularly notable was where it was held: in and around the “music room” of the Heurich House Museum. Located at 1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW in Washington, D.C., the museum was formerly the palatial Victorian-style home of Christian Heurich, a pioneering brewmaster in the Nation’s Capital city.

Built in the early 1890s, the Heurich mansion, while Victorian in style and spirit, was built with astonishingly forward-looking features and technologies. According to historical material available at the museum’s website,

“The house is a technological marvel, incorporating the most modern inventions of its day. Features include full indoor plumbing, circulating hot water heat, central vacuum system, venting skylight, elevator shaft, pneumatic and electric communication systems, and combination gas and electric lighting fixtures. To ensure the home’s safety, it was built out of reinforced steel and concrete and is completely fireproof. None of its 15 fireplaces has ever been used.”

Engineering and decorating marvels aside, what made this space ideal for last weekend’s concert was that small music room/salon situated centrally on the building’s main floor. In addition to space for a grand piano, the room also features a “musician’s balcony,” a special alcove facing the music room but placed directly above which would have allowed both recital and dance music performed by small ensembles to flow downward to the main floor while not interrupting the movement of guests.

Franz Schubert
Statue of composer Franz Schubert. (Walter A. Aue, via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0)

The Heurich family acquired a Steinway grand piano around the turn of the last century and, rather unusually, had it elaborately hand-decorated much in the manner  of the older, vintage harpsichords we often glimpse today. The piano would have had plenty of use by the family, whose paterfamilias, as a young man, had actually emigrated to the U.S. from Germany. It’s a virtual certainty that family musicales as well as gatherings of friends and neighbors at the house would frequently feature piano, ensemble, and vocal compositions by Franz Schubert.

An impoverished itinerant musician who died young and forgotten before he reached his thirty-second birthday, Schubert would have been astonished at the afterlife of his astonishingly immense compositional output. Once it was “rediscovered” by Robert Schumann and others, Schubert’s music gradually established itself firmly in the repertoire, and the composer today is firmly acknowledged as one of Europe’s greatest.

A substantial number of Schubert’s compositions were lied, a German term we generally translate today into “art song.” Composed individually or in groupings known as “song cycles,” many of these have remained popular since they entered the vocal repertoire. In fact, Schubert is widely regarded as the father of the Romantic art song.

Which gets us back to the In Series’ program. With a program devoted to a selection of Schubert’s German art songs, staged in a German home that doubtless had encountered many of these before and performed on a piano built by the world-famous manufacturing firm founded by yet another German émigré, the In Series’ recital in a very real way captured the spirit and the locale of classical music’s Romantic Era.

Making things even a bit more special, museum officials had carefully restored and tuned the old Steinway, making it the perfect instrument to accompany the singers. Not quite possessing the massive, steely power of a newly manufactured 2014 Steinway, the Heurich Steinway may even have more closely approximated the sound that would have been produced by the kind of pianos Schubert himself might have played.

Popular Washington pianist-professor Frank Conlon and In Series founder Carla Hübner accompanied soloists Debra Lawrence and Ole Hass in this recital, offering as well a pair of Schubert compositions for solo piano.

Musical highlights included the composer’s melodramatic “Erlkönig” (“The Elf King), his “Mignon” songs, and “Ganymed,” all settings of Goethe’s poetry.

Although Mr. Hass seemed to have some difficulty getting his musical bearings in his opening song, “Son of the Muses,” on Saturday evening, both he and Ms. Lawrence gave generally well-informed readings of these songs, with emphasis on the composer’s many colors and moods.

A most pleasant surprise was the final work on the program, “The Shepherd on the Rock,” written by Schubert to the poetry of Wilhelm Muller and artfully sung by soprano Debra Lawrence.

She was accompanied not only by Mr. Conlon, in this case, but also by clarinetist Adele Mayne who literally stepped in at the last minute to sub for the scheduled clarinetist who was unable to attend. Ms. Mayne performed beautifully, with the tone of her instrument perfectly matching not only the performance space but exquisitely burnishing the over all effect of the Schubert song as well.

Piano solos included a selection from Schubert’s “Piano Sonata in A,” D. 664, vigorously performed by Mr. Conlon; and the massive, infrequently heard “F-minor Fantasy,” Op. 103, for one piano, four hands featuring both Mr. Conlon and Ms. Hübner at the keyboard. This substantial work is almost like a symphony for piano, and the artists gave it an excellent, multi-faceted reading during the Saturday evening performance we attended, although the performance was interrupted slightly by a minor mishap caused by a mis-turned page.

The recital, in the end, proved most memorable in that it successfully re-created, in at least the audience’s imagination, the atmosphere and feeling that must have been present in an earlier, perhaps friendlier era—one without TV or iPads—when evening or weekend entertainment was a chore joyously undertaken by family and friends who serenaded each other with the finest piano, ensemble, and vocal music of their time.

The event itself seemed a match made in heaven both for the Series and the Heurich House Museum, affording the Series another performing venue while potentially adding another dimension to the Museum’s persona. Hopefully, this is a relationship that can develop and grow in the coming years to the benefit of all.

Rating: ** (2 out of 4 stars)

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