The Well-Tempered Ear

Today is Veterans Day. Here is some appropriate music by Beethoven to mark it. Can you guess which piece? What composer or music would you choose?

November 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020 – is Veterans Day.

It started out as Armistice Day in 1918 when the end of World War I was declared to take place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

It is a day to mark the service of all veterans – not just those who died in the line of duty, as is celebrated on Memorial Day.

You can find a lot of choice of classical music to play for Veterans Day. Here is one link to a compilation that features patriotic songs and marches: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJepYzH1VUY

But The Ear settled on Beethoven (below, in an 1815 portrait by Joseph Willebrord Maehler).

Can you guess which piece?

It is not the memorable funeral marches on the Piano Sonata in A-Flat, Op. 26, or the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.”

It is also not the “Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving” in the String Quartet, Op. 132.

And it is not “Wellington’s Victory” or the “Egmont” Overture or the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” with its triumphant fast movements.

Instead it is the second movement of the Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92. (You can hear it see it represented graphically in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That is the very well known Allegretto movement with its repetitious and almost hypnotizing, soaring theme. It seems like a funeral march, full of introspection, poignancy and sadness, that is a bit brisker and more lyrical than usual.

It is so popular, in fact, that it has been used as a soundtrack in many movies, including “The King’s Speech” and has inspired works based on it including the “Fantasia on an Ostinato” by the contemporary American composer John Corigliano.

If it seems an unexpected choice, you just need to know more about its history.

It was composed 1811-1812, and Beethoven correctly considered it one of his finest works. So did Richard Wagner who famously described as the “apotheosis of the dance” for the infectious rhythms throughout the symphony.

At its premiere in Vienna, in his introductory remarks Beethoven said: “We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us.”

Beethoven (below, in 1815 as depicted in a paining the Joseph Willibrord Maehler) premiered the symphony at a charity concert in 1813 to help raise money for the Austrian and Bavarian soldiers who had been wounded at the Battle of Hanau while fighting against France during the Napoleonic Wars.

It was so popular with the first performance that the audience demanded and received an immediate encore performance of the second movement.

Here is a Wikipedia link to the history of the symphony: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._7_(Beethoven)

To this day, the Seventh Symphony, so charged with energy, remains for many people, conductors and orchestral players their favorite Beethoven symphony.

It is ironic that Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Paul de Hueck) performed the Seventh Symphony at the last concert he ever conducted – at the Tanglewood Festival in August 1990. He took the second movement at a slower-than-usual tempo and many have criticized Bernstein, who was in terrible health, and have suggested that he was using it as a funeral march or homage for himself. 

They may be right. But in retrospect the choice of Bernstein – who died two months later — finds a certain justification in the original motive for the entire symphony and especially the second movement.

Listen for yourself.

Then tell us what you think.

Does this movement justify it being played on Veterans Day?

What music would you choose to mark the day?

What do you think of the Symphony No. 7 in general and the second movement in particular?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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University Opera’s original online video project celebrates the life and music of American composer Marc Blitzstein. It will be posted for FREE on YouTube this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m.

October 21, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera presents its first project of 2020-21 in video format as it turns to the music of the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” will be released free of charge on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s YouTube channel this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. CDT at the general site www.youtube.com/meadwitterschoolofmusic or the official specific link: https://youtu.be/77FXFZucrWc.

Director of University Opera David Ronis (below top) is the director of the original production and will give introductory remarks. UW-Madison graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) is the musical director. The production lasts 1 hour and 40 minutes, and features four singer-actors, a narrator and a piano.

Marc Blitzstein’s life story parallels some of the most important cultural currents in American history of the mid-20th-century.

Known for his musicals — most notably The Cradle Will Rock in 1937 (you can hear Dawn Upshaw sing the lovely song “I Wish It So” from “Juno” in the YouTube video at the bottom) — his opera Regina and his translation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Blitzstein was an outspoken proponent of socially engaged art. Like many artists of his time, he joined the American Communist Party. But he also enthusiastically served in the U.S. Army during World War II (below, in 1943).

Nevertheless, in 1958, long after he had given up his Communist Party membership, Blitzstein (below) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he “named no names.”

An extremely gifted yet underappreciated composer, he was a close friend of and mentor to Leonard Bernstein (below right, with Blitzstein on the left) and traveled in a close circle of American composers including David Diamond and Aaron Copland.

Although openly gay, he married Eva Goldbeck in 1933. Sadly, she died three years later from complications due to anorexia.

Blitzstein’s own death was likewise tragic. In 1964, while in Martinique working on an opera about the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, he was robbed and badly beaten by three Portuguese sailors whom he had picked up at a bar. He died the next day of internal injuries. 

Although throughout his life and afterwards, Blitzstein’s work was championed by Bernstein and others, many claim that neither the composer nor his stunning music and beautiful lyrics ever received the attention they deserved. So University Opera is proud to present this show celebrating his life and his works.

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” is a unique production put together by David Ronis. A biographical pastiche, it tells the story of Blitzstein’s life by recontextualizing 23 songs and ensembles from his shows, juxtaposing them with spoken excerpts from his working notes and letters, and tying it all together with a narration.

The result is a dramatic, evocative and enjoyable portrait of Blitzstein’s life and his art, according to Ronis.

“We’ve discovered a lot of “silver linings” while working on this production,” says Ronis. “We were disappointed at not being able to do a normal staged show. But working with video has had tremendous artistic and educational value.

“Our students are learning on-camera technique, not to mention how to work with a green screen (below, with soprano Sarah Brailey), which allows for post-production editing and digital manipulation of backgrounds. They’re also working with spoken text as well as sung pieces. Mostly, we’re just very grateful to have a creative project to sink our teeth into during the pandemic. 

“And the music of Blitzstein is so fantastic, we’re very happy to be able to share it with our audience. This project is like none other I’ve ever done and we’re thinking that it’s going to be pretty cool.”

Research on the project was completed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Blitzstein’s archives are housed. University Opera gratefully acknowledges the help of both Mary Huelsbeck of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, and the Kurt Weill Foundation for their assistance with this project.

The cast features five UW-Madison graduate students: Sarah Brailey, Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Lindsey Meekhof (below) and Steffen Silvis.

The video design was done by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park.

Others on the production staff include Will Preston, rehearsal pianist; Elisheva Pront, research assistant and assistant director; Dylan Thoren, production stage manager; Alec Hansen, assistant stage manager; Teresa Sarkela, storyboard creator; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video will be accessible for 23 hours starting at 8 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 23. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted. A link for donations will be posted with the video. 

University Opera, a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, email opera@music.wisc.edu or visit music.wisc.edu.

 


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The Madison Bach Musicians will open its new season with a virtual online concert of Haydn and Mozart this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

October 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement, about a promising contrast-and-compare concert, from the Madison Bach Musicians:

The Madison Bach Musicians (MBM) will start its 17th season this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Oct. 3 and 4, with a virtual chamber music concert and livestream event featuring the irrepressibly joyous, witty and poised music of Classical-era masters Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

The performances features period instruments and historically informed performance practices.

See details near the bottom about the schedules and how to buy tickets.

Performers are violinist Kangwon Kim and cellist James Waldo (on gut-strung period instruments), fortepianist Trevor Stephenson, and soprano soloist Morgan Balfour — winner of the 2019 Handel Aria Competition. (Below top is Kangwon Kim; below middle is James Waldo; and below bottom is Morgan Balfour.)

The broadcast will begin with a 30-minute pre-concert lecture by MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer) illuminating the program’s repertoire, the lives of Haydn and Mozart, and the aesthetic aims of the period instruments.

While most of the pieces on the program are buoyant and full of celebration, the concert will begin with a pensive and melancholy work commensurate with our current pandemic times.

Mozart composed the Sonata in E minor for violin and fortepiano in 1778 at the age of 22 while on tour in Paris. His mother, who was with him on the tour, became suddenly ill and died unexpectedly. This sonata is the only piece of instrumental music Mozart ever composed in the key of E minor, and its blend of gravitas, sparseness and tenderness is heartbreakingly poignant.

Mozart’s Piano Trio in G major, composed in 1788, shows him at his sunniest and most affable, with one brilliant and catchy tune after another suspended effortlessly — at least in Mozart’s hands! ― within the balance of Classical form.

The program’s first half ends with five of Mozart’s songs. Mozart truly loved the soprano voice, and he lavished some of his greatest writing upon it. The set includes perhaps his best-known song, Das Veilchen (The Violet)―which is also, oddly enough, Mozart’s only setting of a text by the German poet Goethe.

The second half of the concert is devoted to the music of Mozart’s near contemporary, Joseph Haydn, who was just 24 years older than Mozart.

Though the two composers came from very different musical and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Haydn (below) was lower working class, rural, and musical but not professionally trained.

Mozart (below) was urban, solid middle class, musically trained, sophisticated, and ambitious.

Both managed to carve out successful careers in the fertile musical culture of Vienna and its environs. They certainly knew each other and even made music together on occasion, playing in string quartets — with Haydn on violin and Mozart on viola.

Haydn composed two sets of English Canzonettas (songs) during his visits to England during the early 1790s.

The Mermaid, with its flirtatious beckoning, stretches the confines of the parlor setting (where this music was most likely performed) and suggests a cabaret environment. Fidelity, on the other hand, stays within the parlor style, emphasizing how the bond of devotion can overcome physical separation. Haydn brilliantly interweaves stormy, naturalistic episodes with declarations of unbending loyalty.

The concert will close with Haydn’s mercurial Piano Trio No. 27 in C major. Also composed during his London visits in the 1790s, this trio is the first of a set of three dedicated to the London-based virtuoso pianist Therese Bartolozzi. The Presto finale―with its unbridled high spirits―is a supreme example of Classical Era cheeky, theatrically conceived wit. (You can hear the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

SCHEDULE AND TICKETS

As a result of public health guidelines in response to Covid-19 that do not allow for an in-person audience, we will livestream our concert from Grace Episcopal Church, downtown on Capitol Square, on Saturday evening for at-home viewing. (Below are Trevor Stephenson and Kangwon Kim rehearsing in masks at Stephenson’s home.)

The event will begin with a pre-concert talk by Trevor Stephenson at 7:30 p.m., and after the 8 p.m. concert, the musicians will remain on stage to answer questions submitted by our audience.

On Sunday, starting at 3 p.m. we will rebroadcast the Saturday evening recording and follow that with a live question-and-answer session with our musicians from their homes.

After purchasing tickets for $15 per household, you will be sent a link to access the performance. The recorded lecture and video will be available for up to 72 hours after they take place.

To purchase tickets, go to: https://madisonbachmusicians.org/oct-3-4-haydn-mozart/ or to: https://madison-bach-musicians.square.site/product/haydn-mozart-oct-3-4-livestream/54?cs=true

For information about the Madison Bach Musicians’ full season, go to: https://madisonbachmusicians.org/season-overview/

 


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Did Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony foster racism, exclusion and elitism in the concert hall? The Ear thinks that is PC nonsense. What do you think?

September 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Controversy has struck big among classical music critics and fans — just in time for the Beethoven Year that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this December. Plans call for celebrations by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and others. 

At question is what seems yet another fallout and dust-up from the Black Lives Matter movement and the current struggle to foster social justice and racial equality.

In some ways, it all seems inevitable.

Now the history-denying advocates of cancel culture are suggesting that Beethoven (below) and his music – especially the popular Fifth Symphony (you can hear the famous opening in the YouTube schematic video at the bottom)  –  fostered white privilege and the rise of racism, sexism and homophobia in the concert hall.

That seems like quite an accusation for a single composer and a single piece of music that was premiered in 1808.

The assertion is food for thought. But not much.

In the end The Ear finds it a stretch and a totally bogus argument. He thinks that Beethoven attracted far more performers and audiences than he repelled. Others, including famed critic Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc and a critic for the right-wing newspaper The New York Post, agree:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/09/beethovens-5th-is-a-symbol-of-exclusion-and-elitism/

https://nypost.com/2020/09/17/canceling-beethoven-is-the-latest-woke-madness-for-the-classical-music-world/

The Ear also thinks it is political correctness run amok, even for someone who, like himself, advocates strongly for diversity of composers, performers and audiences – but always with quality in mind — in the concert hall.

Just because Beethoven was such a great creative artist is hardly cause to blame him for the inability of other artists to succeed and for non-white audiences taking to classical music. Other forces — social, economic and political — explain that much better.

Yes, Beethoven is a towering and intimidating figure. And yes, his works often dominate programming. But both musicians and audiences return to him again and again because of the originality, power and first-rate quality of his many works.

Beethoven himself was deaf. That would certainly seem to qualify him as inclusive and a member of an important category of diversity.

No matter. The writers are happy to blame Ludwig and his work for exclusion and elitism. They argue that people of color, women and LGBTQ people have all felt alienated from classical music because of Beethoven’s legacy.

Of course, there is elitism in the arts. People may be equal, but creative talent is not.

And clearly, Beethoven was a towering and intimidating figure – more for the quality of his music than for the simple fact that it exists. Such exclusion and elitism have to do with other factors than the composition of the Fifth Symphony.

If The Ear recalls correctly, when he died Beethoven was given the largest state funeral up to that time for a non-royal, non-politician or non-military person.

And how do you explain that Beethoven’s music, so representative of Western culture, appeals deeply to and attracts so many Asians and Asian-Americans, and became both banned and symbolically central to those opposed to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China?

But these days being provocative can become its own reward.

You can read the analysis and decide about its merits for yourself, then let us know what you think in the Comment section.

Here is a link to the opinion piece in Vox Magazine, a free online journal: https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21437085/beethoven-5th-symphony-elitist-classism-switched-on-pop

What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?

Did you ever feel alienated from classical music because of Beethoven or know others who have?

What is your favorite Beethoven composition?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Today is Sept. 11, 2020. Here is music to mark the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks during the coronavirus pandemic. What would you choose?

September 11, 2020
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CORRECTION: The Virtual Gala fundraiser for the Handel Aria Competition started last night, and will end on Thursday, Oct. 1 – NOT on Oct. 11, as mistakenly stated in yesterday’s blog headline. Here is a link with more information: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/09/10/classical-music-the-worldwide-virtual-and-online-gala-fundraiser-for-the-handel-aria-competition-starts-today-and-runs-through-oct-10-donations-will-be-matched-up-to-2000/

By Jacob Stockinger

Today marks 19 years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

For the basic information, here is a Wikipedia summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_11_attacks

There are many ways to remember and honor the dead and the injured in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and Shanksvillle, Pennsylvania. And in past years, The Ear has offered many different ones.

There are the well-known requiems by Mozart, Brahms, Verdi and Faure; passions by Bach; and other works.

There are also the pieces especially composed for the commemoration, including “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning work by John Adams that incorporates police tapes and phone calls, and Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11.”

But this year there is the coronavirus to deal with and complicate the commemorations.

Here is a story from NBC News about how the official commemorations, both real and virtual, will be affected by the pandemic.

And somehow in such circumstances, it feels like back to basic is a good approach.

So here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is the most universal piece of mourning that The Ear knows: American composer Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as played by Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

It serves to mark 9/11 but perhaps also the more than 190,000 American deaths so far from the Covid-19 pandemic.

You can find other versions and other pieces on YouTube:

What piece would you want to hear to mark this sad and solemn occasion?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: What composer or piece of music would you like to hear once the coronavirus is contained and concert halls open again?

August 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The news can be confusing and even contradictory about some specifics, but the general direction of reports and statistics about the coronavirus pandemic and deaths from COVID-19 is clear.

It is going to be a long haul until we safely get to go hear live music in large crowds again, just as The Ear talked about earlier this week. (Below is a photo of conductor John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Overture Hall.)

Here is a link to that post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/08/11/classical-music-its-clear-to-the-ear-it-will-be-at-least-another-full-year-before-music-lovers-in-the-u-s-can-safely-attend-live-concerts-what-do-you-think/

When performers finally get to play, and the concert halls finally get to open, and audiences finally get to listen in person, here is what The Ear wants to know:

What composer would you like hear?

Maybe Beethoven (below) because so much of the Beethoven Year – marking the composer’s 250th birthday this coming December – has been canceled or postponed?

Maybe Johann Sebastian Bach (below) because he just seems so basic, varied and universal?

And what specific piece of music would you like to hear?

Perhaps Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” with its “Ode to Joy”? Or maybe the “Eroica” Symphony? Or one of the string quartets?

Perhaps the “St. Mathew Passion” or the Mass in B Minor? Maybe one or more of the cantatas?

Should the music pay homage to the suffering, loss and death – perhaps with Mozart’s “Requiem”? Or Brahms’ “A German Requiem”? Or Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony?

Or should the music be upbeat and joyous, like Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture” (below in the YouTube video)? Or some glittering and whirling waltzes by the Strauss family?

Is there an opera that seems especially relevant?

Would you prefer instrumental, choral or vocal music?

And what period, era or style would you prefer?

It will be great to be reacquainted with old and familiar friends. But it would also seem an ideal time to commission and perform new music.

Leave your suggestions in the Comment section with, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance to help us decide.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: It’s clear to The Ear: It will be at least another full year before audiences in the U.S. can safely attend live concerts. What do you think?

August 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

All the signs point to the same conclusion: It will be at least the fall of 2021 before we can safely attend concerts again – if we are lucky.

These past two weeks, The Ear answered questionnaires sent out by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), which has already canceled the season through January, and the Wisconsin Union Theater (below bottom is Shannon Hall).

If you read between the lines, both questionnaires seemed to suggest the same two things: that the entire 2020-21 concert season will be canceled or postponed; or else that it will feature virtual online performances — for ticket prices (perhaps called a “donation”) that have not yet been announced and may not be acceptable to a lot of any group’s core audience.

Perhaps you disagree. If so, The Ear would like to hear in the comment section what you think and why you think it.

Here is what The Ear, who has talked with other season subscribers and various musicians, has seen and heard.

The United States has now surpassed 5 million coronavirus infections and 163,000 Covid-19 deaths with no sign of slowing down and many signs of accelerating. One widely cited model now predicts 300,000 deaths by this Dec. 1.

Plus, too many Americans refuse to wear masks or to maintain social distancing or to shelter at home to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Add in that we will be fortunate if enough vaccines are found to be safe, efficient and approved for use by Jan 1.

Then – despite federal government’s “Warp Speed” development or fast-tracking of the search for vaccines — there is the time needed to manufacture enough of them.

Then it will take considerable time to distribute them equitably, which other countries and public health agencies around the world demand.

Then, if we hope to reach herd immunity, it will take time to convince enough people to get the vaccine, especially with the growing number of anti-vaxxers.

Then those who do get vaccinated will have to wait a month for the second shot that will be required.

Then we wait a few weeks to see if and how much the vaccine really works – if it is safe and prevents infection or at least lessens the damage of the disease if you do get infected.

Plus, it sees unreasonable to think all of these steps will go without a hitch. So maybe a few more weeks or even months should be added.

Add up the math, and the conclusion seems clear: Performing arts events, like sports and other large in-person gatherings, seem increasingly likely to be canceled or reconfigured for a full year.

Concerts are already taking place in China, and other countries in Asia and Europe seem likely to catch up soon. But music lovers in the U.S. will be lucky if they get to attend a live concert with 100 or 500 or 1,000 or 2,500 other people before the fall of 2021 – at least a full year away. Maybe more.

The Ear could well be wrong. Maybe you see a different conclusion, which we would all love to hear. Perhaps international readers will share estimates about when concerts will begin in their country.

One way or another, we will learn a lot more about how the new music season is being planned and changed in the next three weeks.


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

August 9, 2020
2 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

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: Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is an eloquent and timely testament to Black victims of racism. It deserves to be performed in Madison and elsewhere

July 6, 2020
2 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

A reader recently wrote in and suggested that fellow blog fans should listen to “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by the Atlanta-based American composer Joel Thompson (below).

So The Ear did just that.

He was both impressed and moved by the prescient piece of choral and orchestral music. It proved both powerful and beautiful.

The title alludes to the Bible’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but also to the musical setting of it that was composed by Franz Joseph Hadyn in the 18th century. But it stands on its own as a much needed and very accomplished updating, especially with the “last word” or phrase “I can’t breathe.”

It is hard to believe the work was written five years ago, and not last week or last month. But it couldn’t be more relevant to today.

It shows how deeply artists have been engaging with the social and political issues of the day, particularly the role of personal and structural racism in national life, and the plight of young Black men and women who face discrimination, brutality and even death at the hands of the police and a bigoted public.

The work was premiered by the Men’s Glee Club at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2015. This performance comes from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The SSO and featured guest University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Men’s Glee Club, led by conductor Eugene Rogers  (below) – who directs choral music and teaches conducting at the UM — premiered a 2017 commissioned fully orchestrated version of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” You can hear it in the YouTube video below.

It is an eminently listenable and accessible, multi-movement work honoring the lives, deaths and personal experiences of seven Black men.

The seven last words used in the work’s text are: “Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66; “What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16; “Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23; “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18; “You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22; “It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22; “I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43.

The Ear thinks that once live concerts begin again after the coronavirus pandemic is contained, it should be programmed locally. It could and should be done by, among others, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choir; or the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choral Union; or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Festival Choir of Madison; or the Wisconsin Chamber Choir.

They have all posted messages about standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the protesters against racism. But will words lead to commitment and action?

It will be interesting to see who responds first. In addition to being timely, such a performance certainly seems like a good way to draw in young people and to attract Black listeners and other minorities to classical music.

Here is a link if you also want to check out the almost 200 very pertinent comments about the work, the performance, the performers and of course the social and political circumstances that gave rise to the work — and continue to do so with the local, regional, national and international mass protests and demonstrations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNXoqNuLRQ&app=desktop

And here is the performance itself:

What do you think of the work?

How did you react to it?

Would you like to see and hear it performed live where you are?

The Ear wants to hear.


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