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: Guest pianist Leon Fleisher and the Pro Arte Quartet will give a FREE performance of the Piano Quintet by Brahms at noon on Oct. 6.

September 7, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

You heard it here first.

Here is a date to save  and then spread the word:

The Ear hears that famed pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher (below top in a photo by Chris Hartlove) will perform a FREE concert with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below bottom in a photo by Rick Langer) at noon on Thursday, Oct. 6, in Mills Hall.

Intl_Piano_LF1120.pdf

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

The program features a dramatic and lyrical masterpiece, the Piano Quintet in F Minor by Johannes Brahms. (You can hear Leon Fleisher perform the third movement, the lively Scherzo with a lovely Trio, of the Brahms Piano Quintet with the Emerson String Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

More details are forthcoming.

The Ear has been told that Fleisher, 88 and retired from the Peabody Institute of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the Pro Arte are doing this as a gesture of thanks to all supporters of the quartet, which several years ago celebrated its centennial and is the longest-lived string quartet in history.

Fleisher was an acclaimed and prize-winning pianist whose career was thwarted by focal dystonia in his right hand, which made him play and perform only with his left hand.

For a decade now, he has recovered and been performing with two hands and often with his pianist wife. They performed several seasons ago at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The Pro Arte Quartet holds a special place in his affection.

About a decade ago, Fleisher performed the same Brahms work with the Pro Arte. Fleisher’s main teacher, the legendary Artur Schnabel, performed and recorded works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Robert Schumann, Antonin Dvorak and others with the Pro Arte Quartet back in the 1930s.


Classical music: Here are two dramas behind the scenes in this weekend’s production of Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” by the Madison Opera

February 2, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will present its production of Mark Adamo’s popular contemporary chamber opera “Little Women” this weekend.

Performances are in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center on this Friday at 8 p.m. and on this Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets to the opera, based on Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel of the same name, run $21-$101. You can call the Overture Center box office at 608 258-4141.

For more information about the opera, tickets, the cast and the production, and the pre-performance lecture and post-performance Q&A, visit:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2015-2016/little_women/

But not all the drama involved with this production is visible on the stage.

One drama is the creative process of writing both the libretto and the music for the opera, which was Adamo’s first opera and which has seen some 65 productions around the world.

Longtime music critic and freelance writer Mike Muckian covers that quiet drama quite insightfully in the Wisconsin Gazette, where he published an interview with Mark Adamo (below). And Muckian even broke some news about Adamo co-writing a new opera with his spouse, acclaimed composer John Corigliano.

Here is a link:

http://www.wisconsingazette.com/on-stage/adamos-landmark-little-women-comes-to-madison-opera.html

Mark Adamo

The other drama concerns the conductor of the opera, Kyle Knox. Knox (below), who is a very experienced graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, has gone into conducting after physical problems forced him to give up his career as a clarinetist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

That story is covered exceptionally well in the UW-Madison music blog A Tempo by veteran journalist Katherine Esposito, who is also the concert manager and director of public relations for the UW-Madison School of Music.

Here is a link to that story:

https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/kyle-knox-the-accidental-conductor/

Kyle Knox

Kyle Knox 2

The Ear will also post a Q&A with Mark Adamo. In the meantime, perhaps these behind-the-scenes dramas will whet your appetite for both the Q&A and the actual production.

Here is a YouTube video with an excerpt from “Little Women,” with acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato singing the aria “Things Change, Jo”:


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