The bond between Johannes Brahms and Robert and Clara Schumann has fascinated classical music lovers since the handsome 20-year-old virtuoso showed up at the power music couple’s doorstep eager for instruction and inspiration. He was not disappointed. He immediately became Robert’s protégé and within months found himself by the pair’s side as he watched his mentor be committed to an asylum and die two years after a botched suicide attempt jumping into the Rhine. Meanwhile, Brahms moved into the Schumann household to console the beautiful, talented Clara and care for her seven children while the in-demand pianist, banned from seeing her husband, resumed her concert tours.
The yearning — Robert for his muse wife, Clara for her ill spouse and young savior, and Brahms for Clara and his own career — drives Sunday’s opening program, “Brahms and the Schumanns: Love, Genius, Madness,” of the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival’s 34th season.
“They had to cope with a shortage of money, mental illness, more children than they could care for and still do their work — and yet from each of them came not only the most generous and heartfelt support for one another, but some of the most beautiful music ever written,” says Emmy-winning actor Alan Alda, who will reprise his role for the fourth time at the festival as narrator, punctuating the performances with well-chosen passages from the composers’ diaries and letters.
“They play those parts of this story that can’t be conveyed in words, but only in music,” Alda says of his accompaniment, comprising an international roster of leading chamber musicians, including Marya Martin, the festival’s principal flutist, director and founder with businessman husband Ken Davidson.
Opting to open each summer series with what she calls a composer portrait, the New Zealand-born Martin has focused this year’s program on three artists over four years, from 1853 to 1857, telling the story of a troubling and prolific period in each of their lives. “They were all impacted by their meeting,” she says. “The passion, strength and depth of writing was amazing for all three.”
Among the selections at the festival’s kickoff performance, which takes place at its primary venue, the intimate and acoustically admirable Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, is Clara’s aptly titled “Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22.” The composition is evidence of her conflicted emotional state, originally composed, says Martin, as a birthday present for Brahms but soon after transcribed as a gift for Robert while he was locked away in the psychiatric hospital.
“It’s a piece of theater,” notes Martin, “as well as a concert.”
WHAT The Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival’s “Brahms and the Schumanns: Love, Genius, Madness”
WHEN | WHERE Sunday, July 30, and Monday, July 31, 6:30 p.m., Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, 2429 Montauk Hwy.
INFO $10-$75; 631-537-6368, bcmf.org
Choral Festival at Gateway
WHAT The 23rd Annual Choral Festival, sponsored by the Brookhaven Arts Council, draws on local talent to offer a varied program at the Gateway Playhouse. Selections range from Johannes Brahms’ “Liebsleider Waltzes Op. 52,” belonging to the 19th century German master’s collection of love songs, to American genius George Gershwin’s jazz standard “Summertime,” to Argentine composer Ariel Ramirez’s more contemporary “Misa Criolla,” one of the first Masses in his nation’s idiom, mixing Spanish lyrics and Latin rhythms.
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Sunday, Gateway Playhouse, 215 S. Country Rd., Bellport
INFO Donation accepted at door; brookhavenchoral.org