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: The Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Opera, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Overture Center cancel their fall seasons. Plus, on Saturday cellist Cole Randolph performs a virtual concert for Grace Presents

June 26, 2020
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ALERT: The Saturday at noon, Grace Presents will offer the first in its series of HD Virtual Concerts online. Future performers include organist Mark Brampton Smith and the Willy Street Chamber Players.

The performer this time is the cellist and recent UW-Madison graduate Cole Randolph (below). The program is: the Sonata for Solo Cello by the American composer George Crumb; two of the “Seven Songs Heard in China” by Chinese composer Bright Sheng; and the Suite for Solo Cello No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here is where you can hear the 40-minute concert inside the church on the Capitol Square: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vaOCH53osk

You can also connect with Cole Randolph after the show by joining in a Zoom meet-and-greet immediately following the performance at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88001773181

The meeting ID is: 880 0177 3181

You can hear Randolph (below, in a photo by Michael Anderson) playing in the YouTube video at the bottom.

By Jacob Stockinger

With all the talk of a second wave of coronavirus coming in the fall — complicated by the seasonal flu – concert cancellations don’t come as a surprise, unfortunately.

In fact, The Ear suspects many more cancellations are to come, including those from the UW-Madison, the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Here is the latest round: the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Overture Center have all canceled their fall seasons, with some qualifications.

The announcements came on Thursday morning in the wake of the Overture Center canceling all performances this summer and fall through Nov. 30.

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

The Madison Symphony Orchestra has provided a short statement and a more complete and detailed press release.

Here is the statement:

“The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 2020-21 “Beethoven and Beyond” season concerts and Overture Concert Organ performances are now canceled from September 2020 through January 2021.

“The move is due to the Overture Center’s decision to suspend events through Nov. 30, 2020, and the requirements of Dane County’s “Forward Dane” Reopening Plan.

“The 2020-21 season performances in February, March, April and May 2021 are scheduled to take place as planned.

“All subscribers will be sent a refund for the value of their tickets for the September 2020 through January 2021 concerts.”

Here is a list on the five MSO concerts – including the Beyond the Score performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on Jan. 25 — that will be canceled and the four that remain scheduled: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/2020-2021-symphony-season-concerts/

Here is a link to the full press release about the cancellations by the MSO (below, in a  photo by Peter Rodgers): https://madisonsymphony.org/press-release-june-2020-concert-events-update/

MADISON OPERA

The Madison Opera is canceling the two in-person performances of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour) but is planning on offering some kind of large digital event and smaller live events at its center.

Here is statement from the Madison Opera:

“Although the Overture Center for the Arts is closed until the end of November, we will not be going silent.

“We are creating a fall season that lasts from September through December, and includes both digital content and live performances at the Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, our home in downtown Madison.

“Some of our signature engagement activities — such as Opera Novice and Opera Up Close — will have monthly editions that include artists from around the country.

“The Opera Center itself will be the site of “Live from the Opera Center,” a variety of streamed performances with a small live audience.

“Other performances will be created digitally and made available exclusively to subscribers.

“Artists involved include members of the original “Il Trovatore” cast: soprano Karen Slack, baritone Weston Hurt, bass Kenneth Kellogg, and stage director Fenlon Lamb. Other soloists include Wisconsin-based artists Jeni Houser (below), David Blalock, Emily Fons, Emily Secor and Kirsten Larson.

“We are working with our artists to create programming that is chosen from their passions: music they want to share, ideas they want to explore, and conversations they want to start. The challenges facing us will create new art, and new ways to make sure it is accessible to everyone.”

Marketing director Andrew Rogers told The Ear that the opera company is still deciding whether digital performances will be ticketed or free with suggested donations.

The full schedule will be announced in early August, after the digital online Opera in the Park takes place Saturday, July 25. For details, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2020/05/06/opera-in-the-park-is-going-digital/

To stay current about the regular opera season, you can sign up for the Madison Opera’s news updates via email by going to this website: https://www.madisonopera.org/fall2020/

WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

The Nov. 20 opening concert with pianist John O’Conor of the Masterworks Series has been POSTPONED with no new date set yet.

Music director Andrew Sewell says the Family Concert on is still on for Saturday, Oct. 10, at the Goodman Community Center but the WCO is looking for an alternative venue.

The concert on Nov. 7 at the Verona Area Performing Arts Center has been CANCELED.

Both performances of Handel’s “Messiah” — on Dec. 9 and Dec. 12 at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton and the UW’s Hamel Music Center on Dec. 12 – have also been CANCELED.

And this season the WCO will not play Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” from Dec. 17-27 because the Madison Ballet has canceled those performances.

For more information about the WCO (below, in photo by Mike Gorski), go to: https://wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/calendar

What do you think?

Do you think the cancellations are warranted?

Do you want to leave a message or comment encouraging and supporting the various groups and their many musicians?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: This summer’s Madison Early Music Festival in July has been cancelled and postponed until next summer

April 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) to share:

Dear MEMF Family,

Due to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s decision to

suspend in-person courses, workshops and conferences

for the summer term because of the ongoing COVID-19

pandemic, the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF)

has been postponed until July 10–17, 2021.

 

This extraordinary situation has affected all of us and

we will miss seeing you this summer. Updates will be

posted on our website as they are available.

 

 

 

As you can imagine, this was a difficult decision

but a necessary one. We will miss sharing

the Burgundian experience with everyone —

MEMF is always the highlight of our summer.

 

We already miss our community of participants

gathering together in Madison, listening to concerts

in the new Hamel Music Center, learning from

our extraordinary faculty, dancing together in Great Hall

and relaxing on the Union Terrace. (In the YouTube video

at the bottom is an excerpt from the All-Festival Concert last year.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good news is, we have decided to simply move

the scheduled program forward to next season.

We sincerely hope that The Good, the Bold and the

Fearless: Musical Life at the Burgundian Court

will feature the same guest artists and faculty next year

and we hope you will be able to join us in 2021.

 

In the meantime, the Madison Early Music Festival

will continue to operate. For those who have already

registered, we will contact you about issuing refunds

and answering any other questions you might have.

 

Finally, we appreciate your support — you are the reason

that MEMF continues to offer such extraordinary programming,

concerts and instruction year after year. But we appreciate it

even more now.

 

If you can make a donation to help offset some

of the costs that this year’s Festival can’t recoup,

we would be extremely grateful. Your gift today

will ensure that we can return “better than ever” next year.

 

Please stay safe and healthy,

Cheryl, Paul and Sarah

Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe, Co-Artistic Directors (below)

Sarah Marty, Program Director

 


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Classical music: Bach Around the Clock 2020 goes virtual and wants your audio-video contribution. Plus TONIGHT, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra streams its Dec. 27 concert at the UW

March 27, 2020
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ALERT: TONIGHT, March 27, at 7:30 p.m., the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will be streaming its sold-out premiere performance (below) on Dec. 27 in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center. If you couldn’t get seats for the in-person performance, you can tune in for FREE tonight.

The program is: “Poet and Peasant Overture” by Suppe; the Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92, by Robert Schumann with pianist Jason Kutz; the Overture to “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Offenbach; the “Habanera” from the opera “Carmen” by Bizet and “What a movie” from the opera “Trouble in Tahiti” by Leonard Bernstein, both with mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter-Foss; and the Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61, by Saint-Saens with Rachel Barton Pine. WCO music director Andrew Sewell conducts.

For a link and  portal to the streamed video, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-live/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following message from artistic director Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) about the decision to make this year’s Bach Around the Clock a virtual event with a call for community submissions:

The BATC Board of Directors shares the keen disappointment that all music lovers feel at the sudden, shocking collapse of the current concert season.

The BATC 2020 Festival was fully booked, and we had looked forward to 12 hours of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by musicians ranging from young students to adult amateurs to seasoned professionals, all to celebrate the composer’s 335th birthday.

Sadly, that was not to be.

But thinking outside of the box, the Board has decided to try something new: the BATC 2020 Virtual Festival.

We invite local musicians to submit video or audio recordings of themselves singing or playing a selection by Bach. If you’d like, you can also talk at the beginning of your recording, explaining what music by Bach (below) means to you, and why you chose this particular piece. Or feel free to write your thoughts on this subject, and we’ll include that text with your recording.

We reach out especially to those who were scheduled to perform at this year’s festival, and those who have performed with us in the past. But we are very happy to include newcomers to our BATC community as well.

Performers can click on Performers Guide for Media Submissions to find instructions for audio or video file submission.

We request that files be of musical selections 20 minutes or less. If a piece is longer than that, please record the piece in two files.

Our tech team will preview clips for technical quality, upload them to the BATC YouTube channel, and post them on our website and then on our Facebook page, for everyone to enjoy.

BATC plans to launch the Virtual Festival this Saturday, March 28, at 10 a.m., the time the original in-person Festival was scheduled to begin.

We will add new videos every day at 10 a.m., as long as submissions keep coming in. (Below are the Suzuki Strings of Madison performing during a past BATC.)

The BATC Board hopes this Virtual Festival gives local musicians an outlet for sharing their talent and passion with the warmly appreciative local community.

Live music nourishes the soul of performer and audience member alike, and the transcendent, life-giving joy woven into the music of Bach is something we need, now more than ever. (Below is a performance from last year’s Bach Around the Clock.)

For more information, go to: https://bachclock.com and https://www.facebook.com/batcmadison


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Classical music: On Saturday night, UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor continues his virtuosic Liszt-Beethoven symphony cycle along with music by Kapustin and Schubert

February 5, 2019
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following press release, researched and written by Katherine Esposito, concert manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, about a noteworthy upcoming concert:

Franz Liszt (below, 1811-1886) was a superstar pianist. He was a virtuoso who invented the orchestral tone poem, taught 400 students for free, conducted and composed.

Musicologist Alan Walker wrote a definitive three-volume biography of Liszt, shedding light on all of Liszt’s work but especially his genius for transcription.

Writes Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times : “The best of these works are much more than virtuosic stunts. Liszt’s piano transcriptions of the nine Beethoven symphonies are works of genius. Vladimir Horowitz, in a 1988 interview, told me that he deeply regretted never having played Liszt’s arrangements of the Beethoven symphonies in public.”

Few pianists have tackled all nine Beethoven transcriptions.

UW-Madison professor and Van Cliburn Competition medal winner Christopher Taylor (below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) is one of them. On this coming Saturday night, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, Taylor will perform his sixth transcription — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93.

Saturday’s concert will also include: six preludes (Nos. 19-24) from 1988 by Nikolai Kapustin (below), whose works span both classical and jazz; and the Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (based on the song “The Wanderer”) of Franz Schubert, a piece so virtuosic that the composer himself had to give up playing it  before finishing. (You can hear Kapustin’s Prelude No. 23, which Taylor will play, in the YouTube video at the bottom and can follow the intimidating-looking score to it.)

In 2020, Christopher Taylor will celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary with performances of the Franz Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, in Madison and elsewhere.

In Boston, Taylor will perform the entire set of nine in five concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Tickets for Taylor’s Feb. 9 concert at the UW are $17 for adults, and $7 for children and students. They can be purchased online or in person.

Purchasing options are here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Or, purchase online directly at this link.


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