The Well-Tempered Ear

Did Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony foster racism, exclusion and elitism in the concert hall? The Ear thinks that is PC nonsense. What do you think?

September 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Controversy has struck big among classical music critics and fans — just in time for the Beethoven Year that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this December. Plans call for celebrations by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and others. 

At question is what seems yet another fallout and dust-up from the Black Lives Matter movement and the current struggle to foster social justice and racial equality.

In some ways, it all seems inevitable.

Now the history-denying advocates of cancel culture are suggesting that Beethoven (below) and his music – especially the popular Fifth Symphony (you can hear the famous opening in the YouTube schematic video at the bottom)  –  fostered white privilege and the rise of racism, sexism and homophobia in the concert hall.

That seems like quite an accusation for a single composer and a single piece of music that was premiered in 1808.

The assertion is food for thought. But not much.

In the end The Ear finds it a stretch and a totally bogus argument. He thinks that Beethoven attracted far more performers and audiences than he repelled. Others, including famed critic Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc and a critic for the right-wing newspaper The New York Post, agree:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/09/beethovens-5th-is-a-symbol-of-exclusion-and-elitism/

https://nypost.com/2020/09/17/canceling-beethoven-is-the-latest-woke-madness-for-the-classical-music-world/

The Ear also thinks it is political correctness run amok, even for someone who, like himself, advocates strongly for diversity of composers, performers and audiences – but always with quality in mind — in the concert hall.

Just because Beethoven was such a great creative artist is hardly cause to blame him for the inability of other artists to succeed and for non-white audiences taking to classical music. Other forces — social, economic and political — explain that much better.

Yes, Beethoven is a towering and intimidating figure. And yes, his works often dominate programming. But both musicians and audiences return to him again and again because of the originality, power and first-rate quality of his many works.

Beethoven himself was deaf. That would certainly seem to qualify him as inclusive and a member of an important category of diversity.

No matter. The writers are happy to blame Ludwig and his work for exclusion and elitism. They argue that people of color, women and LGBTQ people have all felt alienated from classical music because of Beethoven’s legacy.

Of course, there is elitism in the arts. People may be equal, but creative talent is not.

And clearly, Beethoven was a towering and intimidating figure – more for the quality of his music than for the simple fact that it exists. Such exclusion and elitism have to do with other factors than the composition of the Fifth Symphony.

If The Ear recalls correctly, when he died Beethoven was given the largest state funeral up to that time for a non-royal, non-politician or non-military person.

And how do you explain that Beethoven’s music, so representative of Western culture, appeals deeply to and attracts so many Asians and Asian-Americans, and became both banned and symbolically central to those opposed to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China?

But these days being provocative can become its own reward.

You can read the analysis and decide about its merits for yourself, then let us know what you think in the Comment section.

Here is a link to the opinion piece in Vox Magazine, a free online journal: https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21437085/beethoven-5th-symphony-elitist-classism-switched-on-pop

What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?

Did you ever feel alienated from classical music because of Beethoven or know others who have?

What is your favorite Beethoven composition?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: This year’s virtual Bach Around the Clock proved a 10-day success. Here is a news update with a date for 2021

August 31, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following message from artistic director and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt (below top) about this year’s virtual Bach Around the Clock and the dates for next year’s festival when amateur and professional musicians will again celebrate the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750):

Greetings! I hope this finds you well and finding ways to maintain equilibrium in these tumultuous times.

I’d like to thank you all again for making our 10-day 2020 Virtual Festival (one example is in the YouTube video at the bottom) such a success.

After the sad cancellation of our in-person festival, it was wonderful to see so many of you playing and singing Bach! It reminded me of the Dr. Seuss book; the COVID Grinch may have stolen the trappings of our festival, but we just held it anyway! (Below are members of the Suzuki Strings from a previous BATC festival.)

With the summer over, the BATC board of directors is looking ahead to next year’s festival, which will take place on Saturday, March 20, 2021. We don’t yet know what format it will take — whether in-person, virtual or some combination — but we will explore all available options.

If you have suggestions, please contact us.

Meanwhile, with so many concerts canceled, I hope you can find other ways to include music in your lives. I’ll continue posting Bach-related articles and performance links on our Facebook page

If you have the means, please consider donating to artists and ensembles whose livelihoods have vanished for the foreseeable future.

Thank you again for being part of the BATC community, and please take care.

 


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Classical music: Meet Alexander Gonzalez, the new assistant band director at the UW-Madison who is also a UW alumnus

August 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following press release from the UW-Madison about its new assistant band director. Like many of his musician colleagues at the UW-Madison, he is likely to see his duties curtailed because of the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19.

After the completion of a national search, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music is pleased to announce the hiring of Alexander Gonzalez (below, in a photo by Robb McCormick) as the new assistant director of bands.

Gonzalez will conduct the Tuesday Night University Band, assist the University of Wisconsin Marching Band, direct the Men’s Hockey Band, and teach courses in conducting.

Gonzalez comes to Wisconsin after studying conducting at Ohio State University as a Doctorate of Musical Arts candidate, where he worked with all concert ensembles and the marching band. Alongside his studies, he was the director of the Professional School Orchestra and taught conducting at Capital University’s Conservatory of Music.

“We are thrilled to welcome Alexander and his wife Haley to the University of Wisconsin Marching Band family,” said Associate Director of Bands Corey Pompey (below). “Alexander is a supremely gifted musician and pedagogue whose role is integral to the success of our band program. He is thoughtful, engaging and direct. Our students will benefit in immeasurable ways from what he has to offer.”

Prior to his studies in Ohio, Gonzalez was a public school educator in Colorado and Florida, where he taught an array of courses at middle school and high school levels.

While participating in his Master’s degree in Wind Conducting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he was the director of the Middleton High School Symphony Orchestra’s Wind Octet and worked in education and community outreach with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Alexander Gonzalez conducting the UW-Madison’s University Band in Michael J. Miller’s “Tribute for Band” in Mills Hall in 2014.)

“I am beyond excited to return to a place I consider home,” said Gonzalez (below). “The bands at UW-Madison were integral in forming the educator I am today. And I am equally excited to create a musical environment where present and future students can feel as loved, challenged and respected as I did.”

Gonzalez holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the University of Florida and is an active member in the National Association for Music Education, the College Band Directors National Association, the National Band Association, Phi Mu Alpha, Kappa Kappa Psi and Tau Beta Sigma.

“Professor Gonzalez brings with him a wealth of knowledge from his background in teaching music at the public school and college levels,” said Director of Bands Scott Teeple  (below). “He is an extraordinary musician, pedagogue and individual. Alexander’s contributions to the UW Band program and the Mead Witter School of Music will deepen the musical experiences of our students. We consider ourselves fortunate to have him as a member of our team.”

 


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Will the public pay for online virtual concerts? Will you? Consider the fate of newspapers

August 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

More and more local classical musicians and music presenters are moving concerts and music-making to virtual online events, at least for the fall and early winter – and quite possibly for the rest of the season. (Below is Shannon Hall in the Wisconsin Union Theater.)

And although we are still waiting for details, it seems all but certain that many of them will be pay-per-view and require tickets.

True, the move from free streaming to pay-for-view might be very useful in helping performers earn a much-needed living.

But it could also be disastrous – or at least extremely disruptive and disappointing.

Anthony Tommasini (below), the senior music critic for The New York Times, recently wrote a long story defending the move from being free to becoming paid for both livestreams and pre-recorded music concerts.

Tommasini — whose profession demands that he follow wherever the music goes —  thinks it will, or should, work.

Here is a link to his story that includes concerts at The Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere with international stars such as soprano Renée Fleming (beow top) and pianist Daniil Trifonov (below bottom).

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/11/arts/music/classical-music-livestream.html

But The Ear isn’t so sure.

For one thing, many listeners might find alternatives. They might like watching outstanding performances of the same works by great and even historical performers on YouTube for free.

They might like exploring their own collections of recordings, or listening to the radio and watching TV, or even making more music as amateurs.

The Ear also suspects that now that the habit of going to live concerts has been interrupted, many people will simply find that they miss going to live performances much less than they thought they would – or than various arts groups hoped they would. (Below is the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in a photo by Mike Gorski.)

In addition, even since the coronavirus pandemic lockdown last March, listeners have become used to the free events that many organizations offered if only to keep a presence in the public’s mind.

The strategy was understandable and made sense at the time.

But The Ear thinks of what happened with newspapers.

In the early days of the internet, newspapers offered online stories for free, as a kind of extra attraction or added benefit to secure subscribers.

But as the newspapers lost both advertisers and subscribers and tried to “monetize” their online editions, they found that the horse was already out of the barn.

Many viewers did indeed subscribe to digital editions, but many others abandoned newspapers and instead turned to free online media for their news.

So what will happen in cases less prestigious than what Tommasini describes?

What do you think?

Will local pay-per-view concerts, perhaps with bigger volume if lower individual ticket prices, be successful?

Will you pay to “attend” such virtual online events?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Wisconsin Union Theater concerts will go virtual and online for the fall of the new season. Updated details about dates, ticket prices and programs are forthcoming

August 21, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

With continuing spikes in cases of coronavirus and COVID-19, classical music presenters are seeing history repeat itself and are feeling forced to adapt, cancel or postpone their events, much as happened last spring and this summer.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra has canceled its concerts through January and the Madison Opera has canceled its fall production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” with digital online substitutions. And we can, unfortunately, expect more.

Now comes word from the Wisconsin Union Theater (below is Shannon Hall) is moving its fall events to a virtual and online presentation.

Here is the latest announcement from communications director Shauna Breneman of the Wisconsin Union Theater:

“The determination has been made that all fall Wisconsin Union Theater events in our 2020-21 season will be virtual in light of public health guidance and for the health and safety of our patrons and team members in light of COVID-19.”

Editor’s note: That includes second postponement of the concert by superstar soprano Renée Fleming (below), booked to celebrate the WUT’s centennial season, from May 2 to Oct. 24 and now to  still unspecified date.

Other artists affected in the lineup of 101st season include the eclectic singing group Roomful of Teeth (below top, in a photo by Bonica Ayala; cellist Camille Thomas (below middle, in a photo by Dan Carabas) and pianist Jeremy Denk (below bottom, in a photo by Shervin Lainez).

Adds Breneman:

“We will share information for each show as we finalize details. While we wish we could share these experiences in-person, we are grateful to be able to continue to offer performing arts experiences.”

Here is the link to the announcement of the performers in the full 2020-21 season: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=wisconsin+union+theater


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Classical music: Meet Mariana Farah, the new choral director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

August 17, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Following a national search, Mariana Farah (below) has been chosen to succeed Beverly Taylor as the new director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Due to prior commitments, Farah cannot start her duties until the fall of 2021. But the delay is understandable given that the coronavirus pandemic continues and group singing remains a particularly hazardous or high-risk activity during the public health crisis. (See her comments about choral singing during Covid-19 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

(In case you are wondering, Taylor, who retired from the UW-Madison last spring, will continue as director of the Madison Symphony Chorus. One wonders if she will still have a chance to do performances of the requiems by Verdi and Dvorak, both of which were canceled due to Covid-19.)

At a time when more focus is being placed on diversity, the Brazilian-born Farah (below) seems an especially apt choice.

Here is the official UW press release about Farah’s appointment along with much biographical material:

“Mariana Farah is the Associate Director of Choral Activities at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, where she teaches courses in graduate choral literature and conducting, directs the university’s Concert Choir and Women’s Chorale (below bottom), and helps oversee all aspects of the choral program.

Born in Brazil, Farah received her Bachelor of Music degree from the Universidade Estadual de Campinas; her Master’s degree from the University of Iowa; and her Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Her choirs have successfully performed at the Missouri and Kansas Music Educators Association conventions and at the 2008 and 2018 Southwestern ACDA conferences.

Farah’s research focuses on Brazilian choral music, particularly the a cappella choral works of Ernani Aguiar (b. 1950, below). Her edition of Aguiar’s “Três Motetinos No. 2” has been published by Earthsongs, and she expects to introduce more of his music to the United States through performances, recordings, editions and future publications of his unknown choral literature.

In addition to her work at KU, Farah (below) maintains an active schedule as a clinician for festivals in Brazil and in the U.S., where she is often sought out for her expertise in Brazilian choral music.

Farah has presented at several conferences for the National Association for Music Education and the American Choral Directors Association.

Recent engagements include appearances as a conductor at the 2019 Northwest Kansas Music Educators Association High School Honor Choir; the 2018 Southwestern ACDA conference, 2016 and 2014 Kansas Music Educators Association Convention; Universidade de São Paulo-Ribeirão Preto; Universidade Estadual de Campinas; Universidade Estadual de Maringá; Festival de Música de Londrina; Adams State Honor Choir Festival; the 2015 Kantorei Summer Choral Institute, a residency with the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum; and the 2014 Idaho All-State Treble Choir.

Farah is the music director at First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence, Kansas, where she directs the Chancel Choir and oversees a thriving music program. She also serves as the interim 2019-20 conductor for the Wichita Chamber Chorale (below) and as a board member of the National Collegiate Choral Organization.

She has served as the president elect (2018-2020) and R&R Chair for Ethnic and Multicultural Perspectives (2014-2018) for the ACDA Southwestern Division.

As a singer, Farah performed with the Kansas City Te Deum Chamber Choir (2015-2018) and participated in their 2016 recording of Brahms’ “A German Requiem” (Centaur Records). The recording was recognized by The American Prize, naming Te Deum a semi-finalist for best Choral Performance (community division) for the 2019-20 contest.

Do you have an observation or words of welcome to say?

Please use the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: What composer or piece of music would you like to hear once the coronavirus is contained and concert halls open again?

August 15, 2020
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The news can be confusing and even contradictory about some specifics, but the general direction of reports and statistics about the coronavirus pandemic and deaths from COVID-19 is clear.

It is going to be a long haul until we safely get to go hear live music in large crowds again, just as The Ear talked about earlier this week. (Below is a photo of conductor John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Overture Hall.)

Here is a link to that post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/08/11/classical-music-its-clear-to-the-ear-it-will-be-at-least-another-full-year-before-music-lovers-in-the-u-s-can-safely-attend-live-concerts-what-do-you-think/

When performers finally get to play, and the concert halls finally get to open, and audiences finally get to listen in person, here is what The Ear wants to know:

What composer would you like hear?

Maybe Beethoven (below) because so much of the Beethoven Year – marking the composer’s 250th birthday this coming December – has been canceled or postponed?

Maybe Johann Sebastian Bach (below) because he just seems so basic, varied and universal?

And what specific piece of music would you like to hear?

Perhaps Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” with its “Ode to Joy”? Or maybe the “Eroica” Symphony? Or one of the string quartets?

Perhaps the “St. Mathew Passion” or the Mass in B Minor? Maybe one or more of the cantatas?

Should the music pay homage to the suffering, loss and death – perhaps with Mozart’s “Requiem”? Or Brahms’ “A German Requiem”? Or Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony?

Or should the music be upbeat and joyous, like Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture” (below in the YouTube video)? Or some glittering and whirling waltzes by the Strauss family?

Is there an opera that seems especially relevant?

Would you prefer instrumental, choral or vocal music?

And what period, era or style would you prefer?

It will be great to be reacquainted with old and familiar friends. But it would also seem an ideal time to commission and perform new music.

Leave your suggestions in the Comment section with, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance to help us decide.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Meet Conor Nelson, the new flute professor at the UW-Madison

August 13, 2020
8 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music has a new flute professor who follows Timothy Hagen in taking the place of retired longtime predecessor Stephanie Jutt, who continues to perform locally with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society..

He is Conor Nelson (below) and he starts later this month at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Here is the biography — impressive for both his performing and his teaching –that the university released: 

“Praised for his “long-breathed phrases and luscious tone” by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Canadian flutist Conor Nelson is established as a leading flutist and pedagogue of his generation.

“Since his New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, he has frequently appeared as soloist and recitalist throughout the United States and abroad.

“Solo engagements include concertos with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Flint Symphony, and numerous other orchestras.

“In addition to being the only wind player to win the Grand Prize at the WAMSO (Minnesota Orchestra) Young Artist Competition, he won first prize at the William C. Byrd Young Artist Competition. He also received top prizes at the New York Flute Club Young Artist Competition, the Haynes International Flute Competition as well as the Fischoff, Coleman and Yellow Springs chamber music competitions. (Editor’s note: In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Conor Nelson perform the second and third movements of the Flute Sonata by French composer Francis Poulenc.)

“With percussionist Ayano Kataoka (below left, with Nelson), he performed at Merkin Concert Hall, Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Hall and Izumi Hall. A recital at the Tokyo Opera City Hall received numerous broadcasts on NHK Television. Their CD entitled, “Breaking Training” was released on New Focus Recordings (NYC). His second CD, “Nataraja,” with pianist Thomas Rosenkranz, is also available on New Focus.

“He has collaborated with pianist Claude Frank on the Schneider concert series in New York City and appeared at numerous chamber music festivals across the country including the OK Mozart, Bennington, Skaneateles, Yellow Barn, Cooperstown, Salt Bay, Look and Listen (NYC), Norfolk (Yale), Green Mountain, Chesapeake, and the Chamber Music Quad Cities series.

“He is the Principal Flutist of the New Orchestra of Washington in Washington, D.C., and has performed with the Detroit, Toledo and Tulsa Symphony Orchestras. He also performed as guest principal with A Far Cry, Orquesta Filarmónica de Jalisco, and the Conceirtos de la Villa de Santo Domingo.

“A respected pedagogue, Dr. Nelson has given master classes at over 100 colleges, universities and conservatories.

“Prior to his appointment at UW-Madison, he served as the flute professor at Bowling Green State University for nine years and as the Assistant Professor of Flute at Oklahoma State University from 2007-2011.

“His recent residencies include Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea; the Sichuan Conservatory in Chengdu, China; the Conservatorio de Musica de Puerto Rico; and the Associacao Brasileira de Flautistas in Sao Paulo.

“He is also a regular guest of the Texas Summer Flute Symposium and has been the featured guest artist for 11 flute associations across the country. His former students can be found performing in orchestras, as well as teaching at colleges, universities and public schools nationwide. They have also amassed over 60 prizes in young artist competitions, concerto competitions and flute association competitions.

“Nelson received degrees from the Manhattan School of Music, Yale University and Stony Brook University where he was the winner of the school-wide concerto competitions at all three institutions. He is also a recipient of the Thomas Nyfenger Prize, the Samuel Baron Prize and the Presser Award.

“His principal teachers include Carol Wincenc, Ransom Wilson, Linda Chesis, Susan Hoeppner and Amy Hamilton. Nelson is a Powell Flutes artist and is the Assistant Professor of Flute at UW-Madison where he performs with the Wingra Wind Quintet.”

 


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Classical music: It’s clear to The Ear: It will be at least another full year before audiences in the U.S. can safely attend live concerts. What do you think?

August 11, 2020
7 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

All the signs point to the same conclusion: It will be at least the fall of 2021 before we can safely attend concerts again – if we are lucky.

These past two weeks, The Ear answered questionnaires sent out by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), which has already canceled the season through January, and the Wisconsin Union Theater (below bottom is Shannon Hall).

If you read between the lines, both questionnaires seemed to suggest the same two things: that the entire 2020-21 concert season will be canceled or postponed; or else that it will feature virtual online performances — for ticket prices (perhaps called a “donation”) that have not yet been announced and may not be acceptable to a lot of any group’s core audience.

Perhaps you disagree. If so, The Ear would like to hear in the comment section what you think and why you think it.

Here is what The Ear, who has talked with other season subscribers and various musicians, has seen and heard.

The United States has now surpassed 5 million coronavirus infections and 163,000 Covid-19 deaths with no sign of slowing down and many signs of accelerating. One widely cited model now predicts 300,000 deaths by this Dec. 1.

Plus, too many Americans refuse to wear masks or to maintain social distancing or to shelter at home to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Add in that we will be fortunate if enough vaccines are found to be safe, efficient and approved for use by Jan 1.

Then – despite federal government’s “Warp Speed” development or fast-tracking of the search for vaccines — there is the time needed to manufacture enough of them.

Then it will take considerable time to distribute them equitably, which other countries and public health agencies around the world demand.

Then, if we hope to reach herd immunity, it will take time to convince enough people to get the vaccine, especially with the growing number of anti-vaxxers.

Then those who do get vaccinated will have to wait a month for the second shot that will be required.

Then we wait a few weeks to see if and how much the vaccine really works – if it is safe and prevents infection or at least lessens the damage of the disease if you do get infected.

Plus, it sees unreasonable to think all of these steps will go without a hitch. So maybe a few more weeks or even months should be added.

Add up the math, and the conclusion seems clear: Performing arts events, like sports and other large in-person gatherings, seem increasingly likely to be canceled or reconfigured for a full year.

Concerts are already taking place in China, and other countries in Asia and Europe seem likely to catch up soon. But music lovers in the U.S. will be lucky if they get to attend a live concert with 100 or 500 or 1,000 or 2,500 other people before the fall of 2021 – at least a full year away. Maybe more.

The Ear could well be wrong. Maybe you see a different conclusion, which we would all love to hear. Perhaps international readers will share estimates about when concerts will begin in their country.

One way or another, we will learn a lot more about how the new music season is being planned and changed in the next three weeks.


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Classical music: Leon Fleisher, the inspirational pianist and teacher who died a week ago, had ties to Madison

August 9, 2020
2 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

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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