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
2 Comments

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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: Organist and composer Chelsea Chen debuts at Overture Hall on Tuesday night

February 18, 2019
3 Comments

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

Organist Chelsea Chen (below) makes her Madison debut on this Tuesday night, Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall as part of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Concert Organ series.

Ticket information is below.

Chen brings to her Overture Hall premiere an array of widely known classical pieces plus her own original composition.

Chen’s performance begins with Ola Gjeilo’s Sinfonietta and Edvard Grieg’s First Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 46— continuing with Chen’s original work, the Taiwanese Suite, Camille Saint-Saens’ Finale from “Organ” Symphony No. 3, Ad Wammes’ Miroir, and finally, selections from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

Composer Gjeilo (below) has praised Chen’s interpretation of Sinfonietta, which the organist has performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

The First Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 46, by Grieg is one of the most easily recognizable compositions within the musical art form. Subtitled “Morning,” it is the first of two suites that Grieg (below) transcribed from Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 Norwegian play Peer Gynt.

The opus, albeit a short first movement from the suite, intends to instill imagery of the sunrise over the North African desert. Despite this, it is more commonly associated with the sweeping mountains, fjords and lakes that mark Norway’s landscape.

Chen’s own Taiwanese Suite combines the dynamic range of the organ with inflections of traditional Asian folksongs. It is composed of three movements: “Hills in the Springtime,” “Moonlight Blue” and “Mountain of Youth.”

Inspired by the works of Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt and others, Saint-Saens (below) composed a variety of arrangements and selections for numerous occasions. By age 10, the French composer and child prodigy had given his first concert. His Finale from “Organ” Symphony No. 3 is, as some consider, the pinnacle of his body of compositions. (You can hear Chen’s playing of the Finale from the “Organ” Symphony by Saint-Saens in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Miroir was composed by Dutch composer Ad Wammes (below) for Stephen Taylor to celebrate the organist’s appointment to the Nicolaïkerk, a church in the Netherlands. In an unconventional mirroring — hence the title — the right hand repeats the higher voices in the same pattern throughout the song, whereas the left hand varies texture, voice and tone in the lower registers. The result is a calming, low hum that is lifted by the glistening echoes of the upper registers.

To Holst, The Planets suite could be framed as “a series of mood pictures,” with its seven movements. Ironically, Holst (below) seemed to heavily dislike his explosive popularity resulting from the suite’s compositional structure. Despite his supposed negativity towards the piece, its inherent superb qualities of each movement — no two are alike — became a staple of evocative composition.

Following an academic career at the Juilliard School and Yale University, Chelsea Chen has practiced under the tutelage of known names in the musical world, such as Paul Jacobs and John Weaver. For more information about her, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/chelsea-chen/

Single Tickets are available for $20 each and can be purchased online at http://madisonsymphony.org/chen, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two tickets for $10 each. More information is at: https://madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

This performance is sponsored by Friends of the Overture Concert Organ (below) that was custom-built by Klais Orgelbau of Germany. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ.


Posted in Classical music
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