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: Acclaimed local soprano Sarah Brailey explains why performing artists and presenters need help during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Sarah Brailey (below) is worried.

And with good reason.

Chances are good that you have seen the local soprano or heard her sing.

She is the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition, which she herself won in 2015. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Brailey sing the aria “Will the Sun Forget to Streak” from Handel’s oratorio “Solomon,”  with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra under conductor Julian Wachner, in the St. Paul Chapel in New York City.)

Brailey is a co-founder of and participant in the monthly free Just Bach concerts here. In addition, while pursuing graduate studies at the UW-Madison, she is a concert artist with a budding international career. For more about her, including a rave review from The New York Times and sample videos, go to: https://sarahbrailey.com

But right now the Wisconsin native is especially concerned about the lasting impact that the Coronavirus pandemic will have on her own career as well as on the careers of others like her and on the well-being of arts presenters.

Brailey (below, in photo by Miranda Loud) sent The Ear the following essay:

By Sarah Brailey

This is a scary time for everyone, but particularly for anyone who works as an independent contractor.

I am a freelance classical soprano based in Madison. I maintain a very active performing career, traveling all over the globe, and I am also a doctoral student at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

When COVID-19 hit the United States, presenting organizations on the east and west coasts started canceling concerts to comply with social distancing recommendations.

I initially thought I was lucky to be living in the middle of the country where our lesser population density might save us. Plus, I am a Teaching Assistant at the UW right now, so I will still be getting my stipend — although teaching virtual voice lessons will be its own special challenge!

But many of my colleagues are not so lucky and are facing bankruptcy. If the government doesn’t include independent contractors in its relief packages, a lot of people are going to be insolvent.

And I myself am not immune. As the seriousness of the situation became clear, all my concerts in the next two months soon disappeared one by one.

While not being able to perform is emotionally devastating, these cancellations are also financially devastating.

There exists a clause in every standard performance contract called “force majeure” (superior force), which is idiomatically referred to as, “an act of God.” This clause excuses a party from not honoring its contractual obligations that becomes impossible or impracticable, due to an event or effect that the parties could not have anticipated or controlled.

This can come in handy for a presenter if there is, say, a blizzard that necessitates the cancellation of a concert. (This happened to me a few seasons ago with the Boston Symphony.) If the presenter will not make any money on ticket sales, they are not then further injured by having to pay the musicians for the canceled concert. (Below, Brailey sings Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with the Colorado Symphony.)

The ramifications of this pandemic are unprecedented. Every freelance musician I know is suddenly out of work. The current conventions put all of the upfront financial burden on the artists. We are paid in one lump sum at the end of a project. We do not get a fee for the countless hours of preparation.

We often book travel and lodging on our own dime, and are not reimbursed until the end of the gig. We pay for our own health insurance, and we cannot file for unemployment because our work is paid via IRS Form 1099 and not W2s. The abrupt work stoppage caused by this pandemic means insolvency – or even bankruptcy — for many artists. (Below, Brailey sings Handel’s “Messiah” at the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City.)

Many institutions — and, unfortunately, many of the bigger players like The Metropolitan Opera — are invoking force majeure without much regard for how their artists are struggling.

My colleague, tenor Zach Finkelstein, is covering this in great detail on his blog The Middle Class Artist, as is Alex Ross, the prize-winning music critic for The New Yorker. Read his piece on force majeure here.

However, there are also thankfully some good stories to tell. The Bach Society of Minnesota reimbursed all my travel expenses and is paying 75 percent of my fee, as is the Lyra Baroque Orchestra.

I am helping Zach keep track of the organizations that are helping their artists in this time of need. (Read about them here. Madison Opera is on the list.)

The arts are not just cultural enrichment; they are an essential part of our economy. In 2017, the industry contributed $877.8 billion, or 4.5 percent, to U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employed over 5 million workers. We cannot afford to let this industry disappear. I fear that many individual artists and arts organizations will not recover from this. (Below, Brailey sings Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Magnificat” at the Bucknell Bach Festival.)

While we wait out this storm, I implore you to donate to a Madison arts organization. Here is a short list of recommendations along with some national relief funds for artists.

Local Arts Organizations

Madison Bach Musicians

Handel Aria Competition

Madison Early Music Festival

Madison Opera

Madison Youth Choirs

List of National Relief Funds


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Classical music: Tuesday night brings concerts of band music as well as organ and violin duets

October 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Tuesday night, Oct. 22, will see concerts of band music and organ-violin duets.

Here are details:

ORGAN AND VIOLIN CONCERT

At 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Overture Concert Organ Series, sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and organized by MSO principal organist Greg Zelek, offers a concert of music for organ and violin.

The organist is Michael Hey (below right), a Wisconsin native who won first prize at an organ competition in Shanghai, China, and is the organist at the famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

The violinist is Christiana Liberis (below left) who recently toured with the rock band The Eagles.

Tickets are $20.

The program includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Sir Edward Elgar, Maurice Ravel, Charles-Marie Widor, Giovanni Battista Vitali, Naji Hakim and Fritz Kreisler.

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the duo perform a haunting version of the popular “Gymnopedie No. 1” by Erik Satie

For information, including specific works on the program and detailed biographies about the performers, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/organ-michael-hey-christiana-liberis/

UW-MADISON CONCERT BAND

At 7:30 p.m. in the new Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the  Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue, the UW-Madison Concert Band (below) will perform a FREE concert.

The band will perform under director Scott Teeple (below) and guest conductor Ross Wolf.

The program includes:

“Lux Arumque” by Eric Whitacre
“Firefly” by Ryan George
“Colonial Song” by Percy Grainger/ed. Mark Rogers
“Huntington Tower Ballad” by Ottorino Respighi
“George Washington Bridge” by William Schuman

For information, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-and-winds-of-wisconsin/


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Classical music: The legendary St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig will perform Reformation music at Luther Memorial Church this Sunday night

November 14, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Luther Memorial Church will host the historic and legendary St. Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor) of Leipzig, Germany.

The famed boychoir will perform this coming Sunday night at 7 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave.

The program will present music of Johann Sebastian Bach (the motets “Fürchte dich nicht,” “Komm, Jesu, komm” and “Der Geist hilft”) and unspecified choral music of Heinrich Schütz, Johann Schein and Felix Mendelssohn.

Tickets are available at www.luthermem.org/st-thomas at $20, $30 and $50. Student rush tickets will be available day of concert.

The St. Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor) of Leipzig, Germany, was founded in 1212. Johann Sebastian Bach (below) served as Thomaskantor, director of the choir, from 1723 to 1750. (For more background about the group, its pedigree and the music of Bach, see the YouTube video at the bottom.)


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