RIP Leon Fleischer

Whenever one of the giants of the music world passes from this realm into the next, it always makes me profoundly sad. It doesn’t matter if I had any sort of direct musical connection with them. The fact that a great voice was gone was somehow felt, seismically, even if far away, across the world.

In the case of Leon Fleischer, I had a direct connection with him. A smaller one than many had, but still dear to me. In my second year as a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, he was the coach of a chamber group I was in. We were working on the Brahms g minor Piano Quartet. I remember bits and pieces of the actual rehearsing and playing, but very clearly some of the things that Mr. Fleischer said to us.

One of the best was “Are you doing this out of conviction, or of convenience?” What a marvelous question – and perhaps a rhetorical one at that. It probes right to the heart of the musical decision-making process. And it belies a work ethic that was underpinned with an inquisitive, seeking mind. It makes (or does it?) a couple of assumptions. First, have you thought out what you want to do in this musical moment? And second, have you done the work necessary to accomplish what you really want to in this musical moment? Two really simple questions which open a vast realm of musical exploration. What is happening here? Why is it important? Is anything unimportant? Am I capable of doing what I internally hear, here? If so, what does that mean? If not, what does that mean? Is there a time when taking the easy road is the best? Is there a time when pursuing the most difficult solution is unavoidable and inevitable? And so on, and so on…

A mind that can take the overwhelming task of making music and distilling it into a single, probing question such as this is rare. Many musicians can do the work, but aren’t necessarily able to express it in such cogent terms. I would say that this is the most valuable part of Mr. Fleischer’s genius. There are generations of brilliant pianists who would probably agree with me.

Godspeed, Mr. Fleischer.

With Leon Fleischer at Seji Ozawa Concert Hall, Tanglewood, 1995.

methow preview, part one

The only piece on my Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival swing this year that I’ve performed before is Robert Schumann’s gorgeous Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47. I think that it’s at least the equal of his famous Piano Quintet (also in E-flat major). Schumann had a chamber music banner year in 1842, when he wrote his three string quartets, his Piano Quintet, and the Piano Quartet. All are masterpieces, and a great challenge to bring off in performance. Schumann doesn’t make things easy for his performers. He tends to change moods very quickly, often mid-phrase, and even when you do get to play an entire phrase without interruption, it’s often irregular in its construction. You can’t go on autopilot with Schumann. But his rewards are great. The melodies in the Piano Quartet, in particular in the slow movement, are yearning and aching and gorgeous.

At Methow, I’ll be performing this work with Brittany Boulding, violin; Meeka Quan DiLorenzo, cello; and Ryan McEvoy McCullough, piano. I can’t wait!

Here’s a complete performance of the Quintet by Menachim Pressler (92 years young) and an all-star group of musicians. Enjoy!

focus on chamber music

A week from today I’ll be on my way to the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival (July 23 – August 1), which is a wonderful little festival in one of those special out-of-the-way places that really are truly magical. Last year’s festival was cancelled due to the huge wildfires in the area, several of which forced evacuations of much of the valley. This year (fingers crossed) it seems as though Mother Nature is cooperating. I’ll be playing three different chamber works with piano this year: John Harbison’s Piano Quintet, and the Piano Quartets of Dvorak (the E-flat) and Schumann. I’m so looking forward to this!