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: UW-Madison piano virtuoso Christopher Taylor performs a free virtual recital of impromptus by Schubert and Scriabin this Wednesday afternoon

August 4, 2020
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A note from The Ear: Thank you to the many blog followers who left a message of encouragement when I had computer troubles last week. The problem seems to be solved, at least temporarily. And I am healthy, despite the fears that some of you expressed that I was covering for coming down with the coronavirus virus or Covid-19.

By Jacob Stockinger

A friend has passed along the following note from Christopher Taylor, the piano virtuoso who won a bronze medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and who has been teaching for many years at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

Taylor (below) writes:

“Despite having my performance schedule ravaged, like everyone else, I do actually have one positive morsel of news to relay regarding a “recital” coming up in the near future, which I wanted to you know about.

“It is being hosted by the Chautauqua Institution, where I’ve performed a few times in the past. Unsurprisingly, they’ve had to switch to an online format this summer.

“Just last week I made the actual recording, playing four impromptus by Scriabin, and Four Impromptus, Op. 142, by Schubert in the Mead-Witter Foundation Concert Hall (below, with the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra), which seemed like a propitious setting. (Editor’s note: In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the third impromptu in the set by Schubert performed by Vladimir Horowitz during his historic 1986 recital in Moscow.)

“Under the circumstances I think the video turned out pretty well. The actual streaming, which will include the 45 minutes of music plus a little live interview before and afterwards, takes place this Wednesday – Aug. 5 – at 3 p.m. CDT.

You can get there by way of the following link: https://porch.chq.org/ue/event/6518/

“Apparently there is a brief registration form one has to fill out prior to viewing the show, but basically getting in should be a free and painless process for all and sundry.

“Hope you get a chance to join in, and that you enjoy it!”

 


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Classical music: This summer’s Token Creek Festival is CANCELED. Plus, a teenager’s piano “practice journal” on Instagram is instructive, entertaining and encouraging

July 17, 2020
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NEWS ALERT: This summer’s Token Creek Festival (TCF) — with the chamber music theme of Legacy to run from Aug. 21-Sept. 6 –has been CANCELED. Organizers say they hope to launch a virtual online season of archived performances at the end of the summer.  Also, once modestly sized gatherings are safe again, the TCF hopes to hold an off-season event. For more information and an official statement from TCF, go to: https://tokencreekfestival.org 

By Jacob Stockinger

Somewhere in New York City is a young Chinese piano prodigy who can help you get through what is often the most challenging and discouraging part of piano lessons: practicing.

His name is Auston (below) – no last name is given – and you can find him, in T-shirts and shorts, on Instagram at Auston.piano.

Auston is quite the prodigy. A 13, he plays difficult and dramatic repertoire: the Nocturne in C minor, the Scherzo No. 1 in B minor and the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, all by Chopin.

You can also hear him play the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, by Johann Sebastian Bach; the fiendish Toccata by Sergei Prokofiev; and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

One day, The Ear expects, Auston might well be among the impressive amateurs and, later, professionals who compete in international competitions.

But more than listening to him playing, his frequent social media entries – sometimes he posts two or three times a day — allow us to hear him practice. We even hear him practicing scales – so-called Russian scales that combine scales in parallel and contrary motion.

This week, he hit 100 video posts. Just yesterday Auston started sight-reading the “Winter Wind” Etude of Chopin, Op. 25, No. 11, which many consider to be the most technically difficult of all Chopin’s etudes. (You can hear the etude – played by Maurizio Pollini – and see the note-filled score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Starting out, he often plays hands separately (below) and sight-reads the score very, very slowly, making mistakes and working out fingering. He also uses a metronome at a very slow tempo. He gets frustrated but he never gives up. He just starts over again and provides an excellent role model for aspiring piano students.

But this young man is also fun to read. In his one-minute or less entries of his “practice journal” – which he also calls his “practice journey” — he is witty and self-deprecating in his commentaries about the music and especially about himself when he makes mistakes. As seriously as he takes the piano and practicing, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

All in all he can even encourage others – including The Ear –to persevere and go through the same frustrations of practicing and learning a new piece.

In this case, it is the piano, but the postings could easily apply to practicing any other instrument or even to singing.

Check it out.

You will be impressed.

You will admire him.

You will laugh along with him.

And you just might practice more.

If this practice journal is a pandemic project, it succeeds way beyond what you — and probably Auston himself — might expect.

Happy listening!

And patient, productive practicing!

 


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Classical music: Here are the world premieres of the second and third pieces of “pandemic music” commissioned by the U.S. Library of Congress

June 18, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It has started.

This is the week when the world premieres of the 10 short pieces — written for the Library of Congress’ “Boccaccio Project” — started going public and began being posted on various social media sites as well as the Internet.

One performance is released each weekday night starting at 8 p.m. EDT.

The project is a way to capture some of the unique culture brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19.

The first was “Sequestered Thoughts,” a solo piano work by composer Damien Sneed and performed by Jeremy Jordan. You can hear it in the post preceding this one.

Now it’s on to two new ones.

The second piece in the series is  the 4-1/2 minutes “shadow of a difference/falling” by composer Richard Drehoff Jr. (below top, in a photo by James Matthew Daniel) and solo oboist Andrew Nogal (below bottom, in a photo by Jay Morthland) of the Grossman Ensemble.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/drehoff-nogal.html

The third work is the  three-minute “Intuit – (a way to stay in the world)” by Miya Masaoka (below top, in a photo by Heika no koto) performed by solo  cellist Kathryn Bates (below bottom) of the Del Sol String Quartet.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/masaoka-bates.html

On the same page as the performance video, you can read what the composer and sometimes the performer have to say about the new work and what the music strives to mean or express.

You can also go to past performances and premieres.

You can follow links on the bottom of the page to see more information about both the composer and the performer, and to general background of the project.

If you would like some more background, along with some commentary and questions from The Ear, go to https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/classical-music-the-library-of-congress-has-commissioned-new-music-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-you-can-listen-to-the-premieres-from-this-monday-june-15-through-june-28/

What do you think of the pieces?

What do you think of the project?

Woud you like to hear more of the commissioned music?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Here is the world premiere of the first piece of “pandemic music” commissioned by the Library of Congress

June 16, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It has started.

This is the week when the world premieres of the 10 short pieces — written by American composers for the U.S. Library of Congress’ “Boccaccio Project” — will go public and start being posted on various social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as well as the Internet.

The project is a way to capture some of the unique culture brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19.

The first is “Sequestered Thoughts,” a solo piano work by composed Damien Sneed (below top) and performed by Jeremy Jordan (below  bottom).

Below is a link to the page with the performance. You can also read what both the composer and the pianist have to say about the new work and what it means — including rippling octaves that depict the monotony of the days in isolation.

Here is the link: https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/sneed-jordan.html

You can also follow links on the bottom of the page to more information about both the composer and the performer, and to general background of the project.

If you would like some more background, along with commentary and questions, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/classical-music-the-library-of-congress-has-commissioned-new-music-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-you-can-listen-to-the-premieres-from-this-monday-june-15-through-june-28/

What do you think of the new piece?

What do you think of the whole project?

Do you want to hear more of the commissioned music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The prize-winning critic Alex Ross grieves to Brahms. What composer and piece would you choose to mourn the tragedies of the past week?

May 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week feels like a week that deserves mass grieving.

Of course, there was the life-changing, historic landmark of surpassing, in only a few months, more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

There were the spikes in new COVID-19 cases and deaths following the opening up from lockdowns and the mass gatherings over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, such as the party at the Lake of the Ozarks (below) in Missouri.

Then there was the tragic, racist death — an alleged murder — of George Floyd by the police and the ensuing rioting, violence and additional death in Minneapolis as well as the seven shootings among protesters in Louisville.

And depending of your political point of view, there were the incidents of White House threats against social media, especially Twitter, for simply telling the truth or at least directing viewers to it.

So what can one say about these sad events and sad times with music?

Well, not too long ago Alex Ross (below), the prize-winning and internationally respected music critic for The New Yorker magazine, wrote an engaging and moving essay about why he finds Brahms to be the perfect composer for grieving and mourning.

He mentions other composers as possibilities, including Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Ross still finds Brahms more suited for several reasons. He even cites a favorite performance of a Brahms short, late Intermezzo by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. (You can hear that performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/grieving-with-brahms

What composers – and what pieces or performances – do you find best for grieving? For marking loss?

Read the essay, listen to the music.

Then let us know in the comment section what music – perhaps Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings? – that you would want to listen to during sad occasions.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Union Theater announces its new season featuring Renée Fleming’s postponed concert on Oct. 24

May 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement with the lineup for next season’s concerts at the Wisconsin Union Theater (below top, with a photo of Shannon Hall below bottom), which he calls “The Carnegie Hall of Madison.”

The upcoming season of the Wisconsin Union Theater features eight performances, including a rescheduled performance on Oct. 24 by world-renowned vocalist Renée Fleming (below), who was previously scheduled to perform May 2, 2020, as part of the 100th Concert Series but had to cancel because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fleming recorded a special message for Wisconsin Union Theater patrons: https://youtu.be/V1B4L2KFUls.

During the 101st Concert Series, patrons will have the opportunity to attend performances by the following artists. Click on the links and names to find out more:

  • Dec. 11, 2020 – Pianist Jeremy Denk (below, in a photo by Shervin Lainez)

  • Feb. 28, 2021 – Meccore Quartet (below in a photo by Arkadiusz Berbecki)

All programs are subject to change. The WUT team will announce when subscriptions and single-event tickets, along with prices, will become available for purchase at a later date.

The Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert Series is one of the oldest uninterrupted series of its kind in the United States and has brought such talented artists as pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, violinists Fritz Kreisler and Itzhak Perlman, and pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy and Claudio Arrau to Madison.

The Wisconsin Union Theater holds numerous arts events throughout the year and has provided cultural experiences for community members and visitors for more than 75 years.

The student-led Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) Performing Arts Committee plans many of the Wisconsin Union Theater’s events, including the Concert Series.

More information — including ticket prices and programs  — about the Concert Series and other 2020-21 Wisconsin Union Theater events will be made available soon at uniontheater.wisc.edu and on the Wisconsin Union Theater Facebook page.

Tickets purchased for Fleming’s May 2, 2020, performance are valid for the Oct. 24, 2020, performance.

Violinist Gil Shaham (below), who was to perform March 28, 2020, as part of the 100th Concert Series season will instead perform as part of the 2021-22 Wisconsin Union Theater season. Ticket holders for Shaham’s previously scheduled performance date are receiving refunds.

The upcoming year of programming will undoubtedly bring new challenges, and the Wisconsin Union team will continue to make decisions with the health and safety of team members and patrons in mind while providing experiences for a lifetime.

While Memorial Union and Union South remain closed to the public until further notice, the Wisconsin Union continues to provide support services, such as Meals To-Go, and online events and activities.


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Classical music: Here is the music that Wisconsin Public Radio hosts find calming and inspiring during the pandemic. What music would you list?

April 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the major sources of music during the COVID-19 public health crisis and the coronavirus pandemic is Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Ear finds WPR a reliable source of beauty and companionship during this difficult time of self-isolation and self-quarantining required by the state’s stay-at-home and self-distancing orders.

Each host plans and broadcasts hours of classical music each day. So they hear a lot of classical music.

They also contribute to a blog that offers insights to: new and old recordings; background information about the composers, music and performers; and personal observations about classical music.

Recently, the radio hosts – including Stephanie Elkins (below), Norman Gilliland, Lori Skelton, Ruthanne Bessman, Anders Yocom (at bottom, in a  photo by James Gill) and Peter Bryant — listed the music that they find particularly calming and inspiring during a difficult and anxiety-ridden time.

The names of composers include Bach, Scarlatti, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Ysaye, Vaughan-Williams and film score master John Williams.

The list includes audio-visual performances of the pieces.

Take a look and listen.

Then tell us what you think of the various suggestions and which ones you prefer?

Also leave the composers, pieces and performers that you would add to such a list, with a YouTube link if possible.

Here is a link:

https://www.wpr.org/wpr-music-hosts-share-music-calms-and-inspires


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and Salon Piano Series cancel and postpone concerts and master classes

April 3, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll. The Ear has received notification of the following cancellations and postponements.

WISCONSIN BAROQUE ENSEMBLE

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) has cancelled its April 18 concert, due to the COVID-19 virus threat. Its next concert is re-scheduled for the fall, on Oct. 17, at 7:30 p.m. at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church at 1833 Regent Street.

SALON PIANO SERIES

Concerts by the Grammy-nominated, New York jazz pianist Bill Charlap (below) on April 25 and April 26 plus his master class on April 25 are all cancelled and indefinitely postponed.

New dates for Charlap’s concerts and master class are yet to be determined. They will be announced via email, on the Salon Piano Series website, and on the Salon Piano Series social media. The necessary decision is made out of concern for the public’s health and well-being.

In the event that it is not feasible to reschedule the concerts, or you have a conflict and cannot attend the rescheduled event, you can get a credit for a future Salon Piano Series performance or be issued a refund.

Everyone who bought a ticket will have one week after the announcement of the new concert date in order to request a refund.

If you have a ticket for the concert, please see additional information at the end.

The Salon Piano Series — which takes place at Farley’s House of Pianos — also says that the concert by Drew Petersen (below), which was to have taken place this spring is rescheduled for Aug. 15 at 7:30 p.m. and the master class is rescheduled for Aug. 16 at a time to be determined.

To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4275242)

If you have a ticket and cannot attend the rescheduled event, Salon Piano Series asks that you help support the arts by not requesting a refund. For those who request a refund, the deadline for refunds has been extended through Thursday, April 9, as a courtesy.

For more information about the concert, visit salonpianoseries.org.

If you would like a refund, please follow the instructions below and allow several business days for refunds to be processed.

Paper Tickets

If you have a paper ticket, please take a photo of your ticket and email the photo to cristofori@salonpianoseries.org explaining that you would like a refund.

Online Tickets

If the ticket is not part of a season ticket, call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-(800) 838-3006.

If your ticket is part of a season ticket, contact Salon Piano Series at (608) 271-2626. Refunds for season ticket holders will be issued through Salon Piano Series by check, not through Brown Paper Tickets.

Tickets Ordered by Phone

If you purchased a ticket by phone, contact Salon Piano Series at (608) 271-2626 to request a refund.

 


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