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: Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell, who performed in Madison, is dead at 76

April 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell (below) died Monday at 76.

If his name sounds familiar, it could be because Harrell performed in Madison at least three times – twice with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (2007 and 2011), in concertos by Lalo and Victor Herbert, and a recital with pianist Yefim Bronfman at the Wisconsin Union Theater (1994).

No cause of death has yet been given, but various sources say it was unrelated to COVID-19 or the coronavirus pandemic.

To know more about his remarkable life and impressive career, go to his biography on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Harrell 

Colleagues were quick to praise Harrell not only as a master musician – gifted with beautiful tone and sensitive, expressive interpretations — but also as a great teacher and a congenial man who made friends easily. He also cut promotional ads for National Public Radio (NPR) urging members to donate, as he himself did.

Here is an interview he did in 2011 with host Norman Gilliland for Wisconsin Public Radio:

https://www.wpr.org/shows/lynn-harrell

Here is a link to an obituary from The Violin Channel that features quotes from many musicians who admired Harrell:

https://theviolinchannel.com/cellist-lynn-harrell-has-passed-away-died-obituary-rip/

And here are tributes from many of his colleagues for British critic Norman Lebrecht’s blog “Slipped Disc”:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/04/lynn-harrell-tributes-pour-in/

A prodigy who made his Carnegie Hall debut at 17, Harrell, who studied at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute, was renowned internationally. He later taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

In 1994 he played a Papal Concert at the Vatican to mark the first commemoration and remembrance of the Holocaust. His performance there of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei”  for cello and orchestra can be seen and heard at the bottom in the most popular of Harrell’s many YouTube videos.

 


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Classical music: A public memorial for critic John W. Barker is this Sunday afternoon. You can also help honor him with a named chair at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center

December 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall that John W. Barker (below, in a photo by Mark Golbach) — a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history and  a longtime, well respected music critic, lecturer and radio host for WORT —  died at 86 on Oct. 24.

His wife Margaret writes:

Dear Friends,

There will be a gathering to remember John at Capitol Lakes Retirement Center, 333 West Main Street – downtown and two blocks off the Capitol Square — this Sunday afternoon, Dec. 15, at 3:30 p.m. Please join us for memories and music. And please pass the word.

Barker wrote frequently for this blog as well as for Isthmus, The Capital Times and the American Record Review. He had a long, full life with distinguished careers in both history and music.

For a complete obituary, go to: https://madison.com/news/local/obituaries/barker-john-walton/article_04261147-4317-5cf2-9b6a-4098f3ffca06.html

Barker has already been honored by a special performance for him and then by the current season being dedicated to him by Middleton Community Orchestra; and by the Madison Early Music Festival, in which he was very active for many years, naming its annual concert lecture series after him.

Another way to honor Barker is to contribute to a project that is headed by local businesspeople Orange and Dean Schroeder, who founded the annual Handel Aria Competition, of which Barker was a founding board member who also served as a judge. The Schroeders write:

“Members of the Madison musical community have decided to honor John W. Barker by dedicating a seat in his memory in the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison. The cost is $1,500 of which $950 has already been raised. If you would like to join us, please click on this link and specify that you are making the gift in his memory: https://secure.supportuw.org/give/?id=515d53cf-e8ff-4caa-9260-c7885c66b309

John W. Barker sang in choirs and loved choral music, like the last movement, “In Paradise,” of the Requiem by Gabriel Faure that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Thank you, John. Rest in peace.


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Classical music: Legendary Austrian pianist and scholar Paul Badura-Skoda dies at 91. In the 1960s, he was artist-in-residence at the UW-Madison School of Music

September 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Paul Badura-Skoda, the celebrated Austrian pianist who was equally known for his performances and his scholarship, and who was artist-in-residence at the UW-Madison in the mid-1960s until 1970, died this past Tuesday at 91.

A Vienna native, Badura-Skoda was especially known for his interpretations of major Classical-era composers who lived and worked in that city including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

He was the only pianist to have recorded the complete sonatas by those composers on both the modern piano and the fortepiano, the appropriate period instrument.

If memory serves, Badura-Skoda’s last appearances in Madison were almost a decade ago for concerts in which he played: the last piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert; a Mozart piano concerto with the UW Chamber Orchestra; and a solo recital of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Chopin at Farley’s House of Pianos.

But he also performed and recorded Bach, Chopin and Schumann among others. And Badura-Skoda was also renowned as a conductor, composer, editor and teacher.

You can find many of his recordings and interviews on YouTube. Normally, this blog uses shorter excerpts. But the legendary Paul Badura-Soda is special. So in the YouTube video at the bottom  you can hear Badura-Skoda’s complete last recital of Schubert (Four Impromptus, D. 899 or Op. 90), Schumann (“Scenes of Childhood”, Op. 15) and Mozart (Sonata in C Minor, K. 457). He performed it just last May at the age of 91 at the Vienna Musikverein, where the popular New Year concerts take place.

Here are links to several obituaries:

Here is one from the British Gramophone Magazine:

https://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/pianist-paul-badura-skoda-has-died-at-the-age-of-91

Here is one from WFMT radio station in Chicago, which interviewed him:

https://www.wfmt.com/2019/09/26/pianist-paul-badura-skoda-dies-at-age-91/

Here is one, with some surprisingly good details, from Limelight Magazine:

https://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/news/paul-badura-skoda-has-died/

And here is his updated Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Badura-Skoda

But you will notice a couple of things.

One is that The Ear could not find any obituaries from such major mainstream media as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. But each had many other feature stories about and reviews of Badura-Skoda’s concerts over the years in their areas.

The other noteworthy thing is that none of the obituaries mentions Badura-Skoda’s years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music in the 1960s, where he helped to raise the profile and prestige of the School of Music. Getting Badura-Skoda to join the university was considered quite an unexpected coup.

So here are two links to UW-Madison press releases that discuss that chapter of his life and career.

Here is an archival story from 1966 when Badura-Skoda first arrived at the UW-Madison:

http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/UW/UW-idx?type=turn&entity=UW.v67i8.p0011&id=UW.v67i8&isize=text

And here is a press release that came from the UW-Madison News Service eight years ago on the occasion of one of Badura-Skoda’s many visits to and performances in Madison:

https://news.wisc.edu/writers-choice-madison-welcomes-badura-skoda-again-and-again/

Rest in Peace, maestro, and Thank You.

It would be nice if Wisconsin Public Radio paid homage with some of Badura-Skoda’s recordings since a complete edition was issued last year on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

If you wish to pay your own respects or leave your memories of Paul Badura-Skoda and his playing, please leave something in the comment section.


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Classical music: Wikipedia offers a comprehensive overview of classical music in 2018. Plus, the annual New Year’s Day concert by the Vienna Philharmonic airs this morning on radio and tonight on TV

January 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – January 1, 2019 – brings just two items or stories to the blog.

NEW YEAR’S DAY FROM VIENNA

The first item is a kind of ALERT.

One of the most popular and beloved worldwide musical traditions is the annual Great Performances broadcast by National Public Radio (NPR) of “New Year’s Day From Vienna” with the Vienna Philharmonic.

This year’s conductor is Christian Thielemann  (below top) of the Munich Philharmonic and the host is Hugh Bonneville (below bottom in a photo by Nick Briggs) of PBS’ “Downton Abbey.”

The concert is a sold-out feast of waltzes, polkas and marches (including the famous clap-along “Radetzky March,” with Herbert von Karajan conducting in 1987, in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The radio version will be broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio from 10 a.m. to noon THIS MORNING, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019.

Then at 8-9:30 p.m. TONIGHT, Wisconsin Public Television will broadcast the visual version of the event, complete with ballet and wonderful landscape, interior and architectural shots in and around Vienna. There will also be encore performances: https://wptschedule.org/episodes/48242142/Great-Performances/From-Vienna-The-New-Years-Celebration-2019/

For a playlist and more background, go to: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/from-vienna-the-new-years-celebration-2019-about/9076/

2018 IN REVIEW

The first day of the new year seems like the perfect time to look back and see what happened in classical music during the past year.

And this year, The Ear found something truly comprehensive and international.

Wikipedia has put together a year-end overview that is astonishing for its amount of detail. 

You will find a global day-by-day calendar that includes links, in blue, for more details.

You will find news items and major events – including the effect of the #MeToo movement as well as deaths and obituaries, jobs and retirements.

You will find a list of new music.

You will find a list of new operas.

You will find lists for several major awards for classical recordings.

It is a terrific resource — a good long read, both informative and entertaining. Perfect for New Year’s Day.

Here is a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_in_classical_music

Happy New Year!


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Classical music: Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky has died at 87

June 19, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This past Saturday, the great Soviet and Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky (below) died at 87.

A friend of the blog said to The Ear, “He certainly deserves a mention.”

The Friend is right. Indeed he does.

In fact, Rozhdestvensky he deserves more than a mention.

The Ear isn’t sure why the West generally knows the names of Russian instrumentalists – pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, violinists David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan, cellist (later turned conductor) Mstislav Rostropovich – more than its knows the names of conductors.

Perhaps it has to do with infrequent touring and the priority in using non-Russian conductors by major recording labels.

But as far as Russian conductors go, Gennady Rozhdestvensky was the last of The Great Four that The Ear recalls.

The other three were: Kirill Kondrashin, who conducted Van Cliburn in his victory concerts in Moscow and New York City and died at 67 in 1986; Yevgeny Mvrinsky, who died at 84 in 1988; and Yevgeny Svetlanov, who died at 73 in 2002.

Rozhdestvensky (below, conducting in his young years) was particularly well-known for his championing the music of his compatriot Dmitri Shostakovich both in his homeland and in the West.

(You can hear some of his interpretation of music by Shostakovich, which many considered definitive and revelatory, in the YouTube video of the electrifying finale of the well-known Symphony No. 5 at the bottom.)

Here is his entry in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gennady_Rozhdestvensky

Here is the obituary by The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/17/obituaries/gennady-rozhdestvensky-russian-conductor-dies-at-87.html

Here is the obituary by the BBC:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-44505749

And here is an obituary by The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jun/17/gennady-rozhdestvensky-obituary

Do you ever hear Gennady Rozhdestvensky live?

Do you have any comment about him?

Please leave it the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Visionary Venezuelan music educator José Antonio Abreu is dead at 78

March 28, 2018
1 Comment

ALERT: Because of Good Friday and Easter, there is no Friday Noon Musicale this week at the First Unitarian Society of Madison. The free concerts, from 12:15 to 1 p.m., will resume next week.

By Jacob Stockinger

By any measure José Antonio Abreu (below), who died on March 24 at age 78, was a titan — but a beloved and accessible titan.

He invented and nurtured the famous El Sistema program of music education for all students – especially poor students – in his native Venezuela.

First he worked hard to make the program grow and succeed throughout his homeland.

Then in recent years, he helped to spread his inspired model around the world.

A tireless educator, Abreu has altered how we think about music education and how we do it. As a result, many countries and cities as well as music schools and professional music organizations have adopted El Sistema.

If you have heard of him before, it is likely because of his most famous pupil, the superstar conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Gustavo Dudamel (below right).

Here are two excellent obituaries, with a lot of background and details about El Sistema in Venezuela and around the world, including the United States, about Abreu:

From The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/26/arts/jose-antonio-abreu-venezuelan-musical-visionary-dies-at-78.html

From The Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/jose-antonio-abreu-creator-of-renowned-venezuelan-youth-orchestra-dies-at-79/2018/03/25/bed38660-3030-11e8-8bdd-cdb33a5eef83_story.html?utm_term=.27fc894a6724

You can find many tributes to Abreu, including an 18-minute TED Talk by Abreu himself, on YouTube. Many of them are in Spanish and many offer a lot of music.

Here is something shorter and simpler to remember him by: the beautiful and stately “Pavane for a Dead Princess” by Maurice Ravel accompanying Abreu’s own words and those of others.


Classical music: Robert Mann, a founder and longtime first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, has died at 97

January 4, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

On New Year’s Day, Robert Mann, a founder and longtime first violinist of the famed Juilliard String Quartet died at 97.

He had played with the group from its beginning in 1946 until his retirement in 1997.

He was in every way a complete musician – an esteemed teacher who was also an acclaimed performer.

Mann and the quartet proved to be pivotal figures in the post-World War II rise of chamber music in America, performing both classic repertoire such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms as well as modern works such as Bartok and contemporary works or new music.

Here is a link to the obituary in The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/02/obituaries/robert-mann-dead-juilliard-string-quartet-violinist.html?_r=0

Here is a link to the quartet’s website:

https://www.juilliardstringquartet.org

And here is a link to the Wikipedia entry for the Juilliard String Quartet (below, in a 1996 photo by Ruby Washington for The New York Times, with Mann on the far left followed by second violinist Joel Smirnoff, cellist Joel Krosnick and violist Samuel Rhodes.)

The entry includes comments on its significance in live performance and recordings as well as repertoire and changes in its personnel over the years:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juilliard_String_Quartet

It is hard to choose the right piece of music as a memorial.

But in the YouTube video below is a the gently gorgeous and exquisite slow movement of Claude Debussy’s only string quartet with Mann playing with other veteran members of the original quartet, including violist Samuel Rhodes, who has often come to Madison to play with the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet.


Classical music: Charismatic Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky is dead at 55

November 24, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The charismatic Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (below, in a 2006 photo by Richard Termine of The New York Times) had it all.

Most importantly, the great opera singer, concert singer and recitalist possessed a superb voice with wonderful tone and breath control that allowed him to even beat out Bryn Terfel to win Singer of the World at a competition in Cardiff, Wales.

But he also had handsome face and fit beefcake body that made him a believable actor in so many roles and proved a pleasure to watch on stage.

And what about that fabulous mane of prematurely white hair that became his signature?

But on Wednesday, the acclaimed Siberian singer Dmitri Hvorostovsky — who was well on his way to becoming a superstar — lost a two-year bout with brain cancer.

He died at 55 – but not after winning plaudits for unexpected appearances at the Metropolitan Opera (below) and Carnegie Hall even while he was ill.

Here are two obituaries.

The first comes from the Deceptive Cadence blog of National Public Radio (NPR) and features three samples of his singing as well as some memorable interview quotes, including the renowned singer’s unapologetic take on his own sex appeal (below) that landed him in People magazine:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/11/22/565450465/dmitri-hvorostovsky-renowned-baritone-dies-at-55

And here is a longer obituary, also with samples, from The New York Times. It includes a lot of background about the singer’s early life and career:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/arts/music/dmitri-hvorostovsky-dead.html

Did you ever see or hear Dmitri Hvorostovsky in person or perhaps in “Live From the Met in HD” broadcasts? (He sings two folk songs in the YouTube memorial video at the bottom.)

And for those of you can judge singers better than The Ear can, what was your opinion of the Russian baritone?

Did you have a favorite role or aria you liked him in?

The Ear wants to know.


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