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: 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: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet delivers a perfect program of superb music by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert

February 5, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

While snow may have restricted the audience attending the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) on Saturday night, those who came were amply rewarded with a virtually perfect program of superb music.

The program brought together three Austrian works, two by those Classical-era titans, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the third by the Austrian early Romantic Franz Schubert.

The combination of the first two was particularly stimulating, an opportunity to reckon how different from each other were these composers who are so often bracketed together.

The E-flat Quartet is No. 3 in the Op. 50 set that some commentators have viewed as the response by Haydn (below) to the set of six quartets that Mozart had recently published in Haydn’s honor.

Deliberately, Haydn chose to avoid matching Mozart’s lyricism and rich imagination, turning instead to statements of strength in austere textures.

Composed in 1790, a year before his death and only three years after the Haydn work, the Quartet in B-flat, K. 589, by Mozart (below) was his penultimate quartet, part of a series to be written for the King of Prussia who played the cello, which is featured prominently in the quartet.

Here we have a Mozartian style that is expansive and exploratory. Amid music of great lyric beauty and even vivacity, we have a Menuetto third movement whose Trio, or midsection, is remarkably dark and ambiguous. (You can hear a period-instrument performance of the third movement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

The Pro Arte players brought out the individuality of the two different styles quite beautifully. To my ears, the viola lines were delivered with notable strength and color by Sally Chisholm.

The final work, and the longest, was one of Schubert’s amazing late quartets. The No. 13 in A minor, D. 804), from 1824 is known as the “Rosamunde” Quartet because the second movement is the elaboration by Schubert (below) of the lovely melody in the well-known interlude in his incidental music for the play of that title.

Despite a somewhat moody first movement, the work as a whole is suffused with Schubert’s very special, very personal lyricism. Analyses of it can be instructive, but ultimately this remains music for the soul, not just the brain, I think.

The Pro Arte understands that well, and gave a generous demonstration of its beauties.

It proved such a wonderful concert, for which we can only give warm thanks to the UW-Madison’s Mead-Witter School of Music where the Pro Arte Quartet has been an artist-in-residence since World War II.


Classical music: Free percussion, orchestral and wind music is on tap at the UW-Madison this weekend. Plus, the Edgewood Chamber Orchestra performs on Sunday afternoon

November 3, 2017
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ALERT: This Sunday, at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, the Edgewood Chamber Orchestra will perform its fall concert. General admission is $5; free with Edgewood College ID.

The program, conducted by Blake Walter (below), features Franz Schubert’s Overture in the Italian Style, Set 1 of Ottorino Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances,” and the Symphony No. 92 by Franz Joseph Haydn.

By Jacob Stockinger

It is another very busy weekend for classical music in Madison, as the past week of preview postings has shown.

But two concerts, with a substantial offering of modern and new music, are especially noteworthy at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

TONIGHT

At 8 p.m. tonight in Mills Hall, UW  percussionist Anthony Di Sanza will perform works by the Danish composer Per Norgard and the American composer Elliot Cole. No specific titles were given.

SATURDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below top), under its new director Chad Hutchinson (below bottom), will perform a free concert, with a pre-concert lecture by Hutchinson at 7:30 p.m.

The program features a contemporary American composer and work, “Dreamtime Ancestors” by Chris Theofanidis (below top) and the Symphony No. 1 “Titan” by Gustav Mahler. (You can hear composer Christopher Theofanidis discuss “Dreamtime Ancestors” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It is an impressive ensemble and conductor, which you can read about in The Ear’s review of Hutchinson’s debut:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/10/11/classical-music-new-faculty-conductor-chad-hutchinson-makes-an-impressive-and-promising-debut-with-the-uw-symphony-orchestra/

SUNDAY

At 3 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Wingra Wind Quintet will perform a FREE concert of music by Richard Strauss, Theodor Blumer, Lalo Schifrin, Elliott Carter and Luciano Berio.  (Below are two of the newer Wingra members, clarinetist Alicia Lee and oboist Aaron Hill.)

For specific works and more background, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wingra-wind-quintet-2/


Classical music: Chamber music for horn, jazz music for saxophone, a master class for pianists plus concertos for various instruments and a new composition are featured this week at the UW-Madison

February 7, 2017
2 Comments

CORRECTION: In an early version of yesterday’s post, The Ear mistakenly said that performances by the Madison Opera of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” are on Saturday night at 8 as well as Sunday afternoon at 2:30. The first performance is FRIDAY NIGHT at 8 p.m. – NOT Saturday night. The Ear apologizes for the error.

Here are two links with more information about the opera and the production:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/02/06/classical-music-jazz-and-classical-music-are-not-so-different-says-composer-daniel-schnyder-he-discusses-his-score-to-charlie-parkers-yardbird-which-the-madison-opera-st/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/classical-music-madison-opera-will-present-the-midwest-premiere-of-charlie-parkers-yardbird-here-are-the-many-preparatory-events-for-the-public/

By Jacob Stockinger

This is a busy week with a wide diversity of music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Here is a run-down by day:

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW hornist Daniel Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill) will be joined by fellow UW-Madison professor pianist Christopher Taylor for a concert of brass music that is FREE and OPEN to the public.

The program features works by Franz Strauss (Empfindungen am Meere), Paul Hindemith (Alto Horn Sonata), Maurice Ravel (Horn Sonata, originally Violin Sonata) and Jean-Michel Damase (Sonata).

Daniel Grabois 2012 James Gill

THURSDAY

At 7:30 p.m. (NOT 7, as mistakenly first stated in yesterday’s post)  in Morphy Recital Hall, saxophonist Daniel Schnyder will perform  music by American jazz titan Charlie Parker with the Blue Note Ensemble and also participate in a Q&A session. The event is FREE and open to the public.

Schnyder is the composer of the opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” that the Madison Opera will perform in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. See the above correction for links to more information about the opera.

daniel-schnyder-2017

FRIDAY

From 4:30 to 6 p.m. in Mills Hall, Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero will offer a FREE and PUBLIC master class. The Ear has no details about what will be featured.

Montero (below, in a photo by Shelley Mosman), who specializes in spontaneous improvisations but also performs standard repertoire, will perform at 8 p.m. on this Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear her live improvisations in Cologne, Germany on the aria theme of Johann Sebastian Bach‘s well-known “Goldberg” Variations.)

Here is a link with more information, including ticket prices, concert and recording reviews and audio-video clips, about her recital in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/gabriela-montero/

And here is a link to more information about Montero, who also has won awards for her playing, improvisations and her Piano Concerto No. 1:

http://www.gabrielamontero.com

gabriela-montero-2017-shelley-mosman

SUNDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall is the annual Symphony Showcase with the winners of the UW concerto competition and the world premiere of a student composition. The concert will be conducted by Professor James Smith and graduate student Kyle Knox.

Admission to the event costs $10 for adults; students and children get in for free. There is also a FREE post-concert reception at the nearby University Club.

For more information about the program (violin works by Ravel and Shostakovich, vocal works by Ravel and Gounod, a trumpet work by Oskar Boehme) and biographies of the five student performers (below) plus student composer (Nathan Froebe), go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-symphony-orchestra-showcase/

uw-symphony-showcase-performers-2017


Classical music: What is the greatest symphony ever written? And what are the other nine in the maestros’ list of the Top 10 symphonies?

September 9, 2016
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The BBC Music Magazine recently surveyed 151 conductors about their favorite symphonies. (Below is a photo of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Of course, the maestros – who were asked to name their Top 3 symphonies to generate a master list — might well disagree with the public. One suspects that conductors like BIG, difficult and complex works that challenge them.

Here’s a big surprise — NOT: the list is heavily weighted toward German and Austrian composers. And The Ear doesn’t mean Haydn, Schubert or Schoenberg.

Now making such rankings and lists is certainly a subjective experience, some say, silly.

Still, it can be informative as well as fun.

Here are the results, as reported in The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/aug/04/beethoven-eroica-greatest-symphony-vote-bbc-mozart-mahler

Do you agree with the maestros?

What modern and contemporary symphonies would you name?

What great symphony, from any period, do you think is missing from the Top 10 and would you add?

The Ear – who confesses his special fondness for the Symphony No. 1 “Titan” by Gustav Mahler — wants to hear.


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