73_my_nine_livesMy Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music
by Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette
Anchor Books
334 pages, photos; $18.00 paper

It has been almost 50 years since pianist Leon Fleisher started losing the use of his right hand. This candid memoir takes us through all the ways his world fell apart while he struggled to find a cure for what was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia. He kept performing by playing works written for the left hand alone, many newly commissioned by him. He taught, and took up conducting. But the emotional impact was devastating. Yet, after untold experimental procedures and false hopes, Fleisher, finally found a treatment that worked. Now 83, he has been performing with two hands for a number of years.

Fleisher offers colourful portraits of some of the remarkable “individuals of strong character” he has worked with over the years, like Leonard Bernstein and George Szell, who conducted Fleisher’s legendary recordings of the Beethoven concertos. The most memorable figure to emerge here is his beloved teacher, the great pianist Artur Schnabel. But it’s a shame there’s no index to be able to track down references to all these musicians, among other things.

Over the years, Fleisher has been regularly giving masterclasses in Toronto at the Royal Conservatory of Music. In five separate chapters he describes how he teaches specific works that have meant most to him, including Brahms’ Concerto in D Minor and Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major. He offers insights on what the music is about, and how to communicate that without sounding “as if feeling were being injected into the music, as through a syringe. You hear that kind of thing a lot, and it’s ghastly.”

There are plenty of funny moments here. But the issues Fleisher is dealing with are serious — physically, emotionally and musically. “At my lowest point,” he confides, “I seriously considered killing myself. But I didn’t kill myself. I stayed alive. And, just as I was stuck with being alive, I was stuck with my love of music.” This memoir is inspiring and brave, though at times I found the breezy tone Fleisher and his co-author, journalist Anne Midgette, invariably assume at odds with the gravity of what’s going on.

Concert Notes: January 11 and 12 at 8pm in Roy Thomson Hall, Leon Fleisher conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and performs Mozart’s Concerto for Three Pianos K242 with his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and former student, Stewart Goodyear.

Fleisher also conducts the Royal Conservatory Orchestra and performs Prokofiev’s Concerto No.4 with Uri Mayer conducting, at 8pm February 17, 2012, at Koerner Hall.

Gustav Mahler
by Jens Malte Fischer
translated by Stewart Spencer
Yale University Press
758 pages, photos; $50.00

In Gustav Mahler’s own mind, his life and his music were “inexhaustibly” bound up together. By filtering his biography of Mahler through the direct relationship between the two, Jens Malte Fischer is able to shed light on what makes Mahler’s music so utterly his own. “Using a vocabulary that seems familiar and sometimes even intimately colloquial,” he writes, “Mahler expresses all that is unheard of and uncanny, all that is unsettling and upsetting. What was alien sounds familiar, and what is familiar now seems alien.”

Mahler’s life was as complex as his music, mostly because, as Fischer shows, he was such an intense, complicated and brilliant character. Admiring though he is, Fischer doesn’t shrink from describing how condescendingly insensitive Mahler could be with colleagues, friends and, especially, his much younger wife Alma. But Fischer, like most Mahler biographers, is equally tough on Alma. Even from her own diaries she emerges as narcissistic, humourless and willful. But, as she wrote, Mahler “lived a life of torment and inflicted torments a thousand times worse on me.” She even gave up her own dreams of being a composer at his insistence, though Fischer seems unnecessarily harsh when he disparages her talent on the evidence of her surviving compositions.

In 1910, just months before he died, Mahler finally realized how unhappy Alma was. When he discovered she was having an affair with Walter Gropius, he contacted Sigmund Freud for help. No notes from the session, which took place as they wandered the picturesque streets of Leiden, Holland, have survived. But among Freud’s writings Fischer found interesting references to a patient who could only be Mahler. Fischer even managed to track down the bill Freud sent to Alma after Mahler’s death.

As a theatre historian, Fischer is able to offer fascinating perspectives on various aspects of Mahler’s work, such as the detailed and often idiosyncratic performance instructions Mahler wrote in his scores (which Fischer compares to playwrights’ stage directions). He is especially good at describing the literary, artistic, political and religious currents of his day, above all the prevailing climate of anti-Semitism that drove Mahler, who was Jewish, to convert to Catholicism. But there are occasional lapses in musical judgment. Explaining Mahler’s famous remark, “My time will come,” he inexplicably downplays the popularity of the works of Mahler’s supposed rival, Richard Strauss.

The translation by noted scholar Stewart Spencer flows well, especially when dealing with such vivid descriptions of Mahler’s works as, “His First Symphony is a tempestuous, urgent, rebellious work, the composer’s first contribution to the medium and without doubt the boldest symphonic visiting card in the whole history of western music.”

Concert Notes: The University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra under David Briskin performs Mahler’s First Symphony on Thursday, February 2, at 7:30pm in the MacMillan Theatre.

73_levine_9781574671964James Levine: 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera
edited by Ellen Keel
Amadeus Press
230 pages, photos; $35.00 US paper

This attractive book marks conductor James Levine’s 40 years working with the Metropolitan Opera. It’s a celebration, but there’s a poignant undercurrent, since, after this book went to press, lingering health problems forced Levine to give up his position as music director of the Met and withdraw from conducting assignments.

Singers and orchestra musicians talk about working with Levine, and he, in turn, offers comments on his experiences conducting them. We begin to understand what makes a great opera conductor. But all that mutual admiration stifles discussion of the controversial issues — and inevitably there have been plenty during his tenure — that would make these comments more incisive. Levine himself remains elusive.

We get an inkling of the power Levine wields at the Met when he says that for the revival of director Robert Wilson’s polarizing Lohengrin in 1998, “I insisted on a few changes.” But by all reports here, Levine exercises his power with sensitivity, support and inspiring passion. So it’s hardly surprising that singers love working with him. Sherrill Milnes says, “For me, Jim was the first ‘love conductor,’ versus the old-time ‘fear conductors’” …

59_storyteller-guitarStoryteller Guitar
by Doug Larson
325 pages, photos; $45.00 paper

Each one of the 3562 separate pieces that Doug Larson used to make the guitar he discusses here was selected because it told a compelling story. He even went so far as to call his instrument the Storyteller Guitar. Larson is an experienced instrument maker and musician, so he was able to ensure that the sound this guitar produces is worth listening to. But in this chronicle of how he tracked down the materials and built the instrument the music gets sidelined by the direct links to science, art and history that Larson incorporated into its construction.

It contains wood from a door that was retrieved from Guelph’s oldest building, the Priory, before it was torn down, as well as from the remains of a 45-million-year-old giant dawn redwood found in the Canadian High Arctic. There’s an ancient fish fossil, a piece of woolly mammoth’s tusk, about 50,000 years old, and a diamond from the Northwest Territories which Larson estimates “spent 2.5 billion years or so squished like a bug in the Earth’s mantle, then about 65 million years ago … exploded to the surface in a cauldron of crushed rock, gas and ash.” The label was made by Canadian writer Thomas King.

By working so many of his own experiences into the instrument, he has in fact created an idiosyncratic and eloquent autobiography. How many instrument builders would be able — or want–to say, “The joy in using this wood came from having known the tree when it was alive”? But Larson is not just a craftsman and a musician. Now retired from teaching at the University of Guelph, he is a biologist, ecologist, and dendrochronologist (tree ring dater), with his own lab. What’s more, he is a devoted scavenger and an irrepressible hoarder.

Larson also proves to be a powerful writer. Here he uses a more casual style than one might expect from a professor emeritus. But behind every corny pun and folksy sidebar runs his passion for historical artifacts, the physical environment and artistic creation, and his conviction that “art and science have the same goals, require the same discipline and exploit the same creativity. They are not separate.”

Larson’s stories are enlivened by a remarkable cast of characters–mostly scientists, but also foresters, artists, musicians, explorers, businessmen, a former politician and even a convicted crook. In building this instrument and writing about the process, Larson has found an uncommonly creative way of telling his stories, teaching his lessons and enthralling his listeners. Now I’m left wondering what Storyteller sounds like when actually played.

59_the-empty-voiceThe Empty Voice: Acting Opera
by Leon Major
Amadeus Press
190 pages, photos; $19.99 US paper

Canadian director Leon Major opens this book by recalling how a tardy and overly-confident soprano responded when he explained to her his concept of her role, Tosca. She simply said, “That’s not the way I do it.” Her static and cliché-ridden approach, lacking conflict, tension, or drama, represented what Major decries in this detailed study of techniques for acting in opera.

Major, who has directed operas around the world, is based at the University of Maryland, where he the founding artistic director of the opera studio. But he made his mark in his native Canada with imaginative productions at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, which he also founded, the Stratford Festival, where he did a fondly-remembered H.M.S. Pinafore, and of course the Canadian Opera Company, where he directed the landmark 1967 production of Louis Riel.

As Major explains here, an opera director’s main job is to make the story clear. To illustrate, he looks closely at some pivotal scenes from a number of operas. These range from L’incoronazione di Poppea and Xerxes to Eugene Onegin and Falstaff. But there’s nothing, unfortunately, from the twentieth or twenty-first century, even though Major has done a number of innovative stagings of modern operas.

By breaking down scenes in detail, and asking all kinds of questions, Major reveals some fascinating insights. On the difficulty of playing a character who is lying, he writes, “Singers are already playing roles: to play characters who are themselves playing roles is an extra challenge.”

On the problems a gorgeous show-stopping aria can cause for a production, he writes, “We forget why the singer is singing what he has to sing, we ignore what has happened to bring him to this point, and we don’t care where he has to go; we lose the drama.” The singer has to create a context for each aria so that audiences will respond not just to its beauty, but to what it contributes to the drama.

For drama, Major distils his approach into five questions for each character–where am I coming from? where am I going? what do I want? what is blocking me? how do I overcome this obstacle? It’s a thought-provoking approach, and it’s effective.

This book will undoubtedly benefit singers. But I find it surprising that Major still feels the need today, especially with the prevalence of DVDs and live video broadcasts, to convince singers of the obviously crucial importance of acting a part as well as singing it. Opera lovers as well will find this book rewarding, especially in the ways that Major draws on his own experiences as a director and shows how he works.

Pamela Margles can be contacted via bookshelf@thewholenote.com. Books for consideration for review may be mailed or delivered to

WholeNote Media Inc.,
503–720 Bathurst Street,
Toronto, ON M5S 2R4.

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