Till music do us part

When I first interviewed pianist Nina Schumann in 1996, she said to me: “It’s inexplicable — this passion, this intensity one has for an art form. It’s inside your brain and your heart and I don’t think anyone can share that.” But time and Cupid have proved her wrong.

“Six months to the day” after meeting Portuguese pianist Luis Magalhães in Texas, Schumann married him. And they now have a personal and professional partnership that is based on a mutual “obsession” with music.

They will share the stage at Potchefstroom’s Aardklop Festival this weekend.
In one performance they will be joined by Nataniël and the Aardklop Festival Orchestra for a high-spirited rendition of Saint-Saëns’s amusing Carnival of Animals.

Chatting to Schumann and Magalhães, I gather that they are complete opposites and tempers flare when artistic egos clash during rehearsals. But, although they may “yell at each other and slam doors”, they eventually resume rehearsals without bearing a grudge.

Learning to play together as a duo required “a period of adjustment”, Magalhães says. For although they clicked immediately as far as the intensity of their shared emotional response to music was concerned, Schumann had “a very rigid attitude” with regard to the classical repertoire that was her speciality and Magalhães was equally rigid “in terms of the impressionistic modern music” that was his forte.

There is a strong element of determination in Magalhães’s character and this manifested itself in his pursuit of Schumann.

There was an instant attraction between them and he told her right from the start, “I’m in love with you and I’m going to marry you.” Schumann’s inbred sense of caution was soon overcome.

The couple met at the University of Texas in Denton three years ago. Schumann, a University of Cape Town BMus graduate, had completed a master’s degree in music at the University of California (Los Angeles) in 1996 and had then moved to Texas for PhD studies under renowned pianist Vladimir Viardo. There she continued to distinguish herself by winning prizes for best performer, best pianist and best doctoral student, as well as winning the concerto competition in her first semester. These accolades were added to an already impressive list of South African prizes such as the SABC Music Prize, the Oude Meester Music Prize and the Samro Overseas Scholarship.

In 1999 Magalhães also arrived in Texas to study with Viardo. He had made his concert debut in Portugal at the age of nine and had won prizes in various prestigious competitions, so clearly the two musicians had much in common. But strangely enough, opposition to their impetuous marriage came from their teacher, not from their respective families.

Schumann confesses that studying with the charismatic Viardo was “a life-turning point” for her. “I think I was almost at the point of a nervous breakdown in terms of the influence he had on me!” she exclaims. Viardo demanded total commitment, even deciding what books she should read in her free time, as he strove to develop her potential as a pianist and a person.

Schumann says Viardo “got over” his initial doubts about his students’ romance and they still see him often, although they are no longer living and studying in Denton. At the end of 1999 Schumann accepted an appointment as artist-in-residence and head of the piano department at the University of Stellenbosch’s Conservatorium of Music and she began to find the long-haul travel between Denton and the Western Cape increasingly trying. Both she and Luis have performed in many countries around the world and they eventually decided to settle in Portugal and to commute from there to South Africa.

Schumann’s teaching commitments at the university are flexible. She and Magalhães manage to coordinate frequent solo and duo concert appearances — many in Europe — with her teaching and his participation in international piano competitions, where he is distinguishing himself. (Earlier this year he came second in the 2002 Russian Music International Piano competition in the United States and was awarded special prizes for the best performance of Russian music and the best performance of Rachmaninov.)

Both Schumann and Magalhães are registered for doctoral studies at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music. They have a pied-à-terre in Stellenbosch, but their main home is on the northern coast of Portugal, about 15km from Porto.

Their apartment is right on the beach, so they enjoy ever-changing seascapes, spellbinding sunsets and the spectacular thunderstorms that are characteristic of the region in June and July. And when at home in Portugal, they favour — and savour — a fairly solitary lifestyle.

I can’t resist asking Magalhães what first attracted him to Schumann. “If I knew, life would be simple, but the mystery would be gone,” he responds with philosophical Latin charm. “But we met through music and we live in music,” he adds. “And if you asked me whether I love music more than I love Nina, I’d have to say yes.”

“And how do you feel about that, Nina?” I enquire.

“I feel the same. Absolutely,” she answers serenely, and they smile adoringly at each other.

Schumann and Magalhães perform at Aardklop on September 28 at noon in the Konservatorium and with the Festival Orchestra on September 27 at 8pm in the Sanlam Auditorium. Book at Computicket. Website: www.aardklop.co.za

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