Negotiating the fireworks, dazzling finger work and outright explosiveness of Robert Schumann's Carnaval" isn't for
sissies. Good thing pianist Steven Mayer is flying into snowbound Durango to set the blaze.
The New York-based musician will perform Sunday at the Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall. Part of the San Juan
Symphony's extra recital program, Mayer's concert is a return engagement. He was here in January 2006 as a featured
artist of the Adams Foundation Piano Series. Arthur Post, music director of our regional orchestra, came upon the idea
through a music manager he knows in New York City.
The Foundation funds concerts all over the country," Post said in an earlier interview, noting that we rarely hear
piano performance of this caliber in Colorado.
Last time around, Mayer mesmerized us with music by Liszt, Ives, Fats Waller and Art Tatum. Mayer will revisit jazz
greats again but with different pieces. He'll also play Gottschalk's Bamboula," Scott Joplin's Pine Apple Rag," one
work each by James P. Johnson and Jelly Roll" Morton, and two Tatum arrangements of familiar tunes: Tea for Two," and
I Know That You Know."
Mayer comfortably mixes low-down jazz with high classicism. On Sunday, he plans to open with Beethoven's Sonata in B
flat Major, Op. 22. Then he'll plunge into the bright heart of Schumann's Carnaval," a set of 21 miniature glimpses
into a masquerade ball.
I have lots of early memories of this piece," Mayer said in a telephone interview from New York. When I was in a high
school study hall, I remember hearing my music teacher play the final movement on an old upright. I couldn't
concentrate because of the sheer excitement, the ecstasy of the piece."
Mayer also remembered listening to a controversial Rachmaninoff recording that was unorthodox, to say the least. The
aesthetic of the piece is Germanic and folksy," he said, but Rachmaninoff approached it like a Russian - a bit
Piano players of all levels probably know Schumann's Carnaval." It's a quintessential, Romantic era set of piano
miniatures, a little genre unto itself in the 19th century. Collections of short pieces, each with a different
character, were wildly popular not that long ago. Chopin composed his share - nocturnes, waltzes and etudes.
Mendelssohn wrote six books of piano pieces under the title Songs without Words." Some miniatures were accessible to
amateur pianists, but many were so difficult, so demanding, that only their creators could play them. Carnaval" is in
that group - a virtuoso tour de force.
Schumann's character sketches" are loosely based on human types and musical forms - a lot of dances and a closing
march. More importantly, Carnaval" is based on an intriguing musical scheme inspired by a youthful crush on a girl
named Ernestine. Anyone interested in the way artists work and the restrictions they place on themselves will find
Schumann's process fascinating. Anyone who knows teenagers will understand the stormy business of infatuation.
In 1833, Schumann apparently fell hard for the girl from Asch. In a letter to a friend, he described a scheme he
stumbled on to write a work expressing his passion. It would be based on the place where she lived. Sound familiar? In
German, the musical equivalent of A-S-C-H is A, E flat, C, and B natural. Like a lovesick boy, Schuman noted that all
four letters also appeared in his name. So much for the mysteries of creativity.
Every piece in Carnaval" opens with some configuration of the four notes. But each piece is rhythmically and
emotionally so diverse you'd never know it. Préamble," a commanding fanfare of sorts, starts things off then quickly
dives into tiny portraits of odd characters at the ball. Pierrot and Harlequin zip by and then an elegant waltz spins
for a little over a minute. Others follow, and in the middle of the suite, Schumann comes almost to a full stop. Three
short, solemn pieces titled Sphinxes" anchor the work in a clear tonal center. Then the music takes off again on a
flight of iridescent butterflies. The shortest sketch, Pause," lasts a mere 18 seconds. It comes right before the
finale, the longest piece of all, lasting a mere three minutes and three seconds. It's a march in which Schumann
imagines his artist friends boldly stepping forth against a world of philistines.
As Mayer said, Carnaval" is full of excitement.
You're never bored. And it's fantastic in the best sense of the word - a fantasy of the imagination."
As interesting as the program notes may be, Carnaval" will be over before you know it. So my advice is: Set the
description aside and just let Mayer dazzle you with Schumann's high spirits. And whatever you do, don't miss this
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.