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Keeping Schumann sane: Mitsuko Uchida and the L.A. Phil deliver method over madness

Keeping Schumann sane: Mitsuko Uchida and the L.A. Phil deliver method over madness
Gustavo Dudamel listens to Mitsuko Uchida's encore after their performance of Schumann's Piano Concerto at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Just how crazy was Robert Schumann? He was, without doubt, a peculiar and troubled composer who had suicidal tendencies and ended his days institutionalized. Then again, he was a quintessential 19th century Romantic. We need some focus.

Thursday night the Los Angeles Philharmonic began Gustavo Dudamel's annual composer festival, this year "Schumann Focus." It was preceded by an Upbeat Live talk by psychiatrist and pianist Richard Kogan, who described Schumann's brilliantly overheated, obsessive, disjointed piano music as an instance of a serious bipolar condition in operation.

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There is plenty more Schumann baggage we could add. He is not a composer generally admired for his orchestral ability, and conductors have regularly re-orchestrated his symphonies. He wasn't supposed to be all that great at stringing thoughts together. His fancies — he sometimes signed pieces with his alter egos, the dashing Florestan or the dreamer Eusebius — could get the better of him. His late music has been viewed as a sad map charting a mind losing its center.

Oh, yes, he drank. He wasn't very good with money. Someone should mention, though, that he was, besides being one of the most influential composers of his time, one of the great writers on music and the first great music critic.

I felt a little bipolar myself Thursday after first encountering Kogan illustrate Schumann's sequence of solo piano character pieces, "Carnival," as a manic-depressive cavalcade and then, a half hour later, hearing pianist Mitsuko Uchida play the opening piano cascade of Schumann's Piano Concerto as a glorious attention-getter signaling that all is right with the world.

What followed was a performance of the concerto in which one thing flowed graciously, elegantly, exuberantly and naturally into the next (so much for Mr. Fragmentation). Sure, moods changed. The slow movement could be heard as an exquisite love song to Schumann's wife and muse, Clara. Maybe the exhilarating Finale was the product of the composer on a manic jag, but with Uchida giving life to every heartfelt note, maybe it was love.

It has been 13 years since Uchida was last at Walt Disney Concert Hall. She is a beloved pianist. The hall was full. She walked on stage to cheers, sat at the piano, gave a funny look and then got up, quickly leaving the stage and quickly returning, smiling and carrying her glasses to laughter all around. She said something to Dudamel, who checked his jacket to make sure he had his glasses.

Then, as in a virtuosic slapstick routine, Dudamel cued the orchestral gunshot on the note E, beginning the concerto like a race. Uchida hit the nerve-racking cascade a millisecond later. It was a brilliant indicator that this would be Schumann without apologies. Not Schumann the nut job, not Schumann as mood elevator or depressor, but life giver.

This was also a performance of bonding between Dudamel and Uchida, who seemed on the same wavelength throughout, also adding to the sheer persuasiveness of the performance. Conductor and soloist returned to the stage, arm in arm, Dudamel clearly not letting Uchida go without an encore, which he listened to siting on the podium, at her feet. Her reward was "Aveu" from "Carnival" played with a miraculous beauty that could hardly be mistaken as the last word of sanity.

The three-week festival will include all four of Schumann's symphonies, the cello concerto, a chamber music program and a Peter Sellars staging of Schumann's oratorio, "Das Paradies und die Peri." On Thursday there was the First Symphony. (The Second Symphony will replace it for the Saturday and Sunday concerts.)

Schumann wrote the score in winter with thoughts of "Spring," a depressive in search of mania, perhaps, or merely a "Spring" symphony. Dudamel made it bright and compelling, emphasizing a rhythmic vitality that made the symphony seem almost a precursor of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

Dudamel further emphasized Schumann's tight symphonic structure and handled the instrumental balances with illuminating clarity. The performance valued method over madness, which is maybe the single most mature example of what art can offer our world right now. "Schumann Focus" is a very good title.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Los Angeles Philharmonic ‘Schumann Focus’

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $72-$220

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Information: (213) 850-2000, www.laphil.com

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