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: In two FREE concerts on Sunday afternoon and evening, the UW Wind Ensemble celebrates Black History Month and the guest duo Bridge of Song celebrates Nordic song

February 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

On a weekend with a lot of live music, two FREE concerts also take place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., on Sunday afternoon and early Sunday evening. Details are below:

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

At 2 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble (below) will celebrate Black History Month with a FREE concert.

The conductor is director Scott Teeple (below).

Also participating is the Madison-based Mt. Zion Baptist Church Gospel Choir (below), with director Leotha Stanley.

The program is:

Adolphus Hailstork (below): “American Guernica” (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom)
Armando Borolo: “Last Breaths”
DaSean Stokes, soloist
Aaron Copland: “A Lincoln Portrait”
Traditional/arr. Reynolds: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
Stephen Newby:  “When I See His Glorious Face/Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus”
Omar Thomas: “Of Our New Day Begun”

For more information, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-wind-ensemble-7/

NORDIC SONG

Then at 6:30p.m. in the Collins Recital Hall, there is a FREE concert to promote Nordic song by Bridge of Song.

Bridge of Song is a voice and piano duo. It features soprano Kathleen Roland-Silverstein (below top) and pianist Collin Hansen (below bottom).

Songs will be performed in three languages — Swedish, Finnish and English. For a complete program of composers and works – unfortunately, with no translations of the foreign-language titles – as well as extended biographies of the performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/bridge-of-song/

 


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Classical music: UW-Madison pianist Jessica Johnson celebrates International Women’s Day this Friday night with a FREE recital of all-female composers and a special keyboard for smaller hands

March 6, 2019
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Ukrainian pianist Yana Avedyan in solo works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Liszt. The program will include music from her upcoming appearance at Carnegie Hall. The musicale runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

March is Women’s History Month, and this Friday is International Women’s Day.

To mark the latter occasion, Jessica Johnson, who teaches piano and piano pedagogy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where she has won an award for distinguished teaching, will perform a program of all-women composers.

The FREE recital is this Friday night, March 8, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. Johnson (below, in a photo by M.P. King for The Wisconsin State Journal) will perform works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, pairing works with interesting connections.

Here is what Johnson has to say about the program:

Dreaming, Op. 15, No. 3, by Amy Beach (below top) and The Currents by Sarah Kirkland Snider (below bottom) both feature beautiful lyricism and long-line phrases inspired by poetry.

“2019 is the bicentennial celebration of Clara Schumann’s birth, so I wanted to honor her and her tremendous legacy. Her Romance, Op. 11, No. 1, was composed in 1839 in the midst of the difficult year when Clara (below) was separated from her beloved Robert. (You can hear the Romance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Bolts of Loving Thunder by Missy Mazola (below) was written in 2013 for pianist Emanuel Ax as a piece that would appear on a program of works by Brahms. Mazzoli alludes to the romantic, stormy side of “pre-beard” Brahms, with exuberant floating melodies, hand crossings and dense layers of chords.

“Troubled Water (1967) by Margaret Bonds (below) is based on the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” with hints of blues, jazz and gospel traditions throughout.

“Azuretta (2000) by Chicago-based composer, Regina Harris Baiocchi (below) describes Azuretta as a musical reaction to a debilitating stroke Dr. Hale Smith, her former composition teacher, suffered in 2000. The work honors his incredible legacy by mixing classical and jazz idioms.

“Germaine Tailleferre (below), the only female member of Les Six, the group of early 20th-century French composers, wrote her beautiful Reverie in 1964 as an homage to Debussy’s “Homage à Rameau” from Images, Book I.

“Preludes (2002) by Elena Ruehr (below) draw inspiration from Debussy’s Preludes, mimimalism and Romantic piano music.

“Also, as an advocate for the adoption of the Donison-Steinbuhler Standard — which offers alternatively sized piano keyboards for small-handed pianists  — I will perform on the Steinbuhler DS 5.5 ™ (“7/8”) piano keyboard.

“By performing on a keyboard that better fits my hands — studies suggest that the conventional keyboard is too large for 87% of women — and featuring works by female composers who are typically underrepresented in concert programming, I hope to bring awareness to gender biases that still exist in classical music.

“For more information about both me and the smaller keyboard, go to the following story by Gayle Worland in The Wisconsin State Journal:

https://madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/a-smaller-piano-for-bigger-artistry/article_38b80090-be0f-5050-9862-32c3c36c6930.html


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” proved a complete, first-rate theatrical experience

February 26, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog  – attended two performances of “Into the Woods” at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and filed this review. (Photos are by Beau Meyer for the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.)

By Larry Wells

The University Theatre and University Opera’s recent joint production of “Into the Woods” was a feast for fans of Stephen Sondheim (below). It was a complete theatrical experience with excellent singing, a nuanced orchestral accompaniment, skilled acting and enchanting staging.

The nearly three-hour work is an amalgamation of several well-known fairy tales exploring themes such as parent-child relationships, loss of innocence, self-discovery, the consequences of wishes being fulfilled, and death – but all in an amusing, literate, fast-paced kaleidoscope of witty dialogue, catchy music and sophisticated lyrics.

The production employed an attractive, ever-changing set, designed by John Drescher, that was vaguely reminiscent of Maurice Sendak.

Stage director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) utilized the large cast and what had to be an equally large number of backstage crew members in a captivating succession of ensemble pieces and solo numbers. I was never aware of the passing of time. Not looking at my watch is my acid test of a production’s success.

Among the many standout performances, Bryanna Plaisir (below) as the Witch was comical in her delivery and quite amazing in the physicality of her performance. There were a number of times when she flew, and each time I was taken by surprise at her effortlessness. Her initial song, accompanied mostly by percussion, was mesmerizing.

There were two roles that were double cast: Elisheva Pront and Miranda Kettlewell (below) as the Cinderellas; and Meghan Stecker and Zoe Bockhorst as the two Little Red Riding Hoods.

Both Pront and Kettlewell possess excellent voices.

Stecker was the more girlish of the two Red Riding Hoods, whereas Bockhorst (below left) portrayed a slightly more canny character.  Both were very funny in their encounter with Cobi Tappa’s Wolf (below right).

Tappa is a physical actor whose tall lankiness conveyed the Wolf’s lupine nature flawlessly. He also portrayed the Steward, and I was completely captivated by his performance, as was the appreciative audience.

Joshua Kelly (below) was the narrator and also played the baker’s father.  His was a professional quality performance from beginning to end – enunciating so clearly that he was completely understandable throughout.

Jack was played by Christian Michael Brenny. His portrayal of a simple-minded boy was touching, and his singing was outstanding.

Emily Vandenberg (below left) as the wife of the baker (played by Michael Kelley, below right) was another outstanding performer – an excellent comic actress and an accomplished vocalist.

Mention must also be made of Rapunzel and Cinderella’s princes, Tanner Zocher  and Jacob Eliot Elfner. Their two duets, “Agony” and “Agony Reprise,” were enthusiastically received by the audience not only for their delivery but also for such lyrics as “…you know nothing of madness ‘til you’re climbing her hair…”.

Sondheim’s way with words continues to amaze me. In describing a decrepit cow, Jack’s mother gets to sing “…while her withers wither with her…”.  The Wolf gets to sing the line “…there’s no possible way to describe what you feel when you’re talking to your meal…”

Chad Hutchinson (below) conducted the orchestra in a finely shaded performance – never overpowering and always supportive.

There were many other excellent performances and memorable moments. Suffice it to say that altogether cast, crew, artistic and production staff created a show that I enjoyed on two consecutive evenings. In fact I was completely entranced both times.

Postscript: The first evening I sat in front of a person who coughed more or less continually the entire first act.  Mercifully she left at the intermission. Next to me was a woman who alternated between audibly clearing her throat and blowing her nose — when she wasn’t applying moisturizer to her hands — throughout the entire show. Stay home if you’re sick. And remember that you are not at home watching your television.  You are in a theater.


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Classical music education: The UW-Madison Pro Arte Quartet performs music by Edward Elgar with the Middleton High School Orchestra in a FREE concert this Thursday night

March 15, 2017
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison 900 University Bay Drive, features the ensemble New Muse with Danielle Breisach, flute; Peter Miliczky, violin; Joshua Dieringer, viola; Ben Bauer, cello; and Yana Avedyan, piano, in new music by Nathan Froebe, Benjamin Boyajian, and Jonathan Posthuma. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) will travel west on Thursday – all the way to the suburb of Middleton.

That where the Pro Arte will perform Sir Edward Elgar’s “Introduction and Allegro” with the Middleton High School Orchestra (below) under conductor Steve Kurr, who also conducts the Middleton Community Orchestra. (You can hear the Elgar piece in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The FREE and UNTICKETED concert is this Thursday night from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to the high school, 2100 Bristol Street.

Conductor Steve Kurr says this about the program:

“The rest of the program includes Rossini’s Overture to “The Barber of Seville,” the “Colonel Bogey March” and the “Peer Gynt Suite No. 1” by Edvard Grieg.

“Also on the program are the three winners of this year’s Concerto-Aria competition: Marimbist Alex Warholic plays the first movement of the Violin Concerto in A Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach; soprano Chloe Cole sings “V’adoro pupille” from the opera “Julius Caesar:” by George Frideric Handel; and violinist Rachael Lee performs the “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” by Camille Saint-Saens.

“The concert begins with two works performed by the MHS Honors Wind Ensemble.

“The Elgar is such a great work, and underperformed. The Pro Arte musicians are such great inspirations to our high school musicians.”


Classical music: String music and a piano for small hands, wind music and band music — This week brings varied FREE concerts at the UW-Madison

February 15, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

It will be a busy week in Madison and especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. Here is a list to help you decide what you want to attend.

TUESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra will give a FREE concert under its music director James Smith.

The program is: Rumanian Folk Dances by Béla Bartók; the “Holberg” Suite by Edvard Grieg; and Symphony for Strings, Opus 118a, by Dmitri Shostakovich (arranged by Russian violist Rudolf Barshai and based on Shostakovich’s well known String Quartet No. 8.)

UW Chamber Orchestra Stravinsky

FRIDAY

UW-Madison professor of chamber music and cellist Parry Karp, who performs in the Pro Arte Quartet, is a newly elected member of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

On Friday night at 8 p.m. he will give a FREE recital in Mills Hall.

The program features: the Partita in A Minor for Solo Flute, BWV 1013 (1723?) by Johann Sebastian Bach, as transcribed for solo cello in C Minor by Parry Karp.

Sonata No. 1 in D Major Piano and Violin, Op. 12 No. 1 (1798) by Ludwig van Beethoven, as transcribed for piano and cello by Parry Karp. He will perform with pianist mother Frances Karp.

“Märchenbilder” (Fairy Tales) for Piano and Viola, Op. 113 (1851) by Robert Schumann, as transcribed for piano and cello by Robert Hausmann. With pianist Frances Karp.

Sonata in A Minor for Piano and Cello, D. 821, “Arpeggione,” (1824) by Franz Schubert. Pianist Bill Lutes will perform with Karp.

Parry Karp

SATURDAY AFTERNOON AND NIGHT

Attention all pianists and especially those with smaller hands!

UW pianist and pedagogue Jessica Johnson (below) will give an afternoon workshop and evening concert on “The Joy of Downsizing.”

All events are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC and take place in Morphy Recital Hall.

WORKSHOP — 2:30-3:45: “All Hands on Keys: Strategies for Teaching Students with Small Hands”

MASTERCLASS — 4:15-5:45 p.m.

TRY THE PIANO — 5:45-6:45 p.m.

FACULTY CONCERT — 8 p.m. Performed on a Steinbuhler DS 5.5™ (“7/8”) Size Piano; Tentative program includes: Thee Piano Pieces, D. 946, by Franz Schubert (played by Alfred Brendel in a YouTube video at the bottom); Ballad, Op. 6, by Amy Beach; Concert sans Orchestre in f minor, Op. 14, by Robert Schumann.

jessica johnson at piano

Here is a statement about the workshops and concert from Jessica Johnson:

“The hands of great pianists come in all shapes and sizes. Spending literally thousands of hours at the piano, we develop time-tested, proven strategies for learning repertoire in a way that suits our unique physiology. We know best that which we have experienced within our own bodies.

“How does this impact our ability to work with students with different hand sizes than our own?

“As a small-handed pianist, I have spent my entire professional career seeking creative strategies to adapt to playing conventional-sized piano keyboards.

“I have become a guru of innovative fingerings and have learned how to employ ergonomic movements and compensatory gestures in order to perform technically challenging repertoire on the conventional piano.

“Since the life-changing moment when I started practicing on an alternatively sized keyboard, I have experienced a whole new level of artistic and technical freedom.

“Research related to the use of Ergonomically-Scaled Piano Keyboards (ESPKs) suggests similar benefits for small-handed pianists, including less pain and injury, greater technical facility and accuracy, and ease of learning.

“Using a Steinbuhler DS 5.5TM (7/8) Size Piano Keyboard insert, manufactured by Steinbuhler & Company, that was custom-made for a Steinway B piano, this workshop will demonstrate effective strategies for teaching students with small hands and ways to exploit musical and technical choices that maximize artistry and biomechanical ease.”

“I’ve spent most of my life thinking that I could not play with a big sound and that I was never going to be comfortable with large chords and octaves. Now I simply believe that I’ve been playing the wrong size piano keyboard.”

Small Hands photo

SATURDAY AFTERNOON

The University of Wisconsin-Madison clarinet studio will host a Clarinet Day on Saturday, Feb. 20, starting at 1:30 p.m. and running to 6 p.m. in Mills Hall at the School of Music.

clarinet

Wesley Warnhoff (below), visiting assistant professor of clarinet, and the UW-Madison Clarinet studio have invited all high school clarinetists to attend.

Wesley Warnhoff

The day includes concerts, master classes, chamber music, student performances and dinner with the UW-Madison clarinetists. It must be a popular idea because registration is now CLOSED.

But at 7:30 P.M. the group will end the day by attending a FREE concert – which is OPEN TO THE PUBLIC — by the UW Wind Ensemble (below top), conducted by Professor Scott Teeple (below bottom).

The program includes: “Spin Cycle” by Scott Lindroth; “Colonial Song” by Percy Grainger/Rogers; “Heavy Weather” by Jess Turner, featuring Tom Curry, adjunct professor of tuba; the Symphonies of Wind Instruments by Igor Stravinsky; and “Apollo Unleashed” by Frank Ticheli.

UW Wind Ensemble

Scott Teeple conducting

SUNDAY

The UW-Madison Concert Band will give two FREE concerts in Mills Hall at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. under band director Mike Leckrone  (below), best known for leading the acclaimed UW Marching Band. Sorry, no word about program.

Mike Leckrone BIG


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