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: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra celebrates Valentine’s Day with violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth in the Romantic “Double Concerto” by Brahms

February 10, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of John DeMain, will celebrate Valentine’s Day.

The program “Romantic Encounter” examines the brashness of French composer Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire” Overture, as well as the thundering seriousness of American composer Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3.

The husband-and-wife duo (below) of violinist Pinchas Zukerman, and cellist Amanda Forsyth make their return to Madison to reprise their performance of German composer Johannes Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor. (You can hear the passionate slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, Feb. 14, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $19 to $95. See below for details.

Says maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) about the world-renowned duo: “The married team of Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth return to recreate their exciting interpretation of the Brahms Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra.

“One of Berlioz’s finest overtures, the exhilarating Le Corsaire opens the concert. And Aaron Copland’s majestic, powerful and lyrical Third Symphony — which is one of Copland’s great masterpieces and includes his Fanfare for the Common Man — is heard on the second half of the program.”

Eight minutes long, Berlioz’s swashbuckling Le Corsaire” was composed in Nice, France, after the final break-up of his marriage. The composer resided in a tower above the sea, which explains the ruined fortification’s depiction in his overture. “Corsaire” translates to “a ship used for piracy,” but this meaning is not related to the work.

 The Double Concerto was Brahms’ final work for orchestra. He composed the concerto for his old but estranged friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, as well as for cellist Robert Hausmann. With few recent precedents, the closest comparison to this work would be the Baroque concerto grosso, in which a soloist or small group is contrasted with an entire ensemble.

Copland’s monumental Symphony No. 3 was commissioned by conductor Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The work perfectly reflects the spirit of post-war America and impressively holds the title of “Greatest American Symphony.” In writing this piece, Copland (below) borrowed from himself by incorporating his triumphant Fanfare for the Common Man.

ABOUT PINCHAS ZUKERMAN

With a celebrated career encompassing five decades, Pinchas Zukerman reigns as one of today’s most sought-after and versatile musicians — violin and viola soloist, conductor and chamber musician. He is renowned as a virtuoso, admired for the expressive lyricism of his playing, singular beauty of tone, and impeccable musicianship, which can be heard throughout his discography of over 100 albums.

Born in Tel Aviv, Zukerman came to the United States where he studied at the Juilliard School with Ivan Galamian as a recipient of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan and is a recipient of the Isaac Stern Award for Artistic Excellence in Classical Music.

ABOUT AMANDA FORSYTH

The Canadian and Juno Award-winning Amanda Forsyth is considered one of North America’s most dynamic cellists. She has achieved her international reputation as soloist, chamber musician and was principal cello of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra from 1999 to 2015. Her intense richness of tone, remarkable technique and exceptional musicality combine to enthrall audiences and critics alike.

PROGRAM NOTES, TICKETS AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. 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 that takes place one hour before each concert.

Program notes are available at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1920/5.Feb20.html

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

Major funding for the February concert has been provided by NBC 15; The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club; Marvin J. Levy; Fred and Mary Mohs; Nancy Mohs; and David and Kato Perlman.

Additional funding has been provided by Robert Benjamin and John Fields; Boardman and Clark LLP; Forte; Barbara Melchert and Gale Meyer; 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: This weekend, soloist Alban Gerhardt will give the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of the Cello Concerto by William Walton. Also on the program are an overture by Rossini and the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms

February 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, cellist Alban Gerhardt (below) returns to the Madison Symphony Orchestra to play the lyrically bittersweet Cello Concerto by William Walton for the first time in the history of the MSO.

Filling out the program are the lush and sweeping Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms and the rousing Overture to the opera Semiramide” by Gioachino Rossini.

The concerts are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on Friday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 18, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $18-$90, and discounts are available. See below for details.

MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), who will conduct the performance, previewed the “Richly Romantic” program:

“Opening the concert is a favorite overture of mine by the prolific Rossini, from the opera Semiramide.

“Next, we welcome back Alban Gerhardt. This charismatic cellist has a huge repertoire and impeccable technique, as well as consummate musicianship. (NOTE: Gerhardt will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music on Friday afternoon from 2:30 to 5 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.)

“In my search to program important works that have not been previously performed by the MSO, I realized that we have never performed the cello concerto by William Walton. It is a very beautiful and lyrical work, and I look forward to collaborating again with Alban on this project.

“I never like to let too much time pass without programming the Brahms symphonies. The first symphony was a huge success at its premiere, and has been proclaimed a masterpiece. It overtly pays tribute to the great master who gave us nine great symphonies. Indeed, many people have referred to the Brahms first as Beethoven’s 10th.”

Here is more background about the three works:

The Overture to Semiramide marks a departure from other operatic overtures of the early 1800s, in that the themes are drawn directly from the opera’s score.

Written by Rossini (below), one of the greatest opera composers in history, the piece also represents some of his best orchestral writing, starting from the rhythmic opening, to the entrance of the horn choir taken directly from the score of the opera, to the joyously frenetic ending.

Written in 1956 in Ischia, a volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Cello Concerto by William Walton (below) reflects the composer’s love of Italy and has been described as subdued, brittle, bittersweet, and introspective.

The composition is suffused with Italianate warmth and a lyrical, singing quality reflecting both bel canto opera as well as Italian popular song. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the first movement played by Gregor Piatigorsky, for whom the concerto was written.)

Praised for the “warm songfulness of his playing” (The Telegraph) at the 2016 BBC Proms, Alban Gerhardt (below) has, for 25 years, made a unique impact on audiences worldwide with his intense musicality, compelling stage presence, and insatiable artistic curiosity.

His gift for shedding fresh light on familiar scores, along with his appetite for investigating new repertoire from centuries past and present, truly sets him apart from his peers.

Though he began writing sketches of the piece as early as 1854, the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms (below) was not completed for 21 years, premiering in Germany in 1876. The final movement contains melodies reminiscent of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which has led some critics to dub the work “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony” much to Brahms’ dismay.

One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below), artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra and interim artistic director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please view the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/6.Feb18.html

The Symphony 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 pre-concert talk that is free for all ticket-holders.

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 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 $12 or $18 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.

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

Major funding for the February concerts is provided by: The Madison Concourse Hotel & Governor’s Club, University Research Park, and National Guardian Life Insurance Company.

Additional funding was provided by Boardman & Clark LLP, Scott and Janet Cabot, Martha and Charles Casey, Gary and Lynn Mecklenburg, Rodney Schreiner and Mark Blank, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: Teenage violin prodigy Julian Rhee performs the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this Friday night. Also on the program are works by Stravinsky and Haydn

February 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Over the years, The Ear has heard quite a few child prodigies, many of them impressive.

But he has heard only one Julian Rhee (below).

Julian Rhee with violin

Rhee, from Brookfield, is a young Milwaukee area violinist who has won numerous awards from and has performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Rhee will perform again with the WCO (below), playing the complete Brahms Violin Concerto — not just separate movements or excerpts — this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

WCO lobby

What makes Rhee so outstanding is that the level of his musicality matches his high technical mastery.

When he performed some of the Brahms concerto in the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Final Forte competition, which he won two years ago, all eyes and ears popped open with the first notes. You just knew right away who was going to win.

(You can hear the Final Forte introduction to Julian Rhee, which aired on Wisconsin Public Televisi0n, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Rhee’s playing exuded a maturity that even seasoned listeners did not expect. And the Brahms is a perfect vehicle to display his interpretive maturity as well as his technical virtuosity. Surely Rhee still has room to grow musically. But his mastery is already something to behold.

If you enjoy being able to say “I heard him when …,” this concert has all the hallmarks of being a must-hear, do-not-miss event.

But there are other attractions on the program, to be played under music director Andrew Sewell, who has again combined works from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Igor Stravinsky’s “L’histoire du soldat” (The Soldier’s Tale) will be performed with guest narrator Jim DeVita (below) of American Players Theatre in Spring Green. The story involves a soldier who sells his soul to the devil.

James_DeVita

And there will also be the Symphony No. 102 in B-Flat Major by Franz Joseph Haydn, a composer whose style brings out the best in WCO music director and conductor Sewell (below), an accomplished interpreter of music from the Classical era.

Andrew Sewell BW

To read Julian Rhee’s complete and impressive biography, and to find out more information about the program, the performers and tickets, go to:

http://www.wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-iii-2/


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