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
2 Comments

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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: The Madison Opera performs Verdi’s popular “La Traviata” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall

October 28, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera opens its 59th season with a traditional production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” (The Lost One), one of the most popular operas in history.

According to the website www.operasense.com — specifically at https://www.operasense.com/most-popular-operas/ — it has been the most performed opera in the world, beating out such perennial favorites as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” and Bizet’s “Carmen.” (Below are photos by Matthew Staver from the production by Opera Colorado in Denver, which features the same sets and costumes that will be used in the production by Madison Opera.)

Performances in Overture Hall are this Friday night, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 3 at 2:30 p.m. The opera will be sung in Italian with projected supertitles in English. The running time, with two intermissions, is 2 hours and 45 minutes.

PRE-OPERA TALKS are on Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center. One hour prior to performances, general director Kathryn Smith will give an entertaining and informative talk about “La Traviata.” The talks are free to ticket holders.

POST-OPERA Q&A’s are on Friday and Sunday and will also take place in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center. Audience members can join general director Kathryn Smith immediately after the performance to ask questions about what they have just seen. The sessions are free to ticket holders.

Tickets are $18-$135 with student and group discounts available. For information about tickets, the production and the cast, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org

Set in mid-19th century Paris, “La Traviata” tells of Violetta, a courtesan who tries to follow her heart. But societal pressures force her to leave the man she loves, and an incurable illness takes care of the rest.

Glittering parties contrast with quiet desperation, and ravishing music underscores all-consuming emotions.

“Only a few operas ever achieve a truly beloved status — and “La Traviata” is one of them,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). For being over 150 years old, its story is quite modern: a young woman trying to overcome the limitations that society has placed on her because of her class and gender, searching for happiness yet willing to make sacrifices.

“Plus it is full of very famous music, from the ‘Brindisi’ to ‘Sempre Libera’ and more,” Smith adds. “It’s always a pleasure to have a new generation discover this work, and to share it with opera omnivores who know it well.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing Violetta’s signature aria “Sempre libera” (Always Free) at the Royal Opera House in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“La Traviata” is based on the play and novel “La Dame aux Camélias” (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas the son (below top), which were in turn based on his real-life relationship with the courtesan Marie Duplessis (below bottom), who died in 1847 of consumption.

The play was an instant hit when it premiered in Paris in 1852, and Verdi (below) turned it into an opera the following year.

While the first production of the opera was not a success, due to the poor singing of two cast members and the physical unsuitability of one singer, its second production was acclaimed, and the opera swiftly became one of the most performed operas in the world, a status it has not lost.

Both the opera and the play have inspired countless films, including “Camille” (with Greta Garbo), “Pretty Woman” (with Julia Roberts) and “Moulin Rouge” (with Nicole Kidman).

Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) says: “”La Traviata” has been a part of my artistic life since the very beginning of my career – it’s one of the reasons I so wanted to conduct opera. The heartfelt and tragic story of a love that was cut short by both health and cultural circumstances is still deeply moving today.

“The role of Violetta is a tour-de-force that ranges from high-flying coloratura to dramatic vocalism, with a strongly-etched character. I love this opera so deeply and look forward to conducting it for our audience.”

Returning to Madison Opera as Violetta is Cecilia Violetta Lopez (she played Carmen in Madison), whom The Washington Post reviewer called “as compelling a Violetta as I’ve seen.”

Mackenzie Whitney  (below, who appeared in “Florencia en el Amazonas” for the Madison Opera) returns as Alfredo, the young man for whom she sacrifices everything.

Weston Hurt (below) debuts with Madison Opera as Alfredo’s father Germont, whose disapproval of his son’s relationship with Violetta has tragic consequences.

Madison Opera’s Studio Artists are featured: Kirsten Larson as Flora, Emily Secor as Annina, Benjamin Hopkins as Gastone, and Stephen Hobe as the Marquis d’Obigny.

Rounding out the cast are Benjamin Sieverding (Romeo and Juliet) as Dr. Grenvil and Benjamin Major in his Madison Opera debut as Baron Douphol.

Fenton Lamb (below) directs this traditional production in her Madison Opera debut.

Maestro John DeMain conducts the singers, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The Madison Opera’s production of “La Traviata” is sponsored by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, Bert and Diane Adams, Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Chun Lin, Patricia and Stephen Lucas, Millie and Marshall Osborn, Kato and David Perlman, the Wallach Family, Helen Wineke, Capitol Lakes, and the Wisconsin Arts Board.


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Classical music: Saturday afternoon, Live From the Met in HD closes this season with an acclaimed production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Here is a background story, two rave reviews, and next season’s 10 operas

May 10, 2019
2 Comments

ALERT:The Brass Choirs of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras will present an afternoon of brass music this Saturday afternoon, May 11, at 2:30 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall, 455 North Park Street, in Madison. Directed by Tom Curry, the program features brass musicians from WYSO’s Concert, Philharmonia and Youth Orchestras. The concert is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLC. Music to be played is by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Giovanni Gabrieli, Charles Gounod, Edward Elgar, Paul Hindemith, Alan Hovahaness and Karel Husa.

CORRECTION: The Madison Youth Choirs will perform its “Legacy” concerts this weekend in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center on Saturday and Sunday — NOT Friday, as mistakenly listed and then corrected in the original post, which is below: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/05/08/classical-music-the-madison-youth-choirs-will-explore-the-theme-of-legacy-in-three-concerts-this-saturday-and-sunday-in-the-capitol-theater-of-the-overture-center/

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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday afternoon, May 11, the last production of this season’s “Live From the Met in HD” series, broadcast worldwide via satellite to cinemas, is Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

By all accounts, it would be hard to end on a higher, stronger or more darkly dramatic note, given the outstanding music and performance of the score as well as the superb acting. (There is a brief preview of short scenes in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The world premiere of the opera took place in 1957 at La Scala in Milan, Italy. One of the most successful operas of the later decades of the 20th century,  “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is a rare case of a modern work that is equally esteemed by audiences and experts, according to program notes from the Metropolitan Opera.

The opera focuses on a young member of the order of Carmelite nuns, the aristocratic Blanche de la Force, who must overcome a pathological timidity in order to answer her life’s calling. The score reflects key aspects of its composer’s personality: Francis Poulenc (below) was an urbane Parisian with a profound mystical dimension, and the opera addresses both the characters’ internal lives and their external realities.

The opera takes place between 1789 and 1794 in Paris and in the town of Compiègne in northeastern France, the site of the Carmelite nuns’ convent.

Its historical basis is the martyrdom of a group of 16 Carmelite nuns and lay sisters from Compiègne, who chose to offer themselves as victims for the restoration of peace to France during the French Revolution.

The Met uses the classic John Dexter production of Poulenc’s devastating story of faith and martyrdom.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard (below right) sings the touching role of Blanche and soprano Karita Mattila (below left), a legend in her own time, returns to the Met as the Prioress.

The conductor for the performance is the Met’s highly acclaimed new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who also leads the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Orchestra of Montreal.

The high-definition broadcast of the live performance from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City starts at noon and runs until 3:10 p.m. with two intermissions. (It will also air at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

The encore HD showings are next Wednesday, May 15, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The opera will be sung in French with supertitles in English, German and Spanish.

Tickets for Saturday broadcasts are $24 for adults and $22 for seniors and children under 13. For encore showings, all tickets are $18.

The cinemas where the opera can be seen are two Marcus Cinemas: the Point Cinema on the far west side of Madison (608 833-3980) and the Palace Cinema (608 242-2100) in Sun Prairie.

Here is a link to the Marcus website for addresses and more information. You can also use them to purchase tickets:

https://www.movietickets.com/movies

Here is a link to the Metropolitan Opera’s website where you can find the titles, dates, casts, production information and video clips of all 10 productions this past season — PLUS an announcement, with dates and titles, for next season’s 10 productions (which feature five new productions but no Verdi):

https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/

Here is a background story that focuses on the French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who leads the orchestra in this production and is the new music director of the Metropolitan Opera:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/arts/music/met-opera-dialogues-des-carmelites.html

Here is a rave review of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” by senior classical music critic Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/05/arts/music/dialogues-des-carmelites-met-opera-review.html

And here is another rave review from New York Classical Review:

http://newyorkclassicalreview.com/2019/05/met-closes-season-with-a-riveting-devastating-carmelites/

Here are links to a synopsis and program notes:

https://www.metopera.org/discover/synopses/dialogues-des-carmelites/

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/dialogues-des-carmelites/

And here is a Wikipedia history of the hi-def broadcast series that gives you more information about how many cinemas it uses, the enormous size of the worldwide audience – now including Russia, China and Israel — and how much money it makes for The Met.

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


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