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: 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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Classical music: Pianist Ilya Yakushev returns to play Russian jazz with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night, then a recital of piano classics at Farley’s House of Pianos on Saturday night

February 21, 2019
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ALERT: The second of two FREE Friday Noon Musicales — devoted to the music of John Harbison on the occasion of his 80th birthday — will take place this Friday at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. The Mosaic Chamber Players will perform. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m. The composer will be there to sign copies of his new book “What Do We Make of Bach?”

By Jacob Stockinger

Although he has heard the jazz suites by Dmitri Shostakovich many times, The Ear was surprised to learn how many modern Russian composers fell under the spell of American jazz.

Cultural difference combined with cultural exchanges might be one explanation.

But he also wonders if perhaps living in a state of psychological and emotional distress and danger – the Stalinist Terror facing composers in the Soviet Union and the Jim Crow racism facing African-American jazz artists in the United States – created a certain affinity between such apparently different musical traditions.

One thing is certain: the program that Ilya Yakushev (below), who was born and trained in Russia and now teaches at the Mannes College of Music in New York City – promises to be one of the most interesting programs of this season.

During his return to Madison, the Russian virtuoso pianist – who has his own interest in jazz and played a solo version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” when last here — will perform two programs at venues where he has proven to be a sensational audience favorite.

This Friday night, Feb. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, Yakushev will once again team up with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and its music director and conductor Andrew Sewell, to perform two rarely heard Russian works that demonstrate the influence of American jazz.

Those two Russian works are “Ten Bagatelles for Piano Orchestra” by Alexander Tcherepnin (below top) and the “Jazz Suite for Piano and Small Orchestra by Alexander Tsfasman (below bottom).

You can hear the Lyrical Waltz from Tsfasman’s Suite in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The WCO complements that with two jazz-influenced works by Igor Stravinsky (below): Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra and “Ragtime.”

Then the concert concludes with one of the most iconic and well-known pieces of all classical music: the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

For much more information about Yakushev and the program as well as to a link to buy tickets ($15-$80) go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-ii-4/

SATURDAY

Then on this Saturday, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall, Yakushev will perform a program of impressive tried-and-true classics as part of the Salon Piano Series.

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance (students $10) or $50 at the door. Service fees may apply. Tickets can also be purchased at Farley’s House of Pianos. Call (608) 271-2626.

Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event. Tickets can be purchased in advance from:

https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809brownpapertickets.com

For more information, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org

Yakushev’s recital program is:

Adagio in B minor, K. 540 (1788), by Mozart

Sonata in F minor “Appassionata,” Op. 57 (1804), by Ludwig van Beethoven

Vallée d’Obermann, S. 160 (1855), from “Années de pèlerinage, Première année” (Years of Pilgrimage, First Year), by Franz Liszt

The song “Widmung” (Dedication) by Robert Schumann as transcribed for solo piano by Liszt, S.566 (1848)

“Mephisto Waltz No. 1,” S. 514 (1862), by Liszt (below, in an 1886 photo, the year before he died, when Liszt was teaching many students, by Nadar)

In addition, on Saturday at 4 p.m., Yakushev will teach a FREE and PUBLIC master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will instruct local students.

The master class program will include:

Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, First Movement by Beethoven; performed by Kevin Zhang who studies with Kangwoo Jin.

Six Variations on “Nel cor piu non mi sento” (In My Heart I No Longer Feel) by Beethoven, performed by Daniel Lee who studies with Irmgard Bittar.

Etude in G-Flat Major (“Black Key”) Op. 10, No. 5,by Frederic Chopin; performed by Alysa Zhou, who studies with Denise Taylor.

Master classes for the 2018-19 season are supported by the law firm of Boardman & Clark LLP.

The concert is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Salon Piano Series is a nonprofit founded to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts featuring exceptional artists. To become a sponsor of the Salon Piano Series, please contact Renee Farley at (608) 271-2626 or email renee@salonpianoseries.org


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Classical music: On Saturday night, UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor continues his virtuosic Liszt-Beethoven symphony cycle along with music by Kapustin and Schubert

February 5, 2019
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following press release, researched and written by Katherine Esposito, concert manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, about a noteworthy upcoming concert:

Franz Liszt (below, 1811-1886) was a superstar pianist. He was a virtuoso who invented the orchestral tone poem, taught 400 students for free, conducted and composed.

Musicologist Alan Walker wrote a definitive three-volume biography of Liszt, shedding light on all of Liszt’s work but especially his genius for transcription.

Writes Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times : “The best of these works are much more than virtuosic stunts. Liszt’s piano transcriptions of the nine Beethoven symphonies are works of genius. Vladimir Horowitz, in a 1988 interview, told me that he deeply regretted never having played Liszt’s arrangements of the Beethoven symphonies in public.”

Few pianists have tackled all nine Beethoven transcriptions.

UW-Madison professor and Van Cliburn Competition medal winner Christopher Taylor (below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) is one of them. On this coming Saturday night, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, Taylor will perform his sixth transcription — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93.

Saturday’s concert will also include: six preludes (Nos. 19-24) from 1988 by Nikolai Kapustin (below), whose works span both classical and jazz; and the Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (based on the song “The Wanderer”) of Franz Schubert, a piece so virtuosic that the composer himself had to give up playing it  before finishing. (You can hear Kapustin’s Prelude No. 23, which Taylor will play, in the YouTube video at the bottom and can follow the intimidating-looking score to it.)

In 2020, Christopher Taylor will celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary with performances of the Franz Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, in Madison and elsewhere.

In Boston, Taylor will perform the entire set of nine in five concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Tickets for Taylor’s Feb. 9 concert at the UW are $17 for adults, and $7 for children and students. They can be purchased online or in person.

Purchasing options are here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Or, purchase online directly at this link.


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