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: TONIGHT one longtime, generous classical music patron honors another with a FREE public, all-Schubert memorial concert at Oakwood Village West

October 19, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as a well-deserved, heart-felt homage that one longtime and generous patron of classical music is paying to another patron who also happened to be a close personal friend and a professional colleague.

The public is invited to join in the one-hour, FREE all-Schubert memorial concert at Oakwood Village West (University Woods), at 6205 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall, at 7 p.m. TONIGHT, Oct. 19.

Here is an invitation from retired University of Wisconsin-Madison chemist Kato Perlman (below) about the concert she is sponsoring and funding in memory of her close friends:

“Join flutist Iva Ugrcic (below top) and pianist Thomas J. Kasdorf (below middle) for a FREE All-Schubert Evening and enjoy the music from one of the greatest composers of the 19th century, Franz Schubert (1797-1828, below bottom).

“This concert is in memory of the late Irving and Millie Shain. Irv Shain (below) was a chemistry professor and then a long-serving Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, and a great supporter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

“He played the flute himself and these Schubert pieces belonged to some of his favorites for the flute.

“He also established, in addition to his long-running annual Beethoven piano sonata competition, a woodwind and piano competition. Both Iva Ugrcic and Thomas Kasdorf are previous winners.”

The program is:

Sonata in A Minor, D. 821 (“Arpeggione”)

Introduction and Variations on “Trockne Blumen” (Withered Flowers) from “Die Schöne Müllerin” (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter), D. 802 (Op. 160)

Ständchen (“Serenade”) from Schubert’s final song cycle Schwanengesang (Swan Song), D. 957 (heard in the YouTube video below)


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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS: Three piano pieces by the forgotten American composer William Mason that are worth rediscovering

July 12, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

As often happens, The Ear was listening to Wisconsin Public Radio and yesterday afternoon he made a discovery during The Midday program with Norman Gilliland.

It was piano piece called “Amourette” by the American 19th-century composer William Mason (below). Unfortunately, you won’t find that piece on YouTube. But here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, are three other fine works, probably from the same Naxos CD, that are also noteworthy discoveries of a forgotten, if minor, composer who had a knack for pleasing and melodic salon music.

Here are a brief biography and an introduction from YouTube and Wikipedia:

William Mason (below, 1829-1908) was an American pianist, composer and teacher. He was from a musical family, son of the famous and prolific hymn composer Lowell Mason, and brother of Henry Mason, co-founder of Mason and Hamlin pianos.

William studied in Europe and was the first American student of Franz Liszt. In his music, you can hear reflected some of the major piano composers of the 19th century.

Here is a link to his entry in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Mason_(composer)

Although these William Mason pieces are largely forgotten now, his work is wonderfully melodic and certainly deserves to be heard more often.

These three pieces are from the Naxos CD “William Mason” (No. 8.559142) The CD contains 14 other Mason compositions – including his best known “Silver Spring.” (The CD is part of the American Classics Collection.)

For those tired of hearing the same classical music on the radio or the concert hall – the Naxos collection provides a wide spectrum of superb but rarely heard music.

The pianist on this album is Kenneth Boulton. On the third piece, “Badinage,” which is for piano four-hands, Kenneth Boulton is joined by his wife and pianist JoAnne Barry.

Track Listings: 0:00 “Improvisation”; 4:30 “Lullaby”; 7:35 “Badinage”

Do you like Mason’s music?

Let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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