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?


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s virtual Opera in the Park goes online for FREE this Saturday night and stays up until Aug. 25. Listen to it indoors or outdoors

July 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park isn’t in a park this year — as it has been in past years (below) — but it will be available for people to enjoy for free in their backyards, in their living rooms or anywhere else with an internet connection.

The digital concert will be released on this Saturday, July 25, at 8 p.m. CDT, and can be watched on Madison Opera’s website, www.madisonopera.org/digital, where you can find complete information and, soon, a complete program to download.

The annual free concert has moved online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a newly created program of opera arias and more.

Digital Opera in the Park features: soprano Jasmine Habersham; soprano Karen Slack; tenor Andres Acosta; and baritone Weston Hurt. (The last two will sing the justly famous baritone-tenor duet “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Habersham (below) makes her Madison Opera debut with this unique performance, and will sing Susanna in the company’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro next April.

Slack (below) debuted with the company in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and will be part of the company’s digital fall season.

Acosta (below) sang Timothy Laughlin in Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers with Madison Opera this past February.

Hurt (below) debuted as Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata last season and is part of the company’s digital fall season.

The four singers will be joined by several important local artists. They include violinist Suzanne Beia, the assistant concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the second violin of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet.

There will also be a fleet of eight pianists. They include MSO music director and Madison Opera’s artist director John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Prasad) and the UW-Madison graduate and composer Scott Gendel (below bottom). The two will play multiple numbers, including DeMain accompanying Beia on the beautiful “Meditation” from Thaïs.

Each singer recorded their arias with an accompanist in their home cities, and chorusmaster Anthony Cao (below top) both accompanies and conducts the Madison Opera Chorus (below bottom) in a virtual “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore.

The evening will be hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and by WKOW TV’s Channel 27 News co-anchor George Smith.

“Reimagining Opera in the Park in the pandemic era has been a challenge, but one we have happily embraced,” says Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “Our wonderful artists were game to record themselves in their home towns, to sing duets with each other through headphones, and to share their artistry with our community in a new way. Over 40 choristers joined a Zoom call to get instructions, and then they recorded their parts of the ‘Anvil Chorus.’”

“While in some ways this concert has required more work than our live Opera in the Park in Garner Park, it is always a pleasure to present beautiful music for everyone to enjoy.”

Digital Opera in the Park features music from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, now canceled in live performance but originally slated to open Madison Opera’s 2020-21 season; Jerry Bock’s She Loves Me, which the company performs in January; and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which will be performed in April.

The program also includes selections from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, Richard Strauss’ Arabella, Verdi’s Don Pasquale, Puccini’s Tosca, Massenet’s Hérodiade and Thaïs, Rossini’s William Tell, Pablo Sarozabal’s zarzuela La Tabernera del Puerto, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and more.

The concert will be available beginning at 8 p.m. CDT on this Saturday night, July 25, and will remain online until Aug. 25, allowing for both repeated viewing and flexibility for people who are unable to watch on the first night.

While Digital Opera in the Park will be free to watch, it would not be possible without the generous support of many foundations, corporations and individuals who believe in the importance of music. Madison Opera is grateful to the sponsors of Opera in the Park 2020:

  • Presenting Sponsor: the Berbeewalsh Foundation
  • Sponsors: the John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation, Full Compass Systems, the Raymond B. Preston Family Foundation, University Research Park, Colony Brands, Johnson Financial Group, MGE Foundation, National Guardian Life, Wisconsin Arts Board, Dane Arts and the Madison Arts Commission.
  • Media Sponsors: WKOW, Madison Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, Magic 98, and La Movida.

RELATED EVENTS include:

OPERA ON THE WALL | JULY 25, 2020 | ONLINE

Madison artists Liubov Swazko (known as Triangulador) and Mike Lroy have created artwork around our community, including beautiful murals on State Street storefronts.

In an act of artistic cross-pollination, they will create an artwork that comes from their personal response to Digital Opera in the Park, offering a rare glimpse of visual artists responding to musical artists. Their creative process will be filmed in the Madison Opera Center, and shared online starting on July 25.

The finished artwork will be displayed in the Madison Opera Center. Go to Swazko’s website at triangulador.com (one work is below) and Lroy’s website at mikelroy.com to see their past work.

POST-SHOW Q&A | JULY 25, 2020, IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE INITIAL STREAM

Join Kathryn Smith and the Digital Opera in the Park artists for a post-concert discussion, including an opportunity to ask questions. Details on format and platform will be available closer to the date.

 


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Classical music: Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell, who performed in Madison, is dead at 76

April 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell (below) died Monday at 76.

If his name sounds familiar, it could be because Harrell performed in Madison at least three times – twice with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (2007 and 2011), in concertos by Lalo and Victor Herbert, and a recital with pianist Yefim Bronfman at the Wisconsin Union Theater (1994).

No cause of death has yet been given, but various sources say it was unrelated to COVID-19 or the coronavirus pandemic.

To know more about his remarkable life and impressive career, go to his biography on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Harrell 

Colleagues were quick to praise Harrell not only as a master musician – gifted with beautiful tone and sensitive, expressive interpretations — but also as a great teacher and a congenial man who made friends easily. He also cut promotional ads for National Public Radio (NPR) urging members to donate, as he himself did.

Here is an interview he did in 2011 with host Norman Gilliland for Wisconsin Public Radio:

https://www.wpr.org/shows/lynn-harrell

Here is a link to an obituary from The Violin Channel that features quotes from many musicians who admired Harrell:

https://theviolinchannel.com/cellist-lynn-harrell-has-passed-away-died-obituary-rip/

And here are tributes from many of his colleagues for British critic Norman Lebrecht’s blog “Slipped Disc”:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/04/lynn-harrell-tributes-pour-in/

A prodigy who made his Carnegie Hall debut at 17, Harrell, who studied at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute, was renowned internationally. He later taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

In 1994 he played a Papal Concert at the Vatican to mark the first commemoration and remembrance of the Holocaust. His performance there of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei”  for cello and orchestra can be seen and heard at the bottom in the most popular of Harrell’s many YouTube videos.

 


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Classical music: Local groups stream videos to entertain home-bound listeners, and perhaps to promote their next seasons. Plus, the Madison Symphony Orchestra cancels and postpones its May concerts

April 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Cancellations and postponements aren’t the only effects that the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic are having on the local classical music scene.

Many local ensembles – much like such national and international organizations as the Metropolitan Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra — are also starting to offer free streamed performances, some of them archival and some of them are specially performed.

Bach Around the Clock even held a virtual festival this year that featured many different original recorded performances spread out over many days and continues.

Why are they doing so?

Certainly to help entertain the public while they weather the boredom and loneliness of social distancing and sheltering in place at home. Music can comfort.

Perhaps they are also doing so as a smart marketing move to stay in the public’s consciousness despite cancellations and to indirectly promote their upcoming seasons.

Here are some examples:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) is offering a link to a YouTube performance — by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra below) — of the Dvorak Requiem, which the MSO orchestra and chorus were supposed to perform this weekend but had to cancel.

The video also has a message from music director John DeMain; texts and translations from the Czech; a special pre-concert talk and program notes for the Requiem by J. Michael Allsen; and a link to the MSO’s 2020-21 season.

Here is a link: https://madisonsymphony.org/experience-dvorak-requiem-virtually/

In other MSO news: The concerts with pianist Yefim Bronfman playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms on May 1, 2 and 3 and the open rehearsal on April 30 are now canceled, and the May 5 organ performance has been postponed.

For those who hold tickets for May concerts, the MSO will be announcing options for donation, exchange and refunds sometime this weekend or next week.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), which recently streamed its December concert in the UW’s Hamel Center, has started a special “Coucherto” series – it’s a pun on concerto and couch – of special at-home concerts by individual musicians in the WCO for those listeners who are staying at home.

The project uses social media including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Vimeo and at the WCO’s home website. Also included is an invitation by music director Andrew Sewell.

The WCO’s next season hasn’t been announced yet, but should be soon.

Here is a link: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/coucherto/

For its part, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which is facing uncertainty about its June concert series, which focuses on Beethoven’s piano trios – is offering selected chamber music performances from its past seasons that are on BDDS’ YouTube channel.

It too has comments and the program lineup for its season this summer.

Here is a link: https://bachdancing.org/watch-listen/video/

Have you seen any of these videos?

What do you think of them?

Dp you think they work as marketing strategies?

Have you discovered sites for streaming classical music that you recommend to others?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Bach Around the Clock 2020 goes virtual and wants your audio-video contribution. Plus TONIGHT, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra streams its Dec. 27 concert at the UW

March 27, 2020
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ALERT: TONIGHT, March 27, at 7:30 p.m., the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will be streaming its sold-out premiere performance (below) on Dec. 27 in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center. If you couldn’t get seats for the in-person performance, you can tune in for FREE tonight.

The program is: “Poet and Peasant Overture” by Suppe; the Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92, by Robert Schumann with pianist Jason Kutz; the Overture to “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Offenbach; the “Habanera” from the opera “Carmen” by Bizet and “What a movie” from the opera “Trouble in Tahiti” by Leonard Bernstein, both with mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter-Foss; and the Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61, by Saint-Saens with Rachel Barton Pine. WCO music director Andrew Sewell conducts.

For a link and  portal to the streamed video, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-live/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following message from artistic director Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) about the decision to make this year’s Bach Around the Clock a virtual event with a call for community submissions:

The BATC Board of Directors shares the keen disappointment that all music lovers feel at the sudden, shocking collapse of the current concert season.

The BATC 2020 Festival was fully booked, and we had looked forward to 12 hours of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by musicians ranging from young students to adult amateurs to seasoned professionals, all to celebrate the composer’s 335th birthday.

Sadly, that was not to be.

But thinking outside of the box, the Board has decided to try something new: the BATC 2020 Virtual Festival.

We invite local musicians to submit video or audio recordings of themselves singing or playing a selection by Bach. If you’d like, you can also talk at the beginning of your recording, explaining what music by Bach (below) means to you, and why you chose this particular piece. Or feel free to write your thoughts on this subject, and we’ll include that text with your recording.

We reach out especially to those who were scheduled to perform at this year’s festival, and those who have performed with us in the past. But we are very happy to include newcomers to our BATC community as well.

Performers can click on Performers Guide for Media Submissions to find instructions for audio or video file submission.

We request that files be of musical selections 20 minutes or less. If a piece is longer than that, please record the piece in two files.

Our tech team will preview clips for technical quality, upload them to the BATC YouTube channel, and post them on our website and then on our Facebook page, for everyone to enjoy.

BATC plans to launch the Virtual Festival this Saturday, March 28, at 10 a.m., the time the original in-person Festival was scheduled to begin.

We will add new videos every day at 10 a.m., as long as submissions keep coming in. (Below are the Suzuki Strings of Madison performing during a past BATC.)

The BATC Board hopes this Virtual Festival gives local musicians an outlet for sharing their talent and passion with the warmly appreciative local community.

Live music nourishes the soul of performer and audience member alike, and the transcendent, life-giving joy woven into the music of Bach is something we need, now more than ever. (Below is a performance from last year’s Bach Around the Clock.)

For more information, go to: https://bachclock.com and https://www.facebook.com/batcmadison


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