Clara and Robert Schumann romances at the Chicago Cultural Center

Cellist Gabriel Martins (Contributed photo)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Julia Myra Hess (1890-1965) was an English pianist born in London. She is most famous for creating a series of concerts during WWII. The German Blitz caused concert halls to be blacked out in London at night, so she organized lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

Over six years, nearly 2,000 concerts were given, with Hess performing in 150 of them. In recognition of her contributions to wartime morale, George VI named her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1941.

In 1977, the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St.) inaugurated a series of free lunchtime concerts in Preston Bradley Hall. They take place every Wednesday between 12:15 and 1 p.m. and are named in the English pianist’s name: the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts.

Last week I took in a vivacious concert in this series, hearing cellist Gabriel Martins and pianist Joseph Liccardo perform the music of Schumann (Robert), Schumann (Clara), and Beethoven.

Young American cellist Gabriel Martins already has won many prizes, including those awarded by the David Popper International Cello Competition, Prague Spring International Music Competition, the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians, and the Sphinx Competition. The 21-year-old Martins is a native of Bloomington, Indiana, and currently is a student at the USC Thornton School of Music.

His collaborator, Joseph Liccardo, is a chamber musician, soloist, and music educator whose upcoming performances include a recital at Carnegie Hall. Together they created a sparking concert in front of a large and appreciative audience.

They opened with “Drei Romanzen” by Robert Schumann. These three short works were composed in December of 1849 and were a gift to his wife Clara. They were written for oboe (the composer’s only solo works for that instrument) but are now performed by soloists of various instruments.

These are simple pieces, yet they require finesse to draw out all their charm and beauty. The first (“Nicht schnell” or “not fast”) had long, arching lines and lovely melancholy. The opening of the second (“Einfach, innig” or “simple, heartfelt”) was nearly lost in the big performance space before both players created a robust enough sound to fill the room. The final romance (again, “Nicht schnell”) had an attractive dark color and lots of rubato to accommodate the duo’s particular expressiveness.

This was followed by another Schumann work of the same name. This time the romances were by Clara Schumann. These pieces, too, were not originally composed for cello, but rather for violin. Clara dedicated the pieces to the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, and Clara performed the works with him several times.

The Andante had fluid cello lines and pretty arpeggios. The Allegretto highlighted the deep, rich sound of Martins’ lowest notes, and the duo created a pleasing, languid atmosphere. The final romance showcased the cellist’s ability to create long, flowing phrases and also featured effervescent playing from Liccardo.

It was a marvelous decision to pair these charming works by a husband and wife, and the performers were clearly committed throughout.

The biggest work in the short concert was the Cello Sonata No. 4 by Beethoven. This was composed at the beginning of what would become known as the composer’s “late period” and is both complex and intriguing. Martins really worked the dynamic contrast in this work so that for some his gentleness in the opening was almost anemic. But this also meant that the big moments were also as big as the young cellist could make them. The second and final movement saw both players offering a gorgeous and loving interpretation with the requisite restraint but without sacrificing the sunniness of the music.

Upcoming concerts in the Dame Myra Hess series include pianist Tom Zalmanov (Jul. 17), violinist Tara Lynn Ramsey and pianist Daniel Pesca (Jul. 24), and pianist Huiping Cai (Jul. 31). There is ample seating for these concerts starting at 12:15, but for the best spots it is a good idea to arrive early.

If you can’t attend the concerts, they are broadcast live on WFMT (the little box-like booth for the radio station is in a corner of the large performance space) and it is one of the charms of these concerts that the performers do not take the stage until WFMT has given its radio listeners an introduction to the day’s concert. While this can make for a long pause before the commencement of the concert, it also highlights the fact that the music is being heard outside the beautiful confines of Preston Bradley Hall. This wonderful space is worth visiting, just to take in the fantastic dome and the detailed tile work.

There are many free events and concerts at the Chicago Cultural Center in addition to the Dame Myra Hess concerts, as well free events across the street in Millennium Park. Visit Chicagoculturalcenter.org for more information.