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: This Saturday night, UW pianist Christopher Taylor will perform the virtuosic Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9

January 28, 2020
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ALERT: The first concert by the Verona Area Community Orchestra is set for this Wednesday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m. in the Verona Area High School’s Performing Arts Center at 300 Richard St. in Verona. A reception, with a sheet cake, will follow the concert. Admission is FREE.

Thirty-five amateur string orchestra musicians will play selections from: Johann Sebastian Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No. 3), Aaron Copland (“Rodeo”), Sir Edward Elgar (“Serenade for Strings”), Eric Whitacre (“October”), Louis Prima (“Sing Sing with a Swing”), and Peter Warlock (“Capriol” Suite).

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday, Feb. 1, will see what promises to be one of the most interesting and impressive events of The Beethoven Year in Madison.

At 8 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, in the new Hamel Music Center at 740 University Avenue, the UW-Madison’s virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor (below) will perform the solo piano transcriptions made by Franz Liszt of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9.

When he was just 12, the young Liszt — often considered the greatest pianist who ever lived — performed for and met Beethoven, who gave the boy his blessing.

For the rest of his life, Liszt (below top) promoted Beethoven’s piano sonatas and symphonies through the keyboard. Liszt also studied with Carl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven (below bottom).

These performances mark Taylor’s completion of the ambitious and monumental cycle of Liszt’s Beethoven symphony transcriptions.

The Ninth or “Choral” Symphony – with the famous “Ode to Joy” finale – will also have five singers to perform the solo and choral parts. They are: Mead Witter School of Music faculty members Mimmi Fulmer and Paul Rowe (below top); and graduate students Sarah Brailey (below bottom), Thore Dosdall and Benjamin Liupaogo.

(You can hear the famous Scherzo movement played by Cyprien Katsaris and see the note-filled score for it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tickets are $20, except for music school faculty and students who will be admitted free on the night of the performance if space allows.

For more information about the tickets, parking, the performers and the program, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/christopher-taylor-and-friends-beethoven-symphony-extravaganza/

To just purchase tickets, go to the Campus Arts Ticketing box office in the Memorial Union, call (608) 265-ARTS (2787) or go to: https://artsticketing.wisc.edu/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=79084672-5D75-4981-B0A3-B135EDB97FF1

For more information about the extraordinary keyboard transcriptions, go to the Wikipedia entry and be sure to read the section on History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beethoven_Symphonies_(Liszt)

 


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