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A bicentennial birthday and a world premiere mark SPCO performances with Abbado

To celebrate the 200th birthday of German romantic composer Robert Schumann, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will be staging performances of Schumann’s four symphonies and some of his other major works this year under the baton of artistic partner Roberto Abbado.

This retrospective will commence tonight and continue with a pair of performances tomorrow, all in local houses of worship. Two Schumann symphonies, the “Zwickau” and the “Rhenish,” will bracket the SPCO-commissioned world premiere of “Checkpoint” for chamber orchestra by Italian composer Michele Dall’Ongaro.

Schumann was a melodramatic, high-strung fellow with a soap operatic life to match. He went to court to obtain the right to marry the piano prodigy Clara Wieck over the objections of her father (who happened to be Schumann’s piano teacher), claimed to hear voices, attempted suicide, spent the last two years of his life confined in a mental facility at his own request, and died in his mid-40s in 1856, quite possibly from mercury poisoning, which he used to treat the syphilis that had afflicted him since he was a teenager. Even his defenders concede that his output was uneven, but few deny his passion and genius, however erratic, for music.

The “Zwickau” symphony in G minor that leads off the SPCO performances was Schumann’s first serious attempt at the symphonic form, heavily influenced by his love of Beethoven, and abandoned after two variously composed movements. It was only made available in 1972 after those movements were reconstructed by the conductor Marc Andreae. It is named after Schumann’s birthplace, which supported and re-embraced him at an insecure point in his life.

Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, or the “Rhenish,” is more highly regarded. Composed as part of the last great burst of creativity before he permanently fell prey to mental illness, it too is strongly influenced by Beethoven, with its recurring themes and bold, rapid, melodic passages, especially in the first and concluding fifth movements. In between are elements of folk dances and contrasting, august solemnity. Schumann took his inspiration from the majesty of the Cologne Cathedral, located along the Rhine River, into which he would fling himself four years later, a suicide attempt that led to his request for confinement.

Here are the first three movements of the “Rhenish”: First movement; Second movement; Third movement.

The middle portion of the SPCO program is Dall’Ongaro’s world premiere. He writes that the title “Checkpoint” is inspired by two things, the first alluding to the question, “How many checks do we have to undergo every day? … our identity, our movements are analyzed and scrupulously examined — a check, therefore — sometimes to guarantee safety, at others to cover up arrogance.” The second meaning of the title is Dall’Ongaro’s “interior examination,” or checkup, of his “personal resources,” in light of the honor of being asked to compose for such a “prestigious chamber orchestra and extraordinary conductor.”

Abbado conducts Schumann, tonight at Temple Israel in Minneapolis at 8 p.m.; tomorrow at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets for all performances are $10 and $25.

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