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Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to explore the musical mind

The group's Westside Connections program mixes science and performance in its three-part study of the link between music and the brain. First up: A 'musical picture' of the troubled composer Robert Schumann.

February 20, 2011|By Scott Timberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Illustration by Jacob Thomas (For The Times)
Illustration by Jacob Thomas (For The Times) (Jacob Thomas, For The Times )

He spent too much time sitting alone in bars, drinking beer with his face to the wall. He fell for an underage girl whose father disapproved of his bohemian ways, and between smoking, brooding and picking up a venereal disease during his reckless youth, his life's wild swings brought him to an early grave.


FOR THE RECORD:
'Music and the Mind' program: An article in last Sunday's Arts & Books section about a coming Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra program titled "Music and the Mind" referred to Robert Schumann's "cheerier, early Violin Quartet in E Flat Major." The Schumann piece is the Piano Quartet in E Flat Major, Opus 47, and it was published in 1842, in the middle of his creative career. —

The artist in question was neither a Beat poet nor a '60s folk guitarist, though in the right time and place he could have been either. Robert Schumann — sometimes known as "the most romantic of the romantics" — was a composer who could summon the most extreme joys and sorrows. An event next week will examine both Schumann's often stirring music as well as the depression that shaped it.

"If you look at his life," says Dr. Peter Whybrow, a UCLA neuroscientist, "his most productive years were when he was 30 years old and had just gotten married, and then a few years later, when he had another period of hypomania. But he also had many depressive periods where he wrote almost nothing. His mood disorders both enhanced and retarded his creativity."

Schumann's extreme moods also colored the work itself. "There are shades of gray foreboding," says Whybrow, who on March 3 will present the first of three Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra programs exploring music and the mind. "Some of his songs, written when he was feeling good about himself, are under the surface preoccupied with loss and dying."

The LACO's concertmaster, Margaret Batjer, assembled the program — the latest in the orchestra's annual Westside Connections series — in part to fulfill her own curiosity. "I wanted to ask, does the artistic sensibility have to do with mental instability? I wanted to have someone paint a musical picture of his life."

All three events will involve a mixture of speaking and performance. In Schumann's case, the music will be presented backward: That is, it will begin with dark songs from later in his life and conclude with the cheerier, early Violin Quartet in E Flat Major.

Batjer figured a chronological tour of Schumann's life — which involved him throwing himself off a bridge over the Rhine and then spending his last 2 1/2 years in an asylum hearing voices — would probably be too much: "People would want to kill themselves walking out of the concert."

Making connections

The three programs range widely: In the second installment, on March 24, Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of USC's Brain and Creativity Institute, speaks about music, emotion and human evolution. He'll be accompanied by works by Beethoven and Bruce Adolphe, with whom Damasio co-wrote the composition "Self Comes to Mind." (The book includes an epigraph from poet Fernando Pessoa: "My soul is like a hidden orchestra; I do not know which instruments grind and play away inside of me, strings and harps, timbales and drums. I can only recognize myself as a symphony.")

For the concluding event, on April 28, Northwestern University neurosurgeon Hunt Batjer (Margaret's brother) will discuss music's relationship to the brain, with pieces by Mozart and Brahms. He calls his address "an optimistic debunking" of the idea "that we are born with billions of neurons in our brains and that over time, with life experiences and aging, we progressively lose neurons and our brain shrivels." Neuroscientists, he says, are starting to see that the right kind of physical and mental stimulation can actually generate brain cells.

The whole program was driven by what Margaret Batjer calls "one of my great all-time questions: Where is the soul? Where does it exist?"

A violinist who has been with the LACO since 2000, Batjer was pushed to the idea in part by trying to play Schumann's work. "I've always loved his music, but as a musician, I find it more difficult than most. It has this density and pain, but incredible joy as well. How could he have written songs of such glorious joy when he was so tormented inside?"

Previous Westside Connections series — all concerts take place at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica — have included a season with poets and another with a medley of creative people. Batjer decided that she could best examine music and the brain if she varied the perspectives. "I wanted to have three guests — a psychiatrist, a surgeon and a neuroscientist."

"My hope is to answer the question of music and human evolution: How did the human brain evolve to perceive, understand and like music? And I think the three guests can articulate these issues from different angles."

Highs and lows

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