Schumann emerged as a composer in the 1830s around the same time he started gaining attention for his critical writings. But, being Schumann, he brought an unabashed literary bent to his journalism. He fancied himself the leader of a half-real, half-imagined band of musicians called Davidsbündler (the League of David), artists who disdained the empty virtuosic display so popular in concert halls of the day and championed musical depth and substance along with genuine poetic fantasy and humor.
Schumann celebrated this club in one of his most imaginative piano suites, the “Davidsbündlertänze,” a set of miniature dances. On Sunday night at Le Poisson Rouge, the excellent and adventurous young pianist David Kaplan paid tribute to that Schumann work by fashioning a contemporary equivalent with the help of 16 composer colleagues.
Mr. Kaplan played “New Dances of the League of David,” a 60-minute suite that incorporates new miniatures by this 21st-century band of composers into Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze,” a project commissioned by Lyrica Chamber Music and Metropolis Ensemble. The composers were asked to write short pieces in the spirit of Schumann. Some came up with works to be played in between Schumann’s originals. Others, like Michael Brown, Gabriel Kahane and Mark Carlson, daringly transformed one of Schumann’s miniatures into a new hybrid.
“New Dances” is no gimmick. Rather, reaching back to a time when borrowing a master’s music was a compliment, not a “Blurred Lines” case of copyright infringement, the composers honor Schumann by reacting to and even rewriting his music. And it was fascinating to hear Schumann through the ears of these perceptive, stylistically varied contemporary composers.
The new suite began with Michael Gandolfi’s homage “Mirrors and Sidesteps,” intriguingly murky and fanciful music with modern harmonic twists, fractured phrases and hints of “Davidsbündlertänze.” Then Mr. Kaplan played the first piece from the Schumann work, a beguiling blend of feisty dance and stealthy lyricism. The second Schumann piece here seemed a contemplative commentary on the first.
The stand-alone new miniatures were sometimes quite elaborate, like Augusta Read Thomas’s four-minute “Morse Code Fantasy,” full of pointillist runs and obsessive repeated notes to evoke Morse code. Caroline Shaw’s contribution, following Schumann’s hearty “Mit Humor,” shifted between leaping and pensive passages. Martin Bresnick’s “Bundists (Robert, Gyorgy and Me)” unfolded in thick, rich, shifting harmonies.
Samuel Carl Adams, Andrew Norman, Caleb Burhans, Ryan Francis, Mohammed Fairouz, Hannah Lash and Timo Andres were among the other composers, too many to mention here, who joined Mr. Kaplan’s new league of David for this project. Mr. Kaplan played Schumann’s score and the new contributions to it with command, elegance and character.
He has long been a Schumann lover. I chanced upon him in 2011 during the “Sing for Hope” project, when painted pianos were placed outside around New York to be played by passers-by. Mr. Kaplan, wearing shorts and a cap on a summer day, was playing Schumann’s “Carnaval” on the sidewalk outside Alice Tully Hall on a colorfully painted but beat-up old grand piano.