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: Here are many more FREE online and streamed concerts to follow and listen to as you quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic

April 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

During the COVID-19 public health crisis and coronavirus pandemic, live streaming of concerts has taken off. It started with daily broadcasts of past productions by the Metropolitan Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Local organizations have followed suit. They include the Madison Symphony Orchestra; the “couchertos” of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; the twice weekly “tiny desk concerts” by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society sent to email newsletter subscribers and other recorded audiovisual performances; and local recordings made by Rich Samuels and aired on WORT-FM 89.9.

Here is a compilation, from the British radio station Classic FM with many other FREE listings that also get updated: https://www.classicfm.com/music-news/live-streamed-classical-music-concerts-coronavirus/

Here is another listing of FREE live streams and archived performances from Minnesota Public Radio (MPR): https://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2020/03/16/free-online-classical-concerts

And below are several more that The Ear has checked out and recommends:

CARNEGIE HALL LIVE

Carnegie Hall (below), America’s premier concert venue, has started a series of live streams that include world music, jazz and of course classical music.

The format includes conversation and remarks from homes as well as first-rate live performances from the past. (You can also hear many of the concerts on radio station WQXR in New York City: https://www.wqxr.org)

This past week, The Ear heard an outstanding concert with three pianists, all of whom appeared in Madison last season: Emanuel Ax, who performed an all-Beethoven recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, played the piano and acted as host; Orion Weiss, who performed a Mozart concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; and Shai Wosner, who gave a terrific master class and a memorable recital on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos. If you missed it, it is still archived and accessible.

On this Thursday, April 30, at 1 p.m. CDT you can hear violinist Joshua Bell with pianist Jeremy Denk and cellist Steven Isserlis.

Here is a link: https://www.carnegiehall.org/Explore/Watch-and-Listen/Live-with-Carnegie-Hall?sourceCode=31887&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIsYigzumB6QIVjIbACh061Qz2EAAYASABEgJE3fD_BwE

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON

Deutsche Grammophon, the world oldest record label, which was established in 1898, has several online series of live streams and archived concerts.

They include “Moment Musical” (Musical Moment) by Daniel Barenboim and guest artists, broadcast from the Pierre Boulez Saal (concert hall) in Berlin.

Barenboim, who started as a child prodigy pianist and ended up being a world-class conductor who once headed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has done solo piano and chamber music concerts with the Piano Quintet and two solo pieces by Robert Schumann; the epic Diabelli Variations by Beethoven; and an all-Chopin program of encores. You can also find individual ones on YouTube.

Along more promotional lines, DG also offers a “Best of” series that features movements and excerpts from their newer recordings by some of the best known artists – including pianists Lang Lang, Danill Trifonov, Yuja Wang, Vikingur Olafsson, Jan Lisiecki and Seong-Jin Cho; conductors Gustavo Dudamel, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Andris Nelsons; opera singers Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca.

Here is a link to DG’s homepage from where you can get to the various series: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC34DbNyD_0t8tnOc5V38Big

MILWAUKEE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Closer to home, every Friday you can listen to weekly concerts by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra called “Musical Journeys.”

Performers include the MSO’s new music director Ken-David Masur as well as guest conductors like Jeffrey Kahane and the past conductor Edo de Waart.

You can hear the past five episodes, and join new ones. You can also hear past concerts by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (below) on Wisconsin Public Radio. Broadcast time is Sunday at 2 p.m.

Here is a link to Musical Journeys: https://www.mso.org/about/music/mso-musical-journeys-5/

VIOLINIST DANIEL HOPE AT HOME

British violinist Daniel Hope – who has performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra — has been streaming chamber music concerts from the living room of his home in Berlin.

A prolific concert artist and 25 recordings and four Grammy Award nominations to his credit, Hope (below) has many invited guests and offers a wide range of repertoire.

Here is a link with past episodes. You can also click in upcoming episodes: https://www.arte.tv/en/videos/RC-019356/hope-home/

Are there other sites and streamed performances that you recommend?

Please leave the name and a link in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Today is World Piano Day. Why do you love the piano? Do you have a favorite piano piece? A favorite pianist? Something to say about taking piano lessons? Want to thank your piano teacher? The Ear wants to hear

March 28, 2020
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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

Today – Saturday, March 28, 2020 – is World Piano Day.

The international celebration is fitting because today happens to be Day 88 of the year – a timely parallel to the fact that most pianos have 88 keys.

Here is a link to the official website with a list of international events and other links to playlists of piano music on SoundCloud and Spotify: https://www.pianoday.org

Here is a link to the virtual live streaming piano festival — starting at 3 p.m. Central European Time (CET), which is 6 hours ahead of Central Daylight Time or at 9 a.m. CDT) — by the record label  Deutsche Grammophon: https://www.udiscovermusic.com/classical-news/deutsche-grammophon-world-piano-day-livestream/


A lot of us took piano lessons.

So today seems like a good occasion to say something about the role of the piano in your life.

Why do you love the piano? The sound? The physical act of playing? The vast repertoire?

Maybe you want to mention a specific piano piece that made a difference in your life, as the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39, by Chopin did for The Ear. (You can hear Arthur Rubinstein play it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Maybe you have a favorite piano piece or piano composer you like to listen to?

Maybe you wished you had stopped lessons earlier or continued them longer?

Would you like to say thank you to your piano teacher?

Maybe you have memories – good or bad — of a recital you gave?

Who is your favorite pianist from the past – maybe Van Cliburn or Vladimir Horowitz (below), Sviatoslav Richter or Dame Myra Hess?

Which pianist today would you recommend to others? Daniil Trifonov or Haochen Zhang, Simone Dinnerstein (below) or Maria Joao Pires?

Those suggestions hardly exhaust the possibilities. So be creative and leave a Comment with a YouTube link, if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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