The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Leon Fleisher, the inspirational pianist and teacher who died a week ago, had ties to Madison

August 9, 2020

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By Jacob Stockinger

Famed American pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher (below, in a photo by Chris Hartlove), who also conducted, died of cancer at 92 last Sunday, Aug. 2.

Wisconsin Public Radio, like many other media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR) and most major newspapers and television stations, devoted a lot of time to tributes to and remembrances of Fleisher.

That is as it should be. If any musician deserved it, Fleisher did.

Fleisher (1928-2020) was a titan who became, over many years and despite major personal setbacks — stemming from an almost paralyzed right hand — a lot more than a keyboard virtuoso.

But despite lots of air time, less well covered has been his relationship to Madison audiences, who had the pleasure of seeing and hearing him several times in person.

In 2003 and then again in 2016 (below top) — at age 88 — Fleisher performed with the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below bottom).

Both times he played the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, a masterpiece of chamber music. He and his wife, Katherine Jacobson, also performed a joint recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2009.

Fleisher felt at home in Baroque, Classical, Romantic and even modern music. He was renowned as an interpreter of Brahms. Indeed, his early and widely acclaimed recordings of both Brahms piano concertos as well as of the Waltzes and Handel Variations remain landmarks.

Once he was again playing with both hands, Fleisher also recorded the piano quintet for Deutsche Grammophon with the Emerson String Quartet, another frequent and favorite performer in Madison. (You can hear the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a this blog’s review of his last Madison appearance:

Fleisher liked performing with the Pro Arte, and therein lies another historical tale.

His most influential teacher — the famed pianist Artur Schnabel, with whom the San Francisco-born Fleisher went to study in Europe when he was just 9 — also played often with the earlier members of Pro Arte Quartet. Together they recorded Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet by Franz Schubert, and that recording is still in the catalogue and available on Amazon.

Fleisher discusses studying with Schnabel in his entertaining and informative 2010 autobiography “My Nine Lives” (below).

Fleisher was a child prodigy who made his name while still young. Famed French conductor Pierre Monteux – who conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in Paris — called Fleisher the “musical find of the century.” Fleisher made his concerto debut at 16 with the New York Philharmonic under Monteux.

Fleisher was just 36 and preparing for a tour with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell – a perfect pairing and a conductor with whom he recorded all the Beethoven and Brahms concertos among may others – when he found he could not uncurl the last three fingers of his right hand.

Various diagnoses and causes were offered, and many cures were tried. In the end, it seems like that it was a case of focal dystonia that was caused by over-practicing, especially octaves. “I pounded ivory six or seven hours a day,” Fleisher later said.

After a period of depression and soul-searching, Fleisher then focused on performing music for the left hand; on conducting; and especially on teaching for more than 60 years at the Peabody Institute, located in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University.

There he helped shaped the career of many other famous pianists, including André Watts, Yefim Bronfman and Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Julian Edelstein), who played when Fleisher received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007. (All three have performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Here is an inspiring overview of Fleisher’s life and career from the Peabody Institute:

And here is another short biography from Wikipedia:

Here are three especially noteworthy obituaries:


The New York Times:

The Washington Post, written by critic Anne Midgette who worked with Fleisher on his memoir:

The Ear has always found Fleisher’s playing remarkable for its technical fluency combined with the utmost clarity and exacting but flexible sense of rhythm. He always managed to make a piece of music sound just right, as it was intended to sound. His musicality always seemed innate and perfectly natural.

Sample it for yourself. The Ear thinks the performance of all five Beethoven concertos with George Szell still sets a high standard with its exciting, upbeat tempi, its exemplary balance between piano and orchestra, and its exceptional engineering.

The affable Fleisher will long remain an inspiration not only for his playing and teaching, but also for his determination to overcome personal obstacles and go on to serve music — not just the piano.

Did you ever hear Leon Fleisher play live or in recordings? What did you think?

Do you have a comment to leave about the legacy of Fleisher?

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Classical music: Newspapers and media continue to cut back on arts writers and critics. What is the effect on the arts?

January 14, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear got a message from an old friend who gave him a link to a story about the decline of arts criticism in the mainstream media.

“This is not big news to you, but an interesting update that puts the value of your blog in context,” the friend said.

The Ear thinks that the cutback in arts critics hurts local performing artists and also hurts readers who consume the arts as audiences. That is especially important in a city as rich in the arts for its size as Madison. (Below is the Madison Symphony Orchestra playing for a full house.)

MSO playing

Here is a link to the article from the Columbia Journalism Review:

The story earned an interesting response, sort of a constructive dissent from most judgments, from Anne Midgette (below), an arts writer and arts critic who used to work for The New York Times and now works for The Washington Post. Here is a response she posted on Facebook:

“There’s one thing missing from this thoughtful valedictory on newspaper arts writing – the outrage about cutting critics is all very well, but one reason they get cut is that they don’t always have the readership papers want/need (which can be quantified now better than it used to be).

“I think newspapers could help remedy that by putting in more resources and figuring out a strategy for raising the profile of arts writing (and I think arts writers need to focus on thinking about fresh innovative ways to write about their fields, but that’s another story).

“In any case, I think those of us who love the arts need to recognize this as a big factor in the cuts, rather than simply wringing our hands about living in a world of Philistine editors.”

Anne Midgette BIG

What do you think of Anne Midgette’s response? How would you like arts coverage changed and improved?

How good a job do you think the local media do in covering the arts?

What do you think about the overall reduction in arts coverage?

Have you found alternative sources for news and for information, and what are they?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Famed child prodigy conductor Lorin Maazel has died at age 84. To the end, he was surrounded by controversy and contradiction.

July 19, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Sunday. as you may have already heard, the distinguished conductor Lorin Maazel (below, in a photo by AFP-Getty Images) died at his summer festival grounds and home in Virginia from complications of pneumonia. He was 84. Many expected him to live much longer — since conducting is such aerobic exercise, since extreme longevity ran in his family, since  conductors are a very long-lived group as a rule. 

lorin maazel AFP Getty Images

Here is a specially posted tribute video, with Maazel conducting music by Gustav Mahler — the famed Adagietto from the Symphony No. 5:

I read a lot about outstanding and searing performances by Maazel, who had a truly international career, but never heard any first-hand.

I also read a lot about his mechanical and uninspired approach to conducting, despite his mastery of “stick technique” with the baton. I never heard that in person either.

When I did hear him, usually conducting the New York Philharmonic on the PBS program “Live From Lincoln Center” or the Vienna Philharmonic  “New Year’s Day in Vienna,” he seemed perfectly competent and acceptable, if never outstandingly original or impressive or inspired. (You can hear him conduct in Seoul, Korea, the dramatic and moving “Egmont” Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Born in France, Maazel as a major talent who started as a violin prodigy and then went on to conducting major orchestras before he reached the age of 10. Later, he also turned to opera, including appearances at the Metropolitan Opera. And he often talked about how lucky he had been to have parents who did not exploit his talent during childhood. And he was full of forward-looking plans to the end.

Maazel’s death was all over the media -– including media that don’t normally care to give much coverage to the arts, especially to the current arts and to living artists. Perhaps the fact that he made history by taking the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang, North Korea, where he also performed our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” to applause, had something to do with it.

Nonetheless, here are some stories to help you catch up:

Here is a story, with sound clips and a fine appreciation, from the classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” on NPR:

Here is an exhaustive and comprehensive obituary from The New York Times:

Here is a story from the Wall Street Journal:

Here is a fine memorial from The Washington Post critic Anne Midgette:

Here is a fine summing up by The New Yorker magazine of the contradictions and controversies that surrounded Maazel’s conducting. I love the headline – “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which is a timely reminder of the balance needed between intellectualism and emotional directness, the latter of which is, for The Ear, the heart of making music:

Did you hear Lorin Maazel?

Do you have a favorite memorable performance or recording by him?

A least favorite one?

What do YOU think of Lorin Maazel?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: The great British conductor Sir Colin Davis is dead at 85. Here is a round-up of stories and remembrances, appreciations and obituaries.

April 21, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

In case you haven’t already heard, the great British conductor and longtime music director of the London Symphony Orchestra  Sir Colin Davis (below) died last Sunday at 85 after a brief illness.

Sir Colin Davis conducting

The news came unexpected to The Ear as Davis seemed actively involved in conducting almost up to the end. He seemed to have the stamina that would take him well into his 90s – especially since the aerobic act of conducting seems conducive to conductors have long careers and lives.

But then again, the obituaries make it clear that he suffered deeply from the death of his wife.

I never heard him live. But I loved his recorded performances –- and he recorded prolifically with some 250 albums to his credit. In the works of Sibelius and Berlioz he was a stalwart champion and acclaimed master. He also championed British composers such as Edward Elgar, William Walton and Benjamin Britten.

But I also liked his complete command of the Classical era-style in Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven – symphonies, concertos, operas, oratories and other choral works. (Below is the cover of his recording on the London Symphony Orchestra‘s own in-house label LSO Live of the Berlioz Requiem.)

Sir Colin Davis LSO Berlioz

Sir Colin earned fame and a fine living early on (below) in the 1950s and 1960s. But I especially liked that his career seemed to peak late in his life –- a good riposte to the cultural tendency today to worship prodigies and young achievers. He was never better than when his hair turned white.

Sir Colin Davis

There is also something endearing and Britty eccentric about Davis who liked to sit in a chair and think about musical interpretations while he was puffing on his pipe and knitting.

Yes, knitting.

And in his stage performances and touring, and it sounds to The Ear as if Sir Colin led a very good and very full life. Which may help explain why Sir Colin’s music-making sounded so healthy and robust and natural rather than neurotic or forced. (Below is a photo of Sir Colin at his home.)

Sir Colin Davis at home

Anyway, here are links to some of the best stories, remembrances and obituaries I found along with a fitting YouTube video of Sir Colin conducting Mozart’s Requiem at the bottom):

Here is a comprehensive and compassionate overview of Sir Colin’s life and career from NPR’s always outstanding blog “Delayed Cadence”:

And here is a story from Sir Colin’s native UK:

Here is a column, with some details of Sir Colin’s personal life and turmoil, by Anne Midgette of The Washington Post:

Here is a link to BBC report:

Here is a link to report from The New York Times:

And here is a story from another UK source, The Guardian:

Here is a report from the UK wire service Reuters:

And here are two more from the Los Angeles Times and The Huffington Post:,0,5286281.story

Did you hear Sir Colin live? What did you think?

Do you have a favorite recording?

A word of tribute about Sir Colin to leave in the COMMENTS section?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music EXTRA: News flash – Famed German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch has died at 89.

February 25, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

I especially loved his Schumann symphonies. (The first movement from Robert Schumann‘s Symphony No. 4 in D minor is  in a YouTube video at bottom, with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Dresden State Orchestra.)

The German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch always exuded a sense of proportion and rightness in the music he conducted. (Below is a photo from his younger years):

wolfgang wolfgang sawallisch young color

He was not a flashy maestro, but one who let the music do the talking and feeling for him.

And now Wolfgang Sawallisch (below) has died at 89 in his native Germany after a globe-spanning career that include major stops in the U.S., Japan and Great Britain as well as Europe.

Conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch obit

Here is a link to an obituary in the Australian arts magazine Limelight, which is well worth following:,legendary-german-conductor-wolfgang-sawallisch-has-died.aspx

(Below is another photo of him conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times.)

And here is the obituary from the Associated Press:

Wolfgang Sawallisch

And here is a long obituary-appreciation from The New York Times written by critic and blogger Anne Midgette (is she back at the Times from The Washington Post?)”

Finally, here is a noteworthy remembrance by the famed British critic Norman Lebrecht:

Classical music: Why are critics picking on the Metropolitan Opera and its general director Peter Gelb, and why is Gelb picking on the critics? Plus the National Memorial Day concert airs tonight on PBS.

May 27, 2012

AN ALERT: Remember to remember. The National Memorial Day Concert, broadcast live from the west lawn of the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., will air tonight on PBS. There won’t be a lot of classical music on the program, but the National Symphony Orchestra will perform. And the broadcast of the concert will be repeated tomorrow night on many PBS channels. What classical music would you like them to perform and do you think it appropriate to remember veterans and mark Memorial Day?

By Jacob Stockinger

In some important ways, this has been a very good year for the Metropolitan Opera’s general director Peter Gelb (below).

He raised a record amount of money for the world’s most famous opera house, and his Met Live in HD broadcasts continue to expand and now reach thousands of movie theaters around the world.

Yet especially when it comes to Robert Lepage’s new production of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, Gelb has still come in for harsh words from such celebrated critics as Alex Ross of The New Yorker magazine, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times and Anne Midgette of The Washington Post.

Now, it seems, Opera News has joined the fray.

And Gelb tried fighting back.

Here is link to a roundup of the drama, that latest act, that is threatening to turn the Metropolitan Opera (below) in an opera itself.

But is the Met’s story, and Gelb’s, a comic opera or tragic opera? That is the question.

What do you think?

Do you share the criticism of Gelb?

Classical music: Do we cry too much or too easily? How should we speak and write about music? Are non-specialist “critics” too sentimental about music? Washington Post critic Anne Midgette thinks so.

April 29, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I like to say that everyone is a critic.

And I think that is true — insofar as we all listen and make our minds about what performances and what artists and what music we like and we don’t like and why. We favor and we privilege what speaks to us, what touches us.

But is it possible that the whole way the general public, and especially the non-specialist media, treats classical music is hurting classical music, especially new music?

Famed critic for The Washington Post, Anne Midgette (below), who also used to write for The New York Times, think there is a problem with over-sentimentalizing classical music as an art form.

Midgette thinks we cry too much, and get too  emotional in our reactions rather than cultivate intellectual and rational reactions when we assess classical music.

Midgette is known as a dissenter, even among professional trained classical music critics, with a somewhat prickly personality.

But she is undeniably  smart, very intelligent and very well informed, with a strong family and personal background in classical music.

So read what she says and see whether you agree or disagree, and why.

Here is a link to her remarks:

Classical music: 150 years later, do we still not know the real Debussy?

April 5, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

During the past few years we have heard a lot about the anniversaries of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Mahler. Next year is Wagner.

But this year is a Debussy Year, and we haven’t heard nearly as much, even in anticipation.

That is regrettable.

There is a strong case to be made for Debussy (below) as The Modernist of All Modernists, the man who broke the Germanic strangle hold once and for all on classical music and who pioneering new structure and new harmony.

So far, the best piece I’ve read is this one in the UK’s The Guardian that I have linked to. But I expect to hear much more from such well-known critics as Alex Ross, Anthony Tommasini and Anne Midgette, among others.

There is so much Debussy I love, and good Debussy with a strong rhythmic and harmonic  backbone – not just the gauzy focus and slushy sentimentality that we wrongly associate with Impressionism. There is structure and Cartesian rationality and irony galore, as well as a distinctly Gallic subversive sensuality, in Debussy’s work.

I love the solo piano works — the two books of Preludes, the two books of Images, the Estampes, the Suite Bergamasque and the Ile Joyeuse. I love the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet.  I love the orchestral tone poems like Prelude to the Afternoon of a FaunLa Mer and Nocturnes. And I especially adore his “Homage to Rameau” (at bottom, played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo).

How would you describe the “real” Debussy”

What are your favorite Debussy works and your favorite Debussy interpreters?

The Ear wants to hear.

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