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: Two FREE chamber music concerts on Thursday and Friday nights at the UW-Madison feature quartets and quintets by Mozart, Boccherini, Schubert, Dvorak and Weinberg

March 26, 2019
2 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Chamber music fans have something special to look forward to this week with back-to-back evening concerts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music that mix famous and well-known works with less familiar ones.

THURSDAY NIGHT

On Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte Quartet will perform.

The program features six miniature “Evening Songs”  (1865) – also called “Cypresses” — by Antonin Dvorak; the String Quartet No. 5 in B-Flat Major (1945) by Mieczyslaw Weinberg; and the String Quartet in B-Flat Major “Hunt,” K. 458 (1784), by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (You can hear one of Dvorak’s “Cypresses” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below, from left, in a photo by Rick Langer) are: violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia; violist Sally Chisholm; and cellist Parry Karp.

For more information about the unique and dramatic history of the critically acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet, the longest active string quartet in the history of music, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet/

FRIDAY NIGHT

On Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW-Madison cellist Uri Vardi (below) will be joined by several faculty colleagues, one of his students and his son for an evening of three quintets.

In addition to Uri Vardi, the performers include: clarinetist Amitai Vardi (below); pianist Christopher Taylor; violinists David Perry and Soh-Hyun Park Altino; violist Sally Chisholm; cellist James Waldo; and double bassist David Scholl.

The program includes: the Quintet in C major, assembled from other quintets by Johann Lauterbach, by Luigi Boccherini, a contemporary of Mozart; the famous Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the well-known “Trout” Quintet by Franz Schubert.

For more background, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uri-vardi-quintets-students-friends-and-family/


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Classical music: Today is the first day of Spring. What piece of music best suits the season? Then take a quiz to see what composer and which spring music best suits you

March 20, 2018
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Vernal Equinox – the first of day of Spring 2018.

It arrives at 11:15 a.m. CDT.

A lot of classical composers have written works inspired by Spring, which often appears in the title.

Here is a link to a YouTube video with almost two hours of Spring music – including works by Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Grieg:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfe3MUMdWKQ

But recently a close friend reminded The Ear that spring-like music doesn’t have to allude specifically to spring. And the friend said that the “Trout” Quintet by Franz Schubert fits the bill perfectly.

So the Request Line is open, and here, for The Ear’s good friend, is the “Trout” Quintet, with pianist Yuja Wang, in the YouTube video at the bottom. It does indeed seem ideally Spring-like with its freshness, liveliness and bubbliness.

What music do you think best celebrates the coming of Spring?

Leave the composer, the work’s title and, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance, in the COMMENT section.

Why do you like it?

Moreover, did you choose correctly?

Here is a fun quiz, from the famed radio station WQXR in New York City, that can help you determine which composer’s piece of music about spring best fits you and your personality:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/quiz-which-spring-themed-classical-music-piece-are-you/


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