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: This summer’s Token Creek Festival is CANCELED. Plus, a teenager’s piano “practice journal” on Instagram is instructive, entertaining and encouraging

July 17, 2020
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NEWS ALERT: This summer’s Token Creek Festival (TCF) — with the chamber music theme of Legacy to run from Aug. 21-Sept. 6 –has been CANCELED. Organizers say they hope to launch a virtual online season of archived performances at the end of the summer.  Also, once modestly sized gatherings are safe again, the TCF hopes to hold an off-season event. For more information and an official statement from TCF, go to: https://tokencreekfestival.org 

By Jacob Stockinger

Somewhere in New York City is a young Chinese piano prodigy who can help you get through what is often the most challenging and discouraging part of piano lessons: practicing.

His name is Auston (below) – no last name is given – and you can find him, in T-shirts and shorts, on Instagram at Auston.piano.

Auston is quite the prodigy. A 13, he plays difficult and dramatic repertoire: the Nocturne in C minor, the Scherzo No. 1 in B minor and the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, all by Chopin.

You can also hear him play the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, by Johann Sebastian Bach; the fiendish Toccata by Sergei Prokofiev; and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

One day, The Ear expects, Auston might well be among the impressive amateurs and, later, professionals who compete in international competitions.

But more than listening to him playing, his frequent social media entries – sometimes he posts two or three times a day — allow us to hear him practice. We even hear him practicing scales – so-called Russian scales that combine scales in parallel and contrary motion.

This week, he hit 100 video posts. Just yesterday Auston started sight-reading the “Winter Wind” Etude of Chopin, Op. 25, No. 11, which many consider to be the most technically difficult of all Chopin’s etudes. (You can hear the etude – played by Maurizio Pollini – and see the note-filled score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Starting out, he often plays hands separately (below) and sight-reads the score very, very slowly, making mistakes and working out fingering. He also uses a metronome at a very slow tempo. He gets frustrated but he never gives up. He just starts over again and provides an excellent role model for aspiring piano students.

But this young man is also fun to read. In his one-minute or less entries of his “practice journal” – which he also calls his “practice journey” — he is witty and self-deprecating in his commentaries about the music and especially about himself when he makes mistakes. As seriously as he takes the piano and practicing, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

All in all he can even encourage others – including The Ear –to persevere and go through the same frustrations of practicing and learning a new piece.

In this case, it is the piano, but the postings could easily apply to practicing any other instrument or even to singing.

Check it out.

You will be impressed.

You will admire him.

You will laugh along with him.

And you just might practice more.

If this practice journal is a pandemic project, it succeeds way beyond what you — and probably Auston himself — might expect.

Happy listening!

And patient, productive practicing!

 


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Classical music: World-famous Japanese violist Nobuko Imai will teach and perform two FREE concerts with students and the Pro Arte Quartet during her UW residency today and Thursday

October 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as Viola Week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music — a chance to celebrate the gorgeous, mellow sound of a frequently but unjustly maligned instrument (below) the range of which falls between the higher violin and the lower cello.

The world-famous Japanese violist Nobuko Imai (below) is returning to the UW-Madison campus this week for a two-day residency where she will give master classes and perform.

Imai will be joined by two other distinguished guest violists, both Taiwanese: Wei-Ting Kuo (below top, in a photo by Todd Rosenberg) now of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and formerly the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; and En-Chi Cheng (below bottom), a prize-winning, concertizing student of Imai now studying at the Juilliard School.

For detailed biographies of all three violists  go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/nobuko-imai-with-wei-ting-kuo-and-the-uw-madison-viola-studio/

The violists will give two FREE concerts in the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue.

At 7 p.m. TONIGHT, Wednesday, Oct. 30, in Collins Recital Hall, Nobai and the two other guest artists will perform with viola students at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. No program has been given for them. Nobuko will also perform a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach with UW-Madison collaborative pianist Martha Fischer (below).

Then at NOON tomorrow, Thursday, Oct. 31, in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) will perform the melodious “American” Viola Quintet by Antonin Dvorak with Imai. (You can hear the second movement of the Dvorak quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition to a viola arrangement of the “Song of the Birds” by Pablo Casals, Imai will perform the Adagio movement from Beethoven’s Trio in C Major for Two Oboes and English Horn, Op. 87, with Wei-Ting Kuo and Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm (below, second from right). 


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Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: Despite overly traditional staging, the Madison Opera’s “Carmen” beguiled and bewitched through the outstanding singing

November 7, 2017
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy attended Sunday’s sold-out performance of “Carmen” by the Madison Opera and filed the following review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

When I learned that Madison Opera was going to produce Bizet‘s “Carmen,” I was not surprised. It is annually one of the most frequently performed operas internationally, and it is a surefire vehicle for filling seats. It is safe.

On the other hand, once one watches repeated performances of an old favorite, the appeal can diminish. One advantage of an opera is that novel approaches to the production can prevent a warhorse from becoming stale.

I would love to say that the approach both musically and dramatically to this production of “Carmen” broke new ground, but it did not. In fact, the production was as traditional as could be. (Below is the main set, rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I attended a performance of “Carmen” in Tucson a couple of years ago, and the conductor Keitaro Harada breathed new life into the familiar music through interesting tempi and finely nuanced dynamics.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo  by Prasad) conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly fine and occasionally uplifting manner, but there was little new to learn from his approach. The purely instrumental entr’actes shimmered, but during the rest of the opera the singing was at the forefront.

Maestro Harada (below), whom Madison should be actively courting, is currently conducting “Carmen” in Sofia, and the accompanying publicity clip in the YouTube video at the bottom (bear with the Bulgarian commentary) shows that the production is unconventional in its approach although it clearly is still “Carmen.” I would have enjoyed something other than the ultra-traditional staging and sets experienced here in Madison.

At times the production was so hackneyed and hokey that I chuckled to myself – ersatz flamenco dancing, the fluttering of fans, all of the cigarette factory girls with cigarettes dangling from their lips, unconvincing fight scenes, annoying children running across the stage, dreary costumes that hardly reminded me of Seville. And I could go on.

Yet “Carmen” has a way of drawing one in despite oneself. The music is marvelous, and the singing was uniformly excellent.

The four principals were luminous both in their solo pieces and ensembles. Cecelia Violetta López as Micaëla (below right) was lustrous in her two arias as well as in her duet with Sean Panikkar’s Don José (below left).

Panikkar started the performance off with little flair, but from the time he became besotted with Carmen toward the end of the first act he was on fire. He then maintained a high degree of passion and zest in his vocal performance.

Corey Crider (below right) was a wonderful Escamillo, singing his toréador role with great élan despite his unfortunate costumes.

And Aleks Romano (below) as Carmen made the most of her complex character. Her singing was luscious, and her acting – particularly her use of her expressive eyes – was terrific.

Likewise, the lesser roles – Thomas Forde as Zuniga, Benjamin Liupaogo as Remendado, Erik Earl Larson as Dancaïre, a radiant Anna Polum as Fransquita, and Megan Le Romero as Mercédès – were equally well sung. The ensemble work in the quintet at the end of Act II and in the card scene was outstanding.

The chorus (below) sounded terrific throughout, although the women’s costumes and the stage direction made the choristers appear ludicrous as times.

When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations. Likewise, its music still bewitched me in much the same way as Carmen inexplicably bewitched hapless Don José (below).

But I seem to always wish for more – more compelling productions, more daring music making, more risk-taking.

I do look forward to this coming spring’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” The recording is captivating, and the opera’s performances have pleased a wide variety of audiences by all accounts. And it is something new. Hallelujah!

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


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