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: Here is a good news update on the tour to Belgium later this month by the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte Quartet.

May 12, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

If you remember, the last you heard about it  — and the last time I posted something about it — the planned tour to its homeland of Belgium by the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), longtime resident artists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was in jeopardy.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

That came about because of an international ban on materials from endangered species that were used in new and even old musical instruments.

Here is a link to that background post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/classical-music-catch-the-pro-arte-quartets-free-must-hear-concert-of-the-program-for-its-upcoming-back-to-belgium-tour-on-thursday-night-at-730-especially-sinc/

Well, things are looking up.

Here is an update from Sarah Schaffer (below), the tireless and clever contact at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music who also heads the Centennial Committee of the string quartet and has been arranging the tour:

Sarah Schaffer mug

“Hello everyone,

“I just wanted to catch you all up on the latest developments concerning the PAQ trip to Belgium.

“As most of you know, recent efforts by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to step up enforcement of long-standing policies related to international trade of endangered species have jeopardized travel for all musicians because so many (especially old) instruments contain material most of interest: ivory, Brazilian rose wood, and sea turtle.

ivory on 2 bows

“An “instrument passport” allows border crossing with instruments containing these materials but, since learning of the new enforcement in late March, PAQ members simply did not have time to obtain these permits before travel on May 20.

“We’ve spent the past month on a multi-pronged strategy in hopes of finding some solution that would allow PAQ members to travel with their own instruments: an accelerated permitting process, a waiver, a “diplomatic suitcase,” intervention from the Belgian government, even (briefly) the untenable possibility of alternate instruments and bows.

“We seemed to be beating our heads against unyielding walls, until last Thursday when a solution appears to have presented itself.

“The path led from friends advocating our case to the Chancellor’s’ office, the engagement of her Office of Federal Relations who reached the office of U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (below), who in turn took our case to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency overseeing the new enforcement and also the issuer of the permit.

Tammy Baldwin official portrait

“Thanks to the efforts of all of these individuals and agencies, US F&W assured us last Thursday that if all application materials were received by this past Monday, the instrument “passports” will be issued in time for PAQ to travel.

“We are now in that optimistic uneasy phase of waiting for the arrival of the documents, but with the news have now actually booked travel and are in the process of finalizing details for the Belgian tour.

” With luck, everything will go off without a hitch. The necessary permits will probably go out on Wednesday or Thursdayfor receipt here Thursday or Friday.

“Meanwhile, we’ve purchased plane flights, booked the hotel, and are in general behaving as if we’re
travelling next week. Of course, it still all depends on those permits arriving.

“But we are now assuming the remarkable set of concerts and centennial events — including a day in the village of founding violinist Alphonse Onnou where, among many events,  a street will be named after him, a Pro Arte Quartet exhibit will take place — arranged largely by our friend in Belgium, Anne van Malderen, will indeed take place from May 20 to May 28.”

For more about the Pro Arte Quartet’s centennial, listen to this special CBS-TV/WISC-TV Channel 3 news show on YouTube:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Classical music: Could a new ivory protection law derail the Pro Arte Quartet’s tour to Belgium in May? Don’t miss the Pro Arte’s FREE preview concert of the MUST-HEAR program for its “Back to Belgium” tour on Thursday night at 7:30. Plus, a terrific new one-hour documentary about the Pro Arte airs Thursday night at 9 and other times on Wisconsin Public Television.

April 16, 2014
2 Comments

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please note that some reviews of productions last weekend are being delayed to make room for previews of the many upcoming concerts and musical events this week.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear hears:

The Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) may well be prevented from taking its long-planned centennial tour to its homeland Belgium next month because of a seemingly small but very significant government regulation designed to curtail the trade in illegal ivory.

Pro Arte Qartet  Overture Rick Langer

Now, who can argue with the intent to protect elephants from being poached for their ivory tusks? But clearly there are unintended consequences that make the humane regulation look absurd and silly, if not mean-spirited, in its requirements for out-of-date documentation.

Take the Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Music since 1940. It turns out that the acclaimed string quartet may not make its long-planned centennial tour to Belgium next month -– depending on what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which, with the help of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), inspects and confiscates or destroys musical instruments it deems in possible violation of the law at U.S. customs.

As for how it applies to the Pro Arte Quartet: It seems that ivory inlay on one old instrument –- a beautiful and full voiced viola -– and the ivory used in the tips of bows for one or more of the old instruments may violate the new ban and regulation.

ivory on bow tip

It that seems an exaggeration consider the following stories about the difficulties that other musicians and other countries have faced in confronting the situation:

Here is a link to an overview story on NPR:

http://www.npr.org/2014/04/07/300267040/musicians-take-note-your-instrument-may-be-contraband

The problem is not so much getting out of the U.S., since other countries are taking a more lenient or understanding view. The problem comes at U.S. Customs when you leave or even, and especially, return.

Here is the story about one Canadian musician is being held hostage from seeking a professional job by the ban. Be sure to view the video:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/u-s-ivory-ban-makes-musician-cancel-winnipeg-audition-1.2609434

Here is the take by famed critic Norman Lebrecht on his classical music blog “Slipped Disc:

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2014/03/new-threat-to-musical-instruments-entering-the-usa.html

As for the Pro Arte: People are reportedly working behind the scenes to secure a solution, which ranges from getting an exemption to using either a substitute instrument or a substitute player, to cancelling the tour. Stay tuned.

ivory on 2 bows

But while you stay tuned you have two chances tonight to hear the Pro Arte:

Thursday night at 9 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television’s main channel is the extremely we’ll done one-hour documentary about the Pro Arte and its Centennial celebration will air. It features great photos and historic footage, but it also features the quartet playing a studio concert of music by Darius Milhaud, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ernest Bloch, Samuel Barber (the famous “Adagio for Strings” that was originally a string quartet movement and that received its world premiere in Rome from the Pro Arte) and contemporary composer John Harbison. (Other airings are also scheduled. Here is a link:

http://www.wptschedule.org/episodes/45015629/The-Pro-Arte-Quartet-A-Century-of-Music/

But you can record that on a DVD or some other device. And here are other times on The Wisconsin Channel (21.2). The airdates are: April 18 at 8 p.m.; April 19 at 2 a.m.; and April 19 at 5 p.m. In addition, WPT will be offering this documentary program via web-streamibng at the same time as the broadcast, so people can see it globally. The link to the program page, on which the streaming link is also housed, is http://wptschedule.org/episodes/45015629/The-Pro-Arte-Quartet-A-Century-of-Music/

 

Here is the real treat: At 7:30 p.m. on this Thursday night in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte Quartet -– playing its own instruments — will perform a FREE MUST-HEAR concert of the same program that was requested by the Belgian hosts for whom they will play. Consider it a warm-up or run-through.

ProArte 2010 3

The program features one the Ear’s top all-time favorite string quartets: the so-called “Dissonant” Quartet, K. 465 (1785) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which was so advanced in its harmonies that early publishers actually changed some of the opening notes that Mozart wrote to make the work conform to the practices of the day. (The opening that gives it its nickname can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program also includes the Quartet No. 1 (1909) by the pioneering modernist Bela Bartok (below top), and the Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44, No. 2, (1837) by the early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn.

In its blend of the Classical, the Romantic and the Modern repertoire, the program seems quintessentially Pro Arte. And it should be a pure joy to hear.

Members of the current Pro Arte Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer and with links to biographies) are:Parry Karp, cello; Suzanne Beia, second violin; 
Sally Chisholm, viola; and 
David Perry, first violin.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

If didn’t already know it, here is a capsule history of the quartet:

The Pro Arte Quartet was founded in 1911-12 by students at the Brussels Conservatory. Violinist Alphonse Onnou was the leader, and the other founding members included Laurent Halleux (violin), Germain Prévost (viola), and Fernand Auguste Lemaire (cello). The quartet made its debut in Brussels in 1913 and soon became known as an exponent of modern music.

The Pro Arte played their American debut in 1926, performing at the inauguration of the Hall of Music in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. They returned for 30 tours to the United States, as well as a tour of Canada, often under the auspices of the noted patron of chamber music, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

Pro Arte Quartet 1940 Brosa-Halleux-Prevost-Evans 1940

Their first visit to Madison was in 1938, where, two years later, the musicians were stranded by Hitler’s invasion of Belgium and the outbreak of World War II. Following their concert on campus, the University of Wisconsin chancellor offered a permanent home to the quartet.

It was the first such residency ever in a major American university, and became the model on which many other similar arrangements were developed at other institutions.

Onnou died in 1940, but the quartet continued until 1947 as quartet-in-residence at Wisconsin University, led first by Antonio Brosa and from 1944 by Rudolf Kolisch.

The Pro Arte became the faculty string quartet at UW-Madison in the late 1950s, an appointment that continues to the present day -– making the ensemble more than 100 years old, the oldest on-going string quartet ever in history.

 

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