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: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Leon+Fleisher

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: https://peabody.jhu.edu/faculty/leon-fleisher/

And here is another short biography from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Fleisher

Here are three especially noteworthy obituaries:

NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/08/02/702978476/leon-fleisher-the-pianist-who-reinvented-himself-dies-at-92

The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/02/arts/music/leon-fleisher-dead.html

The Washington Post, written by critic Anne Midgette who worked with Fleisher on his memoir: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/leon-fleisher-sublime-pianist-with-one-hand-or-two-dies-at-92/2020/08/02/c7c98f90-527d-11e6-b7de-dfe509430c39_story.html

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?


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: Moscow and Paris meet through cello and piano music at the Wisconsin Union Theater this Saturday night at 7:30

December 4, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

What was the musical relationship between Paris and Moscow, especially after the Russian Revolution?

You can find out, and hear examples, this Saturday night, Dec. 8, at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall (below) at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Pianist Lise de la Salle and cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca (below right and left, respectively) will explore the musical relationship between Moscow and Paris through works by Gabriel Fauré (you can hear them play his Elegy in the YouTube video at the bottom), Camille Saint-Saëns, Jules Massenet, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It is the subject of their latest recording from Sony Classical.

For the full program plus biographies and videos of the performers and information about obtaining tickets ($25-$42 for the general adult public, $20 for young people, $10 for UW students), go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/lise-de-la-salle-and-christian-pierre-la-marca/

Lise de la Salle made her debut at age 13 in a performance at the Louvre. According to Le Monde, she “possesses a youthful single-minded spirit and the courage of conviction seldom expected of such a young artist.”

Now 29, de la Salle has established a reputation as one of today’s most exciting young artists and as a musician of uncommon sensibility and maturity. Her playing inspired a Washington Post critic to write, “For much of the concert, the audience had to remember to breathe … the exhilaration didn’t let up for a second until her hands came off the keyboard.”

She specializes in Russian composers and has played with symphony orchestras in London, Paris, Munich, Tokyo, Baltimore, Detroit and Quebec. Says Bryce Morrison of Gramophone magazine,“Lise de la Salle is a talent in a million.”

In just a few years, through his international concert appearances, the young cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca already ranks among the masters of the cello. He has performed in concert halls such as the Louvre, the Philharmonie of Berlin, the 92nd Street Y in New York City, and Izumi Hall in Osaka, among others.

La Marca has appeared as a soloist with many leading orchestras and is also highly sought after in chamber music. He plays a unique golden period Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume cello (1856) and the Vocation Foundation has provided him a rare Jacob Eury cello bow (1825). An exclusive Sony Classical artist, La Marca has already released three albums unanimously praised by international press and international critics.

Before the performance, enjoy a lecture by Kyle Johnson (below) at 6 p.m. Check Today in the Union for room location. Johnson is a pianist who recently received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the UW-Madison.

His performing experience ranges from solo and festival appearances throughout the U.S. and U.K., co-founding the Madison-based contemporary ensemble Sound Out Loud, and as a performance fellow in the Longitude Contemporary Ensemble in Boston, Mass.

His research interests strongly correlate with his interest in 20th-century piano repertoire, of which he produces a podcast series around (Art Music Perspectives). For more information, visit www.kyledjohnson.com.

This performance is presented by the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Performing Arts Committee. This project was supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. WORT-FM 89.9 is the media sponsor.


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