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: Madison Bach Musicians cancels its performances in late April of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610. Here are details about ticket donations and refunds

April 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following note from founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below top) and associate artistic director Kangwon Kim (below bottom) of the Madison Bach Musicians regarding the cancellation of the April performances of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.

Dear Friends of Madison Bach Musicians,

We hope everyone is staying well and hanging in there during this global health crisis and massive shutdown. We’re all monitoring the news and looking for any indication that things might improve soon.

Unfortunately, the chances of improvement coming soon enough for public concerts scheduled even near the end of April are overwhelmingly remote.

Madison Bach Musicians (MBM) is very sorry to have to cancel the Vespers of 1610 by Claudio Monteverdi (below) on April 25 and 26. We were all greatly looking forward to it, and of course the piercing irony of having to cancel is that the joy this music brings is what we now, as a culture, need more than ever.

The global economic impact of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic is certainly catastrophic. And, in the music world we are feeling this directly. As a non-profit organization, cancelling a performance is one of the hardest decisions to make ― but the health and well-being of our audience, musicians and staff absolutely come first.

Madison Bach Musicians (below) has offered the Vespers musicians 40 percent of their fee ― we regret we are not a large enough organization to offer full payment.

Several of the players, however, in a show of great generosity, immediately requested that their portion be distributed among the other players. Considering the economic hardship that most freelance musicians will be facing in the coming months, every degree of financial support is deeply appreciated.

MBM is so very grateful to those of you who have purchased tickets to the Vespers. As MBM will feel the economic effects of the Vespers cancellation for a long time, we ask for your support and careful consideration as you decide what to do with your unused Vespers tickets.

If you have purchased tickets, please let us know by April 26, 2020 whether you would like to:

Make your Vespers tickets a tax-deductible donation to MBM. Thank you ― we appreciate it!

A. If you purchased tickets as part of a 2019-20 MBM season subscription or as individual tickets online, please email MBM manager Karen Rebholz at madisonbachmusicians.manager@gmail.com. She will email you your donation tax receipt.

B.  If you purchased tickets at one of our outlet locations (Orange Tree Imports or Willy Street Co-op East and West), please mail your tickets to MBM by U.S. mail, provide us with your email address, and we will email you your donation tax receipt.

Request a refund. We’re happy to provide your money back, and look forward to seeing you again in 2020-21 season.

A. If you purchased tickets as part of a 2019-20 MBM season subscription or as individual tickets online, please email MBM manager Karen Rebholz at madisonbachmusicians.manager@gmail.com. MBM will mail you your refund check.

B. If you purchased tickets at one of our outlet locations (Orange Tree Imports or Willy Street Co-op East and West), please mail your tickets to MBM by the U.S. mail, provide us with your street address, and MBM will mail you your refund check.

Our mailing address is: Madison Bach Musicians, 5729 Forsythia Place, Madison WI 53705. If you have questions, please email Karen Rebholz, MBM manager, at madisonbachmusicians.manager@gmail.com or call us at (608) 238-6092

Thank you for your understanding. We look forward to seeing you in the 2020-21 season

Very best wishes―and please stay safe.


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Classical music: Bach Around the Clock 2020 goes virtual and wants your audio-video contribution. Plus TONIGHT, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra streams its Dec. 27 concert at the UW

March 27, 2020
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ALERT: TONIGHT, March 27, at 7:30 p.m., the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will be streaming its sold-out premiere performance (below) on Dec. 27 in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center. If you couldn’t get seats for the in-person performance, you can tune in for FREE tonight.

The program is: “Poet and Peasant Overture” by Suppe; the Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92, by Robert Schumann with pianist Jason Kutz; the Overture to “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Offenbach; the “Habanera” from the opera “Carmen” by Bizet and “What a movie” from the opera “Trouble in Tahiti” by Leonard Bernstein, both with mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter-Foss; and the Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61, by Saint-Saens with Rachel Barton Pine. WCO music director Andrew Sewell conducts.

For a link and  portal to the streamed video, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-live/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following message from artistic director Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) about the decision to make this year’s Bach Around the Clock a virtual event with a call for community submissions:

The BATC Board of Directors shares the keen disappointment that all music lovers feel at the sudden, shocking collapse of the current concert season.

The BATC 2020 Festival was fully booked, and we had looked forward to 12 hours of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by musicians ranging from young students to adult amateurs to seasoned professionals, all to celebrate the composer’s 335th birthday.

Sadly, that was not to be.

But thinking outside of the box, the Board has decided to try something new: the BATC 2020 Virtual Festival.

We invite local musicians to submit video or audio recordings of themselves singing or playing a selection by Bach. If you’d like, you can also talk at the beginning of your recording, explaining what music by Bach (below) means to you, and why you chose this particular piece. Or feel free to write your thoughts on this subject, and we’ll include that text with your recording.

We reach out especially to those who were scheduled to perform at this year’s festival, and those who have performed with us in the past. But we are very happy to include newcomers to our BATC community as well.

Performers can click on Performers Guide for Media Submissions to find instructions for audio or video file submission.

We request that files be of musical selections 20 minutes or less. If a piece is longer than that, please record the piece in two files.

Our tech team will preview clips for technical quality, upload them to the BATC YouTube channel, and post them on our website and then on our Facebook page, for everyone to enjoy.

BATC plans to launch the Virtual Festival this Saturday, March 28, at 10 a.m., the time the original in-person Festival was scheduled to begin.

We will add new videos every day at 10 a.m., as long as submissions keep coming in. (Below are the Suzuki Strings of Madison performing during a past BATC.)

The BATC Board hopes this Virtual Festival gives local musicians an outlet for sharing their talent and passion with the warmly appreciative local community.

Live music nourishes the soul of performer and audience member alike, and the transcendent, life-giving joy woven into the music of Bach is something we need, now more than ever. (Below is a performance from last year’s Bach Around the Clock.)

For more information, go to: https://bachclock.com and https://www.facebook.com/batcmadison


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