Saturday, December 22, 2007

Leon Fleisher's Freebee Benefits Jacksonville Symphony

In recent weeks, strikes by the Writers Guild of America and Broadway stagehands have shut down two important arts institutions. Those contract disputes have garnered intense media coverage, and understably so; Broadway shows and TV/movie productions draw huge audiences and generate enormous income. Yet a smaller, regional work stoppage has gone almost completely unnoticed.

On November 12, the Jacksonville Symphony Association declared a lockout after failing to reach a contract agreement with the Musicians' Union. To date, the impasse has forced the cancellation of several performances, including a Pops concert, Messiah, and an upcoming Masterworks Series concert. Organizations of orchestral players from across the county have come to the support of the embattles musicians, but their aid is limited.

Thankfully, one of the most renowned and accomplished musicians of our generation has taken notice. Leon Fleisher, a legendary pianist and teacher and 2007 Kennedy Center Honoree, donated his services for a benefit concert held on Friday, December 20 at the University of North Florida. Fleisher conducted musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in two works by Beethoven: the Overture to Coriolan and the Fifth Symphony; he was joined by his wife Katherine for Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos, which he directed from the keyboard.

Audiences on the First Coast have long enjoyed the JSO's wonderful performances, yet Friday's concert was unusually special. Fleisher's dramatic, muscular Beethoven interpretations contrasted with the weightless, elegant Mozart. His playing was crisp and straightforward, but featured crystal clear textures; his sound seemed to ring in the air.

While the performance itself was memorable, the sentiment behind it cannot be overstated. Now without their full-time jobs, the musicians displayed enormous passion, performing with fire and energy. Unlike many subscription concerts, they were not simply going through the motions.

Concertmaster Philip Pan accused management of putting finances ahead of the audience while emphasizing the musicians' desire to return to the stage. According to him, money becomes important only when it distracts them from making music. One would be very naive, however, to believe that money isn't at the heart of the complaints of the Musicians' Union.

Yet both sides must soon recognize that their dispute yields no winners, and one must only look to professional sports to realize how quickly the publics grows frustrated with work stoppages. The audience--and the music--are the real victims.

Returning to the stage for a third curtain call, Fleisher took the microphone and read the words of a man who overcame far more than financial troubles in the pursuit of his art: "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." The speaker: Ludwig van Beethoven.