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: University Opera announces a new season that is politically and socially relevant to today. The two shows are a virtual revue of Marc Blitzstein and a live operatic version of “The Crucible.”

August 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

David Ronis (below), the director of the University Opera at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, has posted the following notice about its upcoming season on social media.

The award-winning Ronis is known for being creative both in programming and staging. The new season is yet another example of that. It features one virtual original production about an American composer to see and hear online, and two live performances of a mid-20th century American opera.

Both works seem especially pertinent and cautionary, given the times we currently live in in the U.S.

Here are the details:

FINALLY!!!

Things have fallen into place for the University Opera 2020-21 season and we are happy to announce our productions:

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein — the Man in His Music”

“A biographical pastiche featuring songs and ensembles from Marc Blitzstein’s shows, spoken excerpts from his letters and working notes, and a narration. 

“Oct. 23, 2020

8 p.m. Video Release

____________________________________________________________________________________

“The Crucible” (1961)

Music by Robert Ward

Libretto by Bernard Stambler

Based on the 1953 play by Arthur Miller

March 19 and 21, 2021

Shannon Hall, Wisconsin Union Theater

_____________________________________________________________________________________

We will post more information as we get it. For now, we are very excited about both projects! Stay tuned.”

(Editor’s note: To stay tuned, go to: https://www.facebook.com/UniversityOpera/)

_____________________________________________________________________________________

And what does The Ear think?

The revue of Marc Blitzstein seems a perfect choice for Madison since his papers and manuscripts are located at the Wisconsin Historical Society. For details, go to: http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi/f/findaid/findaid-idx?c=wiarchives;view=reslist;subview=standard;didno=uw-whs-us0035an

Focusing on Blitzstein (1905-1964) also seems an especially politically relevant choice since he was a pro-labor union activist whose “The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles,” was shut down by the Works Progress Administration of the federal government.

For more about Blitzstein (below in 1938) and his career, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Blitzstein

“The Crucible” also seems an especially timely choice. In its day the original play about the Salem witch trials was seen as a historical parable and parallel of McCarthyism and the Republican witch hunt for Communists.

Read about the Salem witch trials here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials

Now that we are seeing a time when Democrats and others with progressive ideas are accused of being radical leftists, socialists and destructive revolutionaries, its relevance has come round again. Like McCarthy, President Donald Trump relies on winning elections by generating fear and denigrating opponents.

For more about the operatic version of “The Crucible” (below, in a production at the University of Northern Iowa) — which was commissioned by the New York City Opera and won both a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Music Critics Circle Award in 1962 — go to this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crucible_(opera)

You can hear the musically accessible opening and John’s aria, from Act II, in the YouTube video at the bottom. For more about composer Robert Ward (1917-2013, below), go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Ward_(composer)

What do you think of the new University Opera season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: A good pandemic project for the Beethoven Year is to follow Boris Giltburg as he learns and posts all 32 piano sonatas in one year

May 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

There are a lot of ways that musicians are celebrating the Beethoven Year of 2020 – the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer (below).

One of the most interesting ways also makes for an engaging and ongoing coronavirus pandemic project.

The prize-winning Russian-Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg (below in a photo by Sasha Gusov) is learning all 32 piano sonatas in one year.

It is a formidable challenge, not only because most of the sonatas are technically and musically difficult, but also because the pianist says he has played only nine of the 32 sonatas before.

Giltburg’s videos feature not only fine playing and interpretations, but also a very readable and informative diary he writes that includes notes – also available in German on the website — about the sonatas and about what the process of learning and playing them has been like.

His approach works and makes you a vicarious participant in the major undertaking.

He posts performances of the sonatas every few weeks. He is learning and posting them in chronological order so you get a sense of the evolution. Giltburg is now up to Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1.

Here is some background about Giltburg from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Giltburg

And here is a link to more background at his personal website where you can also find information about his other recordings for Naxos (he is known for his Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev) and concerts: https://borisgiltburg.com

But the heart of the project is at Beethoven32.com where you can find the sonatas starting from the first.

The Ear likes hearing them this way.

Listening to them one at a time and reading about them seems a less overwhelming way to become familiar with what is called “The New Testament” – as compared to the Old Testament of the 48 preludes and fugues in Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

The Ear finds the playing first-rate and the sound quality excellent with great close-up videos of the keyboard and Giltberg’s playing.

Here is a link to the main website, which is easier than hunting for individual sonatas on YouTube: https://beethoven32.com

The Ear suggests starting at the bottom with Giltberg’s introduction and then working your way up one at a time, allowing time to appreciate both the music and his diary notes.

To get you started, here his introduction to the project:

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

And below is his performance the Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1.

Let us know what you think of Giltberg as a Beethoven interpreter and what you think of his sonata project.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: During the COVID-19 pandemic, hosts at Wisconsin Public Radio suggest music that expresses gratitude and hope

May 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The various hosts of Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) — an indispensable companion during self-isolation at home — listen to a lot of music and think a lot about it, especially about its meaning and appeal to the public.

So it comes as no surprise that they have once again suggested music to listen to during the coronavirus pandemic and the mounting toll of COVID-19.

Almost two months ago, the same radio hosts suggested music that they find calming and inspiring. They did so on the WPR home page in an ongoing blog where they also included YouTube audiovisual performances.

Here is a link to that earlier posting, which is well worth reading and following: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Wisconsin+Public+Radio

This time, the various hosts – mostly of classical shows but also of folk music and world music – suggest music that inspires or expresses hope and gratitude. (Below is Ruthanne Bessman, the host of “Classics by Request,” which airs at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.)

Here is the genesis of the list and public service project:

“At a recent WPR music staff meeting, we talked about the many ways music can unite us and about how music can express the gratitude we feel for people and things that are important to us, often much better than words.

“That discussion led to this collection of music, which we wanted to share with you. It’s eclectic and interesting, just like our music staff.”

The composers cited include some familiar names such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Britten and John Williams.

But some new music, based on historical events and written by contemporary or modern composers, is also named. It includes works by the American composer Daniel Gawthrop (b. 1949, below top) and the Israeli composer David Zehavi (1910-1977, below bottom). Here are links to their biographies.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_E._Gawthrop

https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/zehavi-david

Sound-wise, it is quite an eclectic list that runs from solo harpsichord music to orchestral and choral music as well as chamber music.

Many of the performers have played in Madison at the Overture Center, with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at the UW-Madison and on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos.

They include: the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; cellist Amit Peled and pianist Eli Kalman, who received his doctorate from the UW-Madison and now teaches at the UW-Oshkosh; conductor-composer John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers;  and superstars violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma along with Venezuelan pianist-improviser Gabriela Montero  in a quartet that played at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Here is a link to the new WPR suggestions: https://www.wpr.org/wpr-hosts-share-music-gratitude-and-hope

Happy listening!

If you read the blog or listen to the music, let us know what you think in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is May 5  — Cinco de Mayo. And here is a work by Mexican composer Gustavo Campa to celebrate the holiday

May 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is May 5 – the colorful Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo.

If you don’t know the origins of the holiday and what events sparked it, here is a link to the Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinco_de_Mayo

Usually the music that celebrates the holiday is popular music or folk music – including mariachi bands and guitar music.

But there is also a good amount of classical music by Mexican composers that can mark the occasion.

In past years, this blog has featured Mexican performing artists such as the terrific pianist Jorge Federico Osorio and the most famous Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez (below, in a photo by Paul Strand).

But there are many others.

Perhaps programming and performing more Mexican and Latin American composers and music would help attract Latinx listeners to concert halls once they reopen.

In any case, here is a link to a sampler or compilation of Mexican music found on Spotify:

https://www.classicalmusicindy.org/cinco-de-mayo-playlist/

And here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is a lovely “Melody” for violin and orchestra, with a photo essay, by the Mexican composer Gustavo Campa (below) along with a link to his biography:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustavo_Campa

Happy Cinco de Mayo!


Classical music: Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell, who performed in Madison, is dead at 76

April 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell (below) died Monday at 76.

If his name sounds familiar, it could be because Harrell performed in Madison at least three times – twice with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (2007 and 2011), in concertos by Lalo and Victor Herbert, and a recital with pianist Yefim Bronfman at the Wisconsin Union Theater (1994).

No cause of death has yet been given, but various sources say it was unrelated to COVID-19 or the coronavirus pandemic.

To know more about his remarkable life and impressive career, go to his biography on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Harrell 

Colleagues were quick to praise Harrell not only as a master musician – gifted with beautiful tone and sensitive, expressive interpretations — but also as a great teacher and a congenial man who made friends easily. He also cut promotional ads for National Public Radio (NPR) urging members to donate, as he himself did.

Here is an interview he did in 2011 with host Norman Gilliland for Wisconsin Public Radio:

https://www.wpr.org/shows/lynn-harrell

Here is a link to an obituary from The Violin Channel that features quotes from many musicians who admired Harrell:

https://theviolinchannel.com/cellist-lynn-harrell-has-passed-away-died-obituary-rip/

And here are tributes from many of his colleagues for British critic Norman Lebrecht’s blog “Slipped Disc”:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/04/lynn-harrell-tributes-pour-in/

A prodigy who made his Carnegie Hall debut at 17, Harrell, who studied at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute, was renowned internationally. He later taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

In 1994 he played a Papal Concert at the Vatican to mark the first commemoration and remembrance of the Holocaust. His performance there of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei”  for cello and orchestra can be seen and heard at the bottom in the most popular of Harrell’s many YouTube videos.

 


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Classical music: This Friday brings a FREE concert at noon of cello and violin sonatas by Beethoven. At night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra explores rarely heard works and composers plus the “Jupiter” Symphony by Mozart

February 19, 2020
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features the Mosaic Chamber Players performing a one-hour, all-Beethoven concert in honor of the Beethoven Year, which celebrates the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The program is: Cello Sonata, Op. 5, No. 1; and two violin sonatas, Op. 12, No. 3, and Op. 30, No. 2. For more information, go to: http://www.mosaicchamberplayers.com

By Jacob Stockinger

Can you tell the difference between the real Mozart and the “Swedish Mozart”?

You’ll have the chance to find out this Friday night, Feb. 21, if you go to the concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

That is when you can hear the Symphony in C-Sharp Minor, VB 140, by Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1791, below), an 18th-century German-born, short-lived composer who, as an exact contemporary of Mozart, spent most of his career at the court in Stockholm, Sweden, and became known as the “Swedish Mozart.”

(You can hear the opening movement of the Kraus symphony, played by Concerto Koln, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is more about Kraus (below): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Martin_Kraus

The Kraus symphony opens the WCO concert.

Then for the purpose of comparison, the concert closes with Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551. It is often cited as Mozart’s most accomplished work in the symphonic form, and is renowned for its melodies and harmonies, and for the masterful, even spectacular, counterpoint in the last movement.

But that kind of discovery and approach to programming is not unusual for WCO maestro Andrew Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz), who has a penchant for exposing audiences to rarely heard works and composers as well as to well-known masterpieces.

For this concert, Sewell will be helped by the return of guest violin virtuoso Giora Schmidt (below in a photo by David Getzschman), who has been acclaimed for his technique, tone, lyricism and riveting interpretations. He played the Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor by Sergei Prokofiev with the WCO in 2018.

Schmidt will solo in two rarely heard works for violin and orchestra: the 16-minute Violin Concerto, Op. 48, by the Russian composer Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987); and the 8-minute Romance by the Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen (1840-1911).

For more about Kabalevsky (below), go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitry_Kabalevsky

For more about Svendsen (below), who was a conductor and violinist as well as a composer, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johan_Svendsen

To purchase tickets ($10-$77) and to read a detailed biography of soloist Schmidt and find out more about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-ii-5/

 


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Classical music: Weekends are a good time to explore music and listen to it. So today The Ear starts a “2020” series for the new year.

January 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a new year and the first weekend of the new year. And The Ear wanted to find some kind of organizing principle to explore recorded music in the coming weeks and months.

Turns out the year 2020 – with its symmetry of numerals and suggestions of excellent vision — held a certain appeal.

So he checked out musical works that were either Op. 20 or No. 20. They could even occur together, like, say, a Prelude that is Op. 20, No. 20.

What he found was more than he expected: Dozens of composers and works that qualify as interesting and of suitable quality.

Some are well known, but many are rarely performed live or are neglected in recordings.

They come from all periods and styles, from early music to contemporary music.

And they come in all kinds of genres from vocal and choral music to chamber music, solo instrumental music and symphonic music.

Some works are short, some are medium and some are long.

For the longer ones, which are often divided up into smaller movements or other sections, it seems better to post the whole piece and let the reader decide how long they want to listen at a time rather than to post one part at a time and limit or force the reader.

Anyway, here is the first installment.

It is a wonderful solo piano piece that is too often overlooked, even though it is by a great composer who wrote it in his prime when he was writing many of his other more popular piano works.

It is the Humoresque, Op. 20, by the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (below). It lasts about 29 minutes but is divided into other sections.

And the performance, often praised as outstanding or even definitive, is by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu (below, young and old, the latter by Roberto Serra), the 1966 first prize-winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition who recently retired because of ill health.

Here is a link to a detailed biography of the distinguished and somewhat reclusive and enigmatic 74-year-old pianist:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radu_Lupu

Here is YouTube video of Radu Lupu playing the Schumann Humoresque in a live recording from 1983:

Let The Ear know what you think of this piece and this idea for a 2020 series.

A long playlist for future 2020 postings – including works by Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and others — has already been compiled.

But if you have a favorite or suggested “2020” piece, leave word in the comment section.


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