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: This Saturday night brings both the Escher String Quartet to the Wisconsin Union Theater and the UW-Madison Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra to the Hamel Music Center

January 22, 2020
1 Comment

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CORRECTION: The Ear received the following correction to the story he posted yesterday about the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and apologizes for the error:

 “There was a change to our rollout in Brookfield. We are only repeating the fifth Masterworks concert on Saturday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m. at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. We are NOT repeating this Friday’s concert in Brookfield.

“We will perform a Family Series concert of “Beethoven Lives Next Door” on Sunday, March 29, at 3 p.m. at the same Brookfield venue.”

By Jacob Stockinger

The upcoming weekend is a busy one for classical music.

The busiest night is Saturday night when two major concerts will take place: a performance by the Escher String Quartet and the postponed concert by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra with soloists.

Here are details:

ESCHER STRING QUARTET and DAVID FINCKEL

The concert by the Escher String Quartet (below) with cellist David Finckel (below bottom. formerly of the critically acclaimed Emerson String Quartet) takes place on this Saturday night, Jan. 25, at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater.


The performance is part of the special season celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Concert Series.

The program includes the sublime Quintet in C Major, D. 956, with two cellos, by Franz Schubert and the String Quartet in A minor by the great early 20th-century Viennese violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler (below).

Tickets are $30-$50. For more information and to reserve tickets, go to: https://artsticketing.wisc.edu/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=CFC3765F-5F1D-4663-BCA0-985BE3049CF5

For more information about the Escher String Quartet, including a video performance and detailed background, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/escher-string-quartet-with-david-finckel/

UW CHORAL UNION

Also on this Saturday night at 8 p.m., in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center at 740 University Avenue, the UW Choral Union  and UW Symphony Orchestra (below top), along with two vocal soloists – soprano Chelsie Propst (below middle) and baritone James Harrington (below bottom) — will perform a concert originally scheduled for Dec. 7 and then postponed.

The program, without intermission, is one 80-minute work: the epic and influential “A Sea Symphony” by the great 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (below).

General admission tickets are $18 for the general public and faculty or staff; and $10 for UW students. To reserve tickets, go to Campus Arts Ticketing at: https://artsticketing.wisc.edu/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=412623A4-4FB9-40D6-BC23-A425360713EA

Beverly Taylor (below), the longtime director of choral activities at the UW who will retire this spring, sent the following note:

“The text by American poet Walt Whitman presents four symphonic scenes of great breadth and imagination, with lush harmonies and constantly varying tempos and dynamics.” (You can hear the Waves section, or third movement, from “A Sea Symphony” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

 


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Classical music: Is a local Dvorak revival in the making? This Friday night, Christopher Taylor joins the Willy Street Chamber Players to perform the famed Piano Quintet

July 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is a major local revival of music by Antonin Dvorak (below) in the making?

Many signs point to: Yes!

At the end of the past season, maestro John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which has also performed the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” announced that he was on board as a fan when he told the audiences about the upcoming season, which features the MSO performing Dvorak’s dramatic Symphony No. 7 in D Minor and the large-scale Requiem.

In recent seasons, we have also seen the Madison Opera stage the opera “Rusalka”; the Middleton Community Orchestra perform the Symphony No. 6; the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet and the Ancora String Quartet perform the miniatures “Cypresses”; the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra play some “Slavonic Dances”; and more.

What’s not to like about Dvorak? He was one of music’s greatest melodists, something that Johannes Brahms envied and a reason why Brahms helped promote his music. And his use of folk music – Czech, Native American and African-American – is captivating as well as multicultural.

Here is a link to more about Dvorak in his Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton%C3%ADn_Dvořák

As audience responses prove, there is so much Dvorak to be fond of.

But one of the greatest works will be performed this Friday night, July 26, at 6 p.m. in the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street.

That is when the Willy Street Chamber Players, in the final concert of their fifth summer series, will perform the famed Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 (1887). (You can hear the engaging opening movement, played by pianist Evgeny Kissin and the Emerson String Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Willys will team up with the acclaimed UW-Madison virtuoso pianist and Van Cliburn Competition bronze medalist Christopher Taylor, who is a gifted chamber musician as well as a superb soloist.

Filling out the program are Three Nocturnes (1924) by Ernest Bloch and “Voodoo Dolls” (2008) by Jessie Montgomery.

Admission is $15 with a reception afterwards.

Dvorak, who has never fallen out of favor but who seems to have sparked a new enthusiasm, composed a lot.

In addition to the nine symphonies, the string serenade and the piano quintet, there is a lot of chamber music, including string quartets, piano trios, piano quartets; concertos for the violin, cello and piano; and many miniatures, including the lovely “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” There is also some solo piano music that has largely been neglected.

Do you love Dvorak’s music?

What about it do you especially like?

Do you have a favorite Dvorak work?

Let us know what it is, with a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Personal experience, artistic excellence and historical importance drew pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel into planning next year’s centennial season at the Wisconsin Union Theater

March 30, 2019
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Now that Spring Break is over and subscription tickets are available for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s special centennial celebration next season – which includes superstar soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Emanuel Ax — here is an email interview that pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), the wife-and-husband consultants and planners of that season, granted to The Ear.

For more about the season and tickets, go to two websites:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/03/04/classical-music-superstar-soprano-renee-fleming-and-pianist-emanuel-ax-headline-the-100th-anniversary-of-the-wisconsin-union-theaters-concert-series-next-season/

https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/seasonevents/concert-series/

Could you briefly introduce yourselves to readers and tell them both your past and current activities?

We have been performing on the world’s many concert stages for almost our entire lives. In addition to our careers as concert performers, we serve as the founding Artistic Directors of Music@Menlo, the premier chamber music festival in Silicon Valley, as well as the Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) in New York City.

Our main responsibility as concert performers is to give the best concerts we possibly can, and we are constantly striving to achieve the highest possible level of artistry in our performances.

In our roles as artistic directors, our responsibilities lie in the programming, casting and designing of concert series and chamber music projects for our organizations. At CMS, this includes designing the programming for our seven different satellite series around the country, plus international partnerships in Taiwan, Korea and Europe.

We are also involved in chamber music programming endeavors beyond Music@Menlo and CMS, having just completed a first-ever chamber music residency at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida. Furthermore, Wu Han is serving as Artistic Advisor to Wolf Trap Chamber Music at the Barns, which entails thematically programming eight concerts per season for the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons.

As artistic directors, we spend much of our time putting ourselves in the shoes of our listeners, measuring their experience and receptivity to chamber music of all periods and styles, and putting together the best programs and artists who will move our audiences forward into ever-increasing engagement with and love of the art.

David was the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet for 34 seasons, and we have been performing together as a duo for about 35 years, and continue to do so as one of our main performance activities.

What are your personal relationships to the Wisconsin Union Theater, and what do you think of it as a concert venue?

Our engagement with the Wisconsin Union Theater goes back quite a few years, but certainly not even close to the beginning of the Theater’s distinguished history. For any performer setting foot on its stage, there’s a sense of slipping into an ongoing tradition of artistic excellence that makes us feel both privileged and obligated to do our best.

The Wisconsin Union Theater and its story in American cultural life is larger than any of us; only the music we play rises above and beyond it all, and as performers, our lucky moment is to represent that incredible literature in a venue as significant and storied as the Wisconsin Union Theater. (Below is the theater’s main venue, the renovated and restored Shannon Hall.)

Why did you agree to be artistic advisors and artists-in-residence for the centennial season? Did your personal experiences in Madison play a role in that decision?

As seasoned artists, we deeply admire and respect the very special place in the classical music tradition and history that the Wisconsin Union Theater (below) inhabits, and the invitation to participate in the Theater’s 100th anniversary was an honor for us to receive. Our experiences playing on this distinguished stage and forming a relationship with the local audience have made our pursuit of the common goal of artistic excellence in the centennial season incredibly fulfilling.

Of course, having performed there in the past gave us a hint of confidence through our familiarity with the place, but we must say we have learned perhaps double what we knew originally through this planning process. Without interfering, but at the same time sharing our uncompromised commitment to artistic excellence, we hope that our presence during the process has been useful, and we know that we look so much forward to seeing the careful thought and hard work of all involved come to fruition.

Is there a unifying or guiding principle to the season you have put together?

The guiding principle behind our work on this historic season is artistic excellence, which in our opinion is what most inspires audiences and best serves the art form of classical music.

Our area of expertise is chamber music, and, as we wanted to share the best of what we can do with the Theater, our focus has been on ensuring that the chamber music offerings during this historic season, and hopefully beyond, reflect the best of the world of chamber music.

In our suggestions, we looked for variety of instrumentations, of composers and periods—in other words, giving as much of an overview of the art as we could within a season.

What would you like the public to know about the Wisconsin Union Theater and the upcoming centennial season?

In the Theater’s centennial season, the audience will have the opportunity to savor a variety of different genres of chamber music, from solo piano to vocal music, as well as a sampling of the very best works of the chamber music canon. Between these various genres, the great composers left a wealth of chamber music that could sustain the art form on its own, but that’s still only the tip of the iceberg.

Our chamber music offerings will include the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, which has a long history of performing for the Madison audience. Their December program will include celebrated cornerstones of the piano trio repertoire, including Mendelssohn’s D minor Trio and Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio. (You can hear the opening of the Archduke Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Both pieces have achieved monumental historical significance through their influence in propelling the art form forward from the Classical period to the Romantic period.

The Escher String Quartet performance in January represents the best of the next generation of young string quartets. Their program includes a quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn—the father of the string quartet genre—and the sole quartet of none other than revered violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, who performed in the Wisconsin Union Theater nearly a century ago. Kreisler set foot on the Theater’s stage numerous times, and his rarely heard string quartet nods to the Theater’s long, distinguished history. David will join the Escher Quartet for the beloved Schubert Cello Quintet, which is the “desert island” must-have piece for many music lovers.

Furthermore, in March, we will bring two of the most fantastic musicians in the world to join us for a program of Antonin Dvorak, Josef Suk and Johannes Brahms. This multigenerational cast of musicians includes the incredible young French violinist Arnaud Sussmann (below top, in a photo by Matt Dine) as well as the most important violist of our generation, Paul Neubauer (below bottom). This program is all about the passing down of the baton and the continuous investment in the next generations of artists: Brahms was the one who discovered Dvorak, and Dvorak in turn discovered Suk.


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Classical music: Here is what happened when the late American writer Philip Roth heard fugues by Bach and Beethoven. What do you think of his reactions?

May 31, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The late, great and award-winning American novelist Philip Roth (below) – who died of congestive heart failure in a Manhattan hospital on May 22 at age 85 – spent the last half-dozen years of his life retired and not writing.

Instead he liked to visit friends and attend concerts.

Roth was an avid fan of classical music.

So the following story about a chamber music concert by the Emerson String Quartet (below) – one of his favorite chamber music ensembles — of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Dmitri Shostakovich is especially amusing and perhaps telling to read.

What seems especially Rothian are his different reactions to fugues by Bach (below top is an unfinished manuscript page from Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”) and by Beethoven (below bottom is a manuscript page from the “Grosse Fuge”).

Here is a link to the story as recounted on the blog by the famous New York City classical music radio station WQXR-FM — and be sure to read the comments by other readers:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/what-roth-thought-bach

You can hear the Emerson Quartet playing the opening fugal theme that Bach chose to permute for almost 90 minutes, followed by Fugue No. 9, in the YouTube videos at the bottom.

What do you think of Roth’s reactions and comments to fugues by Bach and Beethoven?

Do you agree or disagree with him?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: A new blog about the future of classical music has been launched in Madison by Lydia Sewell. It is called “A View From the Stage” and features interviews with prominent musicians

March 24, 2018
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

As the classical music industry continues to shift and adapt to changing cultural patterns, many performers, administrators, educators, journalists, and music enthusiasts are tracking these changes and exploring best practices to keep the institution alive.

In December 2017, Madison native Lydia Sewell (below) – an accomplished  violinist and daughter of Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra artistic director Andrew Sewell — launched a blog that seeks to address those issues in a comprehensive, timely fashion.

“A View From the Stage” features the voices of world-renowned classical musicians, educators and arts administrators and their thoughts on the future of classical music and symphony orchestras.

The blog arose out of Sewell’s research on the strike by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2016.

Says Sewell: “As a graduate student at Duquesne University prepping for auditions, I was trying to answer the question, ‘If orchestras like the PSO are struggling to survive, what does that mean for regional orchestras who don’t have the donor bases that the majors rely on?”

“A View from the Stage” currently features interviews with musicians including Noah Bendix-Balgely, concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic; Scott Pingel, principal bass of the San Francisco Symphony; David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra who performed this fall at the UW-Madison; and Eric Nowlin, principal viola of the Detroit Symphony, as well as administrators including Paul Hogle, Dean of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and critic and composer Gregory Sandow.

With more than 30 interviews to roll out in the coming months, Sewell plans to continue interviewing classical thinkers and document their perspectives in “A View From the Stage,” in hopes to initiate further conversations surrounding 21st-century musicianship, concert reinvention and the sustainability of symphony orchestras.

Here are links to featured interviews, with photos below the link:

Noah Bendix-Balgely: https://www.lydiasewell.com/aviewfromthestage/2017/8/4/noah-bendix-balgely

Scott Pingel: https://www.lydiasewell.com/aviewfromthestage/2017/8/4/scott-pingel

David Kim (photo by Ryan Donnell): https://www.lydiasewell.com/aviewfromthestage/2017/10/26/david-kim

Eric Nowlin:

https://www.lydiasewell.com/aviewfromthestage/2017/8/9/eric-nowlin-principal-violist-of-the-detroit-symphony

Paul Hogle:

https://www.lydiasewell.com/aviewfromthestage/2017/10/27/paul-hogle

Gregory Sandow: https://www.lydiasewell.com/aviewfromthestage/2017/8/21/gregory-sandow

Mike Block:

 https://www.lydiasewell.com/aviewfromthestage/2017/8/4/mike-block

Upcoming interviews include:

Steve Hackman (conductor, composer, arranger)

Rachel Barton Pine (violin soloist)

Tracy Silverman (electric violin soloist)

Kate Sheeran (Dean, Provost of San Francisco Conservatory)

Philip Setzer (Emerson String Quartet)

Aaron Dworkin (Founder of Sphinx, Detroit)

Stanford Thompson (Founder Play on Philly!)


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