The Well-Tempered Ear

University Opera’s original online video project celebrates the life and music of American composer Marc Blitzstein. It will be posted for FREE on YouTube this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m.

October 21, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera presents its first project of 2020-21 in video format as it turns to the music of the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” will be released free of charge on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s YouTube channel this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. CDT at the general site www.youtube.com/meadwitterschoolofmusic or the official specific link: https://youtu.be/77FXFZucrWc.

Director of University Opera David Ronis (below top) is the director of the original production and will give introductory remarks. UW-Madison graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) is the musical director. The production lasts 1 hour and 40 minutes, and features four singer-actors, a narrator and a piano.

Marc Blitzstein’s life story parallels some of the most important cultural currents in American history of the mid-20th-century.

Known for his musicals — most notably The Cradle Will Rock in 1937 (you can hear Dawn Upshaw sing the lovely song “I Wish It So” from “Juno” in the YouTube video at the bottom) — his opera Regina and his translation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Blitzstein was an outspoken proponent of socially engaged art. Like many artists of his time, he joined the American Communist Party. But he also enthusiastically served in the U.S. Army during World War II (below, in 1943).

Nevertheless, in 1958, long after he had given up his Communist Party membership, Blitzstein (below) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he “named no names.”

An extremely gifted yet underappreciated composer, he was a close friend of and mentor to Leonard Bernstein (below right, with Blitzstein on the left) and traveled in a close circle of American composers including David Diamond and Aaron Copland.

Although openly gay, he married Eva Goldbeck in 1933. Sadly, she died three years later from complications due to anorexia.

Blitzstein’s own death was likewise tragic. In 1964, while in Martinique working on an opera about the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, he was robbed and badly beaten by three Portuguese sailors whom he had picked up at a bar. He died the next day of internal injuries. 

Although throughout his life and afterwards, Blitzstein’s work was championed by Bernstein and others, many claim that neither the composer nor his stunning music and beautiful lyrics ever received the attention they deserved. So University Opera is proud to present this show celebrating his life and his works.

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” is a unique production put together by David Ronis. A biographical pastiche, it tells the story of Blitzstein’s life by recontextualizing 23 songs and ensembles from his shows, juxtaposing them with spoken excerpts from his working notes and letters, and tying it all together with a narration.

The result is a dramatic, evocative and enjoyable portrait of Blitzstein’s life and his art, according to Ronis.

“We’ve discovered a lot of “silver linings” while working on this production,” says Ronis. “We were disappointed at not being able to do a normal staged show. But working with video has had tremendous artistic and educational value.

“Our students are learning on-camera technique, not to mention how to work with a green screen (below, with soprano Sarah Brailey), which allows for post-production editing and digital manipulation of backgrounds. They’re also working with spoken text as well as sung pieces. Mostly, we’re just very grateful to have a creative project to sink our teeth into during the pandemic. 

“And the music of Blitzstein is so fantastic, we’re very happy to be able to share it with our audience. This project is like none other I’ve ever done and we’re thinking that it’s going to be pretty cool.”

Research on the project was completed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Blitzstein’s archives are housed. University Opera gratefully acknowledges the help of both Mary Huelsbeck of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, and the Kurt Weill Foundation for their assistance with this project.

The cast features five UW-Madison graduate students: Sarah Brailey, Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Lindsey Meekhof (below) and Steffen Silvis.

The video design was done by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park.

Others on the production staff include Will Preston, rehearsal pianist; Elisheva Pront, research assistant and assistant director; Dylan Thoren, production stage manager; Alec Hansen, assistant stage manager; Teresa Sarkela, storyboard creator; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video will be accessible for 23 hours starting at 8 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 23. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted. A link for donations will be posted with the video. 

University Opera, a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, email opera@music.wisc.edu or visit music.wisc.edu.

 


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Madison Opera cancels its January production of “She Loves Me.” Will other groups follow suit? Plus, tonight is the last online concert by the LunART Festival of music by Black women

October 17, 2020
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ALERT: TONIGHT, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. the third LunART Festival will wrap up with the second of its two FREE streamed “Human Family” concerts featuring the works of Black women (below). Due to popular demand, last week’s concert is still posted and available for viewing. This week’s concert will be followed by a virtual party. Here are links for information, programs and biographies: https://www.lunartfestival.org/2020virtualfestival and https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=LunART

By Jacob Stockinger

The coronavirus pandemic continues to slowly take its toll on local live productions during the current season.

The Madison Opera has now canceled its second production of the season, the Broadway musical “She Loves Me” by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which was scheduled for late January in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Here are details from Madison Opera: “We will replace She Loves Me with a Digital Winter season that lasts from January to March. Details will be announced in December. (She Loves Me will be part of our 2021/22 season, so it’s only a delay!)”

For more about Madison Opera’s digital fall season – which costs $50 per household to subscribe to – go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/Fall2020

The next digital event is at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday, Oct. 24, by Sun Prairie bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (below, in a photo by Lawrence Brownlee), who has performed around the world, including at the Metropolitan Opera.

He will perform a live-streamed concert from the Madison Opera Center that will be a tribute to the American bass Giorgio Tozzi (below), who was Ketelsen’s teacher at Indiana University. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Tozzi sing “This Nearly Was Mine” from “South Pacific” by Rodgers and Hammerstein.)

Here is Tozzi’s biography from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giorgio_Tozzi

Soprano Emily Secor (below top) and pianist Scott Gendel (below bottom) will perform with Ketelsen.

Here is a link to details of Kyle Ketelsen’s recital: https://www.madisonopera.org/class/liveketelsen/?wcs_timestamp=1603567800

___________________________________________________________________________

The cancellation makes The Ear wonder: Are local groups and presenters being too timid or too hopeful when it comes to future plans for the current season?

After all, this past week we learned that both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic have canceled the rest of the current season due to public health concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. And all indications are that it will be a very rough, unsafe winter and spring in Wisconsin and Madison.

That’s why The Ear suspects that, unfortunately, the rest of the season will either be canceled or be virtual and moved online. It even seems more than plausible that there will be no live performances until the winter or spring of 2022.

So you can probably expect further word pretty soon of more cancellations, postponements and virtual online performances from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, the University Opera and others.

What do you think? 

Will there be operas, orchestral performances and live chamber music sometime yet this season?

When do you think it will be safe to perform and attend live concerts?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Salon Piano Series offers a free video of pianist Maxim Lando playing quiet Beethoven to ease the burden of the pandemic

October 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following note from the Salon Piano Series to post:

During these uncertain times, we appreciate remembering time spent together enjoying music.

Please take a break from your day to see and hear the young, prize-winning pianist Maxim Lando (below) perform the theme-and-variations third movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109, “Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo” (Slowly, very singing and expressive).

The 15-minute video – posted and viewable now- — was recorded live at Farley’s House of Pianos, as part of the Salon Piano Series, on Nov. 17, 2019.

Over the years, you have supported Salon Piano Series with your attendance, individual sponsorships and donations. We look forward to bringing you world-class musical performances in our unique salon setting again soon.

For updates and more information, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org

Here is the Lando video: 

Editor’s note: Here is a Wikipedia entry with more impressive information about Maxim Lando’s biography and many concert performances around the world including China and Russia as well as the U.S.: https://maximlando.com

If you want to hear the entire Beethoven Sonata, you can hear a performance by Richard Goode in the YouTube video below.


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The third LunART Festival celebrates Black women in the arts with FREE streaming concerts and events this Saturday night, Oct. 10, and next Saturday night, Oct. 17

October 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The LunART Festival is back for its third season, continuing its mission to support, inspire, promote and celebrate women in the arts, with a special presentation, “Human Family,” available via two FREE video livestreams on LunART’s website and Facebook page on Saturday, Oct. 10, and Saturday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. CDT. 

The events will be co-hosted by LunART founder and flutist Iva Ugrcic (below top), and by vocalist and art administrator Deja Mason (below bottom).

In response to the most recent and ongoing racial inequality and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, LunART will present the “Human Family” virtual festival featuring art created by Black women.

These FREE streamed events will feature a palette of emerging and established artists drawn from Madison’s rich arts scene, while also celebrating those who have paved the way for generations to come.

Radical inclusivity has been part of LunART’s mission from its conception. While women have historically been underrepresented in the arts, we cannot deny that there are segments of women that have been doubly marginalized, including women of color, women in the LGBTQIA+ community, older women and women with disabilities. 

Part of creating a more just, inclusive world means recognizing that even within the space of underrepresentation, there remain disparities.

Works from the past include Florence Price’s “Five Folksongs of Counterpoint” for string quartet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom), which is deeply rooted in the African-American spiritual tradition; Margaret Bonds’ Spiritual Suite for solo piano, written in a neo-Romantic classical style infused by jazz harmonies and rhythms; Afro-American Suite for flute, cello and piano by Undine Smith Moore, based on authentic spiritual songs used to express and record everyday life of slaves in America. 

Florence Price (below), Margaret Bonds and Undine Smith Moore all fought against both racial and gender discrimination throughout their lives. To be a woman composing classical music in the mid-20th century was unusual; to be a Black woman composer was even more so. And yet, these women forged ahead, making history and paving the way for the women who would follow them.

Along with these pioneers of the past, LunART will also celebrate contemporary Black women who are making a big impact in the world of arts, culture, advocacy and activism, following the footsteps of their predecessors. 

“Voodoo Dolls” for string quartet by Jessie Montgomery (below in a photo by Jiyang Chen) is influenced by West African drumming patterns that are interwoven with lyrical motifs in the improvisatory style. 

“Fanmi Imen,” a work for flute and piano by Valerie Coleman (below) — LunART’s 2019 Composer-in-Residence) — is based on a powerful poem by Maya Angelou, “Human Family.” Angelou calls for peace and unity, while acknowledging differences due to ethnic and cultural background in her famous refrain: “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

The chamber music will be performed by Madison’s finest musicians: Isabella Lippi, Karl Lavine, Peter Miliczky, Magdalena Sas, Marie Pauls, Satoko Hayami, Yana Avedyan and Iva Ugrcic.

Celebrating women’s creativity across many art forms has been a core component of LunART’s artistic mission from its inception, and this year is no exception. While music will create a sound painting, “Human Family” will also feature women who use words and movement to tell their story.

Enter a world of phenomenal talent with emerging singer-songwriters Danielle Crim and Akornefa Akyea performing their most recent original songs; magically moving poems and spoken-word pieces by Jamie Dawson and Shasparay Lighteard; and join dancer and choreographer Kimi Evelyn in self-exploration of what happens when the body and the soul are left in complete solitude through her powerful piece “Body, Sweet Home.”

To commemorate the Festival events, LunART has commissioned digital artwork (below) by local artist and activist Amira Caire, which is inspired by the “Human Family” concept. This stunning piece of art will be available for purchase in printed form on LunART’s website. 

We are calling our community to eat local, drink local and support local. By supporting LunART, you are also supporting local nonprofits and small businesses. 

This project would not be possible without the generosity of Madison’s creative media agency Microtone Media, The Piano Gal Shop from Sun Prairie, Dane Arts and a grant from the Madison Arts Commission at  https://www.cityofmadison.com/dpced/planning/madison-arts-commission/1580/, with the additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Events are free and available for anyone to watch online, and donations are welcomed. For more details about the artists, events, programs and links, and donation methods, please visit https://www.lunartfestival.org


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The Madison Bach Musicians will open its new season with a virtual online concert of Haydn and Mozart this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

October 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement, about a promising contrast-and-compare concert, from the Madison Bach Musicians:

The Madison Bach Musicians (MBM) will start its 17th season this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Oct. 3 and 4, with a virtual chamber music concert and livestream event featuring the irrepressibly joyous, witty and poised music of Classical-era masters Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

The performances features period instruments and historically informed performance practices.

See details near the bottom about the schedules and how to buy tickets.

Performers are violinist Kangwon Kim and cellist James Waldo (on gut-strung period instruments), fortepianist Trevor Stephenson, and soprano soloist Morgan Balfour — winner of the 2019 Handel Aria Competition. (Below top is Kangwon Kim; below middle is James Waldo; and below bottom is Morgan Balfour.)

The broadcast will begin with a 30-minute pre-concert lecture by MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer) illuminating the program’s repertoire, the lives of Haydn and Mozart, and the aesthetic aims of the period instruments.

While most of the pieces on the program are buoyant and full of celebration, the concert will begin with a pensive and melancholy work commensurate with our current pandemic times.

Mozart composed the Sonata in E minor for violin and fortepiano in 1778 at the age of 22 while on tour in Paris. His mother, who was with him on the tour, became suddenly ill and died unexpectedly. This sonata is the only piece of instrumental music Mozart ever composed in the key of E minor, and its blend of gravitas, sparseness and tenderness is heartbreakingly poignant.

Mozart’s Piano Trio in G major, composed in 1788, shows him at his sunniest and most affable, with one brilliant and catchy tune after another suspended effortlessly — at least in Mozart’s hands! ― within the balance of Classical form.

The program’s first half ends with five of Mozart’s songs. Mozart truly loved the soprano voice, and he lavished some of his greatest writing upon it. The set includes perhaps his best-known song, Das Veilchen (The Violet)―which is also, oddly enough, Mozart’s only setting of a text by the German poet Goethe.

The second half of the concert is devoted to the music of Mozart’s near contemporary, Joseph Haydn, who was just 24 years older than Mozart.

Though the two composers came from very different musical and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Haydn (below) was lower working class, rural, and musical but not professionally trained.

Mozart (below) was urban, solid middle class, musically trained, sophisticated, and ambitious.

Both managed to carve out successful careers in the fertile musical culture of Vienna and its environs. They certainly knew each other and even made music together on occasion, playing in string quartets — with Haydn on violin and Mozart on viola.

Haydn composed two sets of English Canzonettas (songs) during his visits to England during the early 1790s.

The Mermaid, with its flirtatious beckoning, stretches the confines of the parlor setting (where this music was most likely performed) and suggests a cabaret environment. Fidelity, on the other hand, stays within the parlor style, emphasizing how the bond of devotion can overcome physical separation. Haydn brilliantly interweaves stormy, naturalistic episodes with declarations of unbending loyalty.

The concert will close with Haydn’s mercurial Piano Trio No. 27 in C major. Also composed during his London visits in the 1790s, this trio is the first of a set of three dedicated to the London-based virtuoso pianist Therese Bartolozzi. The Presto finale―with its unbridled high spirits―is a supreme example of Classical Era cheeky, theatrically conceived wit. (You can hear the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

SCHEDULE AND TICKETS

As a result of public health guidelines in response to Covid-19 that do not allow for an in-person audience, we will livestream our concert from Grace Episcopal Church, downtown on Capitol Square, on Saturday evening for at-home viewing. (Below are Trevor Stephenson and Kangwon Kim rehearsing in masks at Stephenson’s home.)

The event will begin with a pre-concert talk by Trevor Stephenson at 7:30 p.m., and after the 8 p.m. concert, the musicians will remain on stage to answer questions submitted by our audience.

On Sunday, starting at 3 p.m. we will rebroadcast the Saturday evening recording and follow that with a live question-and-answer session with our musicians from their homes.

After purchasing tickets for $15 per household, you will be sent a link to access the performance. The recorded lecture and video will be available for up to 72 hours after they take place.

To purchase tickets, go to: https://madisonbachmusicians.org/oct-3-4-haydn-mozart/ or to: https://madison-bach-musicians.square.site/product/haydn-mozart-oct-3-4-livestream/54?cs=true

For information about the Madison Bach Musicians’ full season, go to: https://madisonbachmusicians.org/season-overview/

 


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The Metropolitan Opera has canceled the rest of this season and announced the following season of Live in HD. How will the cancellation affect concert seasons here and elsewhere?

September 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Unfortunately, it seems like The Ear’s prediction on Monday is coming true.

Given the coronavirus spikes and complications of vaccine production, testing, distribution and administration, The Ear said, it looks like live concerts are likely to be canceled for the rest of this season and perhaps even for the fall of 2021.

Here is that post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/09/21/looks-like-there-will-be-no-live-concerts-for-the-rest-of-this-2020-21-season-and-maybe-until-early-2022/

Then yesterday the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City announced exactly that: It is going to cancel the whole season, and not just the fall productions, as originally planned. (You can hear general manager Peter Gelb discuss the plans for this season and the next season in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Given that the Met is the largest performing arts organization in the United States, it promises to be a Big Domino with a lot of influence and side effects.

Here is the Met story, with more quotes, details and information, from The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/23/arts/music/metropolitan-opera-cancels-coronavirus.html

Perhaps to provide some reassurance and attenuate the negative news of the decision to cancel, the Met also announced its Live in HD season for the 2021-22 season, which is based on live productions.

Here it is on the website Opera Wire: https://operawire.com/met-opera-2021-22-season-here-is-all-the-information-for-this-seasons-live-in-hd-performances/

And if you want to know what the Met (below, from the stage) is planning to offer instead, here is a link to the Met’s own website: https://www.metopera.org.

What do you think will be the local effects of the Met decision to cancel the entire season?

Will other musical organizations follow suit, cancel the entire new season of in-person events and go safely online with virtual events?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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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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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?


Posted in Classical music
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