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: A good pandemic project for the Beethoven Year is to follow Boris Giltburg as he learns and posts all 32 piano sonatas in one year

May 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

There are a lot of ways that musicians are celebrating the Beethoven Year of 2020 – the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer (below).

One of the most interesting ways also makes for an engaging and ongoing coronavirus pandemic project.

The prize-winning Russian-Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg (below in a photo by Sasha Gusov) is learning all 32 piano sonatas in one year.

It is a formidable challenge, not only because most of the sonatas are technically and musically difficult, but also because the pianist says he has played only nine of the 32 sonatas before.

Giltburg’s videos feature not only fine playing and interpretations, but also a very readable and informative diary he writes that includes notes – also available in German on the website — about the sonatas and about what the process of learning and playing them has been like.

His approach works and makes you a vicarious participant in the major undertaking.

He posts performances of the sonatas every few weeks. He is learning and posting them in chronological order so you get a sense of the evolution. Giltburg is now up to Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1.

Here is some background about Giltburg from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Giltburg

And here is a link to more background at his personal website where you can also find information about his other recordings for Naxos (he is known for his Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev) and concerts: https://borisgiltburg.com

But the heart of the project is at Beethoven32.com where you can find the sonatas starting from the first.

The Ear likes hearing them this way.

Listening to them one at a time and reading about them seems a less overwhelming way to become familiar with what is called “The New Testament” – as compared to the Old Testament of the 48 preludes and fugues in Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

The Ear finds the playing first-rate and the sound quality excellent with great close-up videos of the keyboard and Giltberg’s playing.

Here is a link to the main website, which is easier than hunting for individual sonatas on YouTube: https://beethoven32.com

The Ear suggests starting at the bottom with Giltberg’s introduction and then working your way up one at a time, allowing time to appreciate both the music and his diary notes.

To get you started, here his introduction to the project:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeBrn_kwvfg

And below is his performance the Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1.

Let us know what you think of Giltberg as a Beethoven interpreter and what you think of his sonata project.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: This weekend guest violinist Rachel Barton Pine solos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in an all-Russian program

October 17, 2019
9 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the acclaimed Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) makes her debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra playing Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D minor.

The concert by the orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) opens with Prokofiev’s Suite from Lieutenant Kijé and concludes with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State St., on Friday night, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Oct. 19, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Oct. 20, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Tickets are $19-$95. See below for details.

“There will be great discoveries in our all-Russian concert, starting with the MSO debut of virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine playing the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, a big, bold and beautiful work in its MSO premiere,” said MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). Lieutenant Kijé is sure to delight you with its wonderful melodies and infectious rhythms. Shostakovich has become a favorite with our audiences, and his ninth symphony is delightfully upbeat.”

Lieutenant Kijé is the fictional protagonist of an anecdote about the reign of Emperor Paul I of Russia. The story was used as the basis of a novella by Yury Tynyanov published in 1928 and filmed in 1934, with music by Sergei Prokofiev (below). The plot is a satire on bureaucracy and is often parodied in fictional works making fun of bureaucracies, most famously in the form of the M*A*S*H television episode “Tuttle,” featuring a fictional captain of similar provenance. (You can hear the popular “Troika” episode in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Many of the themes in Violin Concerto in D minor are evocative of the native Armenia of Aram Khachaturian (below). Although the folk melodies aren’t played explicitly, one can hear the Armenian roots through the oriental essence of the scales and the rhythmic range of the featured dances. The piece won the Stalin Prize in 1941, becoming one of Khachaturian’s favorites.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 is entirely unlike his other symphonies. In fact, it completely disregards the expectations for its programmatic elements. Shostakovich’s prior two symphonies are thematically tied to the ongoing war, therefore the public presumed that the ninth symphony would be a grand culmination to Stalin and mark the end of World War II. Instead, the composer (below) produced a short, neo-classical work that generated an abundance of controversy.

ABOUT RACHEL BARTON PINE

In both art and life, violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) – who has performed in Madison before with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — has an extraordinary ability to connect with people.

Celebrated as a leading interpreter of great classic and contemporary works, her performances combine her innate gift for emotional communication and her scholarly fascination with historical research. She plays with passion and conviction, thrilling audiences worldwide with her dazzling technique, lustrous tone, and infectious joy in music-making.

A prolific recording artist, she has also championed the works of female composers and African-American composers.

Pine was also recently named the recipient of the Cedille Records Musical Partnership Award for her Rachel Barton Pine Foundation. The Foundation was recognized as an organization that has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the classical music community in Chicago. Cedille noted the Foundation’s “support of the Chicago musical community’s most valuable asset — its musicians and composers.”

Pine was presented with the award by U.S Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose son, Jim Ginsburg, founded Cedille Records. Pine began her Foundation in 2001 to provide instruments and instruction to children who might not otherwise be able to afford them.

You can read the Artist Story online about how Rachel Barton Pine overcame severe injuries and her own personal adversity to achieve her goals: https://madisonsymphony.org/19-20-artist-story-rachel-barton-pine-overcomes-adversity/

CONCERT, TICKET AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

One hour before each performance, retired MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/msooct19programnotes.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts this weekend feature three local debuts — by a woman conductor, a Grammy-winning cellist and an immigrant composer

October 17, 2018
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Three local debuts will take place this weekend in the three “Epic Romance” concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below).

Renowned Canadian guest conductor Tania Miller will lead the MSO while music director John DeMain makes his debut at the Liceu Theater in Barcelona, conducting the opera Candide in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth.

Grammy Award-winning American cellist Zuill Bailey will make his Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) solo debut in Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

And Canadian composer Michael Oesterle will be performed for the first time in Madison when his work Home” opens each concert.

The second half of the program is Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 2912 State Street, on Friday, Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday, Oct. 21, at 2:30 p.m.

Here are more details:

Canadian Conductor Tania Miller has distinguished herself as a dynamic interpreter, musician and innovator, on the podium and off. She has been praised for “energy, grace, precision and restraint.” She has appeared as a guest conductor in Canada, the United States and Europe with such orchestras as the Bern Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Oregon Symphony and the Vancouver Symphony, among others.

Over a 14-year tenure as the Music Director of the Victoria Symphony in Canada, Miller (below) gained national acclaim for her passion and commitment to the orchestra and community. Recipient of the 2017 Friends of Canadian Music award from the Canadian League of Composers for her acclaimed commitment to contemporary music in Canada, Miller has been an example of the impact of commitment and dedication to an orchestra and to the future of orchestral music through creative innovation and vision.

You can hear Tania Miller discuss women conductors in the informative YouTube video at the bottom.(But please be forewarned: YouTube was having major technical issues and glitches last night that affected all their videos on this blog, not just this one. If it doesn’t load when you try, wait and then try again.) 

Zuill Bailey (below), described by Classical Net as “easily one of the finest cellists today,” has been featured with symphony orchestras worldwide, including Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Israel, Cape Town, and the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, Austria. Bailey has also appeared at Disney Hall, the Kennedy Center, the United Nations, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

In 2017, Bailey won a best solo performance Grammy Award for his live recording of “Tales of Hemingway,” by composer Michael Daugherty. His celebrated “Bach Cello Suites” and recently released Britten Cello Symphony and Sonata CD with pianist Natasha Paremski immediately rose to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard magazine Classical Chart.

His Cello Concerto was the last notable work by Sir Edward Elgar (below), composed in 1919 in the aftermath of World Ear I. Upon regaining consciousness following a 1918 tonsillectomy, Elgar immediately asked for pencil and paper and wrote down the melody that would become the first theme in this concerto.

Despite today’s renown as a crowd favorite, the piece did not achieve wide popularity until the 1960s, when a recording by Jacqueline du Pré caught the public’s attention, and it became a classical favorite.

Michael Oesterle’s “Home” had its world premiere in November 2017 with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra and conductor Tania Miller.

The piece is an homage to the great geographical ebb and flow of humanity, also known as the immigrant experience. Oesterle (below) notes, “I wrote it through the filter of my personal impressions as an immigrant, and with the realization that this subject is humbling in its breadth.”

Composed between May and August 1888, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was first performed in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre with Tchaikovsky below) conducting.

Unlike its two predecessors, there is no known program for the Fifth Symphony, save for a recurring main theme heard throughout all four movements. Over the years this theme has become known as the “fate” motive; its original ominous character undergoes various metamorphoses, emerging triumphant in the score’s concluding pages.

ABOUT ATTENDING

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Madison Symphony Chorus Director and UW-Madison director of choral activities Beverly Taylor (below) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bitly.com/oct2018programnotes

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/ax through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Subscribers to 5 or more symphony subscription concerts can save up to 50% off single ticket prices. More information is available about the season at: https://madisonsymphony.org/18-19
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Find more information, go to madisonsymphony.org

Major funding for the October concert is provided by: Mirror 34 Productions and National Guardian Life Insurance Company. Additional funding is provided by John A. Johnson Foundation, a component fund of the Madison Community Foundation, Barbara J. Merz, Selma Van Eyck, and the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


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