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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 10, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 34
Leon Fleisher Marks a Milestone in His Artistic Odyssey

Fleisher teaching at Peabody.

To celebrate 75th birthday, pianist brings home a favorite Brahms piece

By Anne Garside
Peabody Institute

Back in 1999, Peabody celebrated Leon Fleisher's 40th year on the faculty with a gala evening that culminated in an audiovisual presentation on his extraordinary life, narrated by Claire Bloom. Midway through the presentation came the sound of Fleisher performing the Brahms D Minor Concerto. It was an excerpt from the conclusion of the third movement, and it filled the magnificent soaring spaces of the George Peabody Library with a heart-wrenching emotion. But then: "Suddenly the music stopped," Bloom said. "Tragically, at the high-water mark of Leon Fleisher's artistic life, his right hand developed a focal dystonia. An incomparable pianist was forced to abandon his two-handed career at the age of 37."

Fleisher's decades-long struggle to heal the injured hand has been exhaustively documented. Happily, for the past two decades this great artist has resumed his two-handed career. A watershed was reached on Oct. 31, 2003, when Fleisher gave his first two-handed piano recital at Carnegie Hall since 1947. Music critic Bernard Holland wrote a laudatory review in The New York Times, commenting: "It is hard to say whether 30-odd years of dormancy has robbed us of music making at this level or whether a quiet period of germination has resulted in the kind of quality heard here."

Baltimore will soon witness another milestone in Fleisher's artistic odyssey. As the highlight of his 75th birthday celebration, on Thursday he will perform the Brahms D Minor Concerto at the Meyerhoff, with Concert Artists of Baltimore, conducted by artistic director Edward Polochick. Fleisher has been performing the piece all over the world in recent years, with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, with the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, with the Staatskapelle in Berlin with Daniel Barenboim on the podium. May 13, however, marks the first time in nearly half a century that he has been soloist for this concerto in his hometown.

Although the venue for the concert is the Meyerhoff, there will be a feeling that this is also a Peabody family affair. Peabody's famed baritone John Shirley-Quirk will be singing the Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem in Fleisher's honor, and he will be joined by soprano Ah Yong, a Peabody alumna. Concert Artists draws on many other Peabody artists as members of its orchestra and chorus. Polochick is a conductor on the Peabody faculty and an alumnus who studied piano with Fleisher back in the 1970s.

"I was one of those fortunate few in the Fleisher family of students," he says, "who, probably because of the special alignment of the planets and other celestial bodies, reaped the benefits of spending an enormous amount of time with this music guru. We would enjoy a hamburger and fries at the old Buttery while delving into the philosophies of life which might — or might not — ultimately connect you into how, in your next lesson, to approach Beethoven op. 109."

On April 24, Fleisher was featured with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in the Grand Celebration Concert at Peabody, marking the conclusion of its $26.8 million construction project. He performed two left-handed piano concertos, one specially written for him by Lukas Foss and the Ravel. The May 13 concert will seem like a continuation of the festivities.

It has often been said that there is something mystical about the sound of Leon Fleisher, whether he is playing with one hand or two. His recordings of Beethoven and Brahms concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1950s are still regarded as definitive. Many of his recordings have been nominated for Grammys. He has premiered concertos written specially for him by William Bolcom, Lukas Foss, Leon Kirchner, Gunther Schuller and Curtis Smith, and solo works by Kirchner, Dina Koston, George Pearle and Robert Saxton. In 2000, Fleisher was featured on the Polygram Classics CD series Great Pianists of the 20th Century, compiled by Philips to celebrate the millennium. Honors and awards flow toward him in a steady stream. In 2000, he was the only living pianist ever to be inducted into the Classical Music Hall of Fame.

At Peabody, Leon Fleisher holds the Andrew W. Mellon Chair in Piano, and is revered as an incomparable teacher. For more than 40 years, the winding circular stairway that leads to Studio 413, tucked away on the top floor of the Peabody Conservatory, has been a Pilgrim's Way for pianists.

Julian Martin, a former faculty member, who was a student in Studio 413 during the '60s, says that Fleisher would use the most way-out analogies to describe how a particular passage should be played: "It might be like the twitching of a horse's flank just before the tail swats a fly, the roly-poly swimming style of a duckbilled platypus or the stumbling gait of a construction worker overloaded by a few too many beers."

Back in the '60s, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Piano used to arrive for his classes at Peabody on a motor scooter, in sneakers and black leather jacket, complete with ponytail. The ponytail is long gone, but Fleisher still has that nonconformist aura about him. He is always challenging his students.

Perhaps Julian Martin best captured Fleisher's sense of mission in a 1999 article for Peabody News. "I like to think of Fleisher as a benevolent engineer assembling a fleet of heat-seeking missiles, priming and sending them forth into the world," he wrote. "Regularly giving himself over to the mysterious forces of sound and time, he is a beacon, guiding us to seek and unleash the radiant energy in music that warms us all."

Fleisher was born in San Francisco in 1928 into a first-generation immigrant family. His father, Isidor, was a Ukrainian from Odessa who made ladies' hats; his mother, Bertha, came from Poland. Initially, it was his older brother Raymond who got the music lessons, until his parents discovered that everything Raymond could play, Leon, at the age of 4, could play better ... without lessons. From that point on, the focus was on practicing. At age 8, he gave his first recital, at the Community Playhouse in San Francisco.

By age 9, Fleisher needed a new teacher. Celebrated conductor Pierre Monteux was determined he should study with Artur Schnabel, but Schnabel refused to take pupils under the age of 16. Undaunted, Bertha Fleisher smuggled the 9-year-old into a dinner party, where Schnabel was trapped into listening to him play. Schnabel broke his rule, and in the summer of 1938 Fleisher went to Lake Como, Italy, to study with the legendary teacher at his home.

Artur Schnabel had studied with Leschetizky, who had studied with Liszt, who had studied with Czerny, who had studied with Beethoven, so in studying with Schnabel, the young Fleisher became the pupil of the pupil of the pupil of the pupil of Beethoven. Schnabel, moreover, had known Brahms, with whom he had gone on Sunday picnics in the Vienna woods. So, through his teacher, Fleisher absorbed the great romantic musical traditions of the 19th century. "With one note or chord," Fleisher has said, "Schnabel could suddenly put me in another universe."

With the coming of the Second World War, the bucolic life in Italy came to an end. In 1939, Schnabel moved to New York and took the now teenage Fleisher with him. During his years there, the teenager met Gary Graffman and Eugene Istomin, whose claim to fame at the time was that he had been a batboy for the Brooklyn Dodgers. All three were to become lifelong friends.

"It was Leon who allowed me to share his cramped quarters in Paris," remembers Graffman. "Leon's generosity to me continued over the years, even as a conductor. When we did the Tchaikovsky B-flat Minor Concerto together here in Baltimore, he did not speed up the orchestra before the first movement octaves." That sense of supportive collaboration was apparent in their student years. When Graffman practiced, Istomin criticized and Fleisher played the orchestra parts on the piano. He was so good at this that his friends nicknamed him the "Fleisher Philharmonic."

A few years later, in 1952, the "Fleisher Philharmonic" emerged into the solo spot when, at age 24, Fleisher became the first American to win the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition. The queen was an amateur violinist, so she invited the Gold Medal winner to the palace for tea and a little music making. She played a Vivaldi concerto, and the "Fleisher Philharmonic" backed her. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

In the years since, Fleisher has played numerous recitals in Belgium and has often served on the jury of the Queen Elisabeth Competition. And he has seen some of his own Peabody students compete and win medals. At the 1999 Peabody gala, Belgium's ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Alex Reyn, conferred on him the title of Chevalier of the Order of King Leopold II, Belgium's equivalent to a knighthood.

Leon Fleisher had made his debut with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux at age 16, but it was his 1952 win in the Queen Elisabeth that moved him into the top rank of concert pianists. He appeared as soloist with famous orchestras worldwide, under the baton of illustrious conductors. Then, in the 1964-65 season, came the injury to the right hand — a watermark in his life that he has described as "lower than the Dead Sea." In an interview with Newsweek, he confessed, "Music was the core of my existence and it seemed gone, too. I alternated between wandering in the valley of depression and being the Ogre of the Andes."

Those painful years had a valuable outcome. He was the first prominent musician to speak openly about his problem. Until he came forward, musicians' physical problems had been scrupulously hidden from the public. Currently, Fleisher is a spokesperson for the Musicians with Dystonia, a subgroup of the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. As the most famous musician to have suffered from this condition, Fleisher will be speaking out about his condition and the need for proper diagnosis. In addition, he plans to produce his first CD in 40 years to include newly recorded two-handed pieces; proceeds will be donated to this cause. This year, the American Academy of Neurology gave Fleisher its Humanitarian of the Year award.

Although, after 1965, Fleisher continued performing the one-handed piano repertoire, he turned into new musical paths, toward conducting, chamber music and teaching. With former student Dina Koston, he co-founded and directed the innovative Theater Chamber Players in Washington, D.C., for four decades. From 1985 to 1997, he served as artistic director at Tanglewood.

Looking back, Fleisher has said, "There is no doubt that what seemed like the end of the world to me — an unspeakable tragedy — turned out to be an opportunity for growth, for expansion, for a widening of horizons that is enough to make one believe in the justice of fate and destiny."

However, Fleisher never gave up hope of performing again with two hands, trying every kind of treatment imaginable. When finally, in 1982, Fleisher walked on stage to open Baltimore's new Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, his return to two-handed playing made headlines all over the country. It was a triumphant, but somewhat premature, return. It was to take several more years before he regained full use of the hand. His playing has an added poignancy from the sense of time lost.

His 2004 schedule certainly has a sense of urgency to make up for lost time. The coming months will find him touring throughout the world, soloing with the New York Philharmonic; conducting in Paris and at Tanglewood and Aspen; performing on a Mediterranean cruise with the English Chamber Orchestra; performing Beeth-oven's Emperor with the National Symphony; giving the world premiere of a long-lost left-handed concerto by Hindemith with the Berlin Philharmonic; and playing at Carnegie Hall with Jaime Laredo.

As this great artist approaches his 75th birthday, it seems appropriate to recall what Gary Graffman, currently president of Curtis, sagaciously observed at the 1999 Peabody gala: "Leon is an unusual fellow. Most people change as they age. They develop pot bellies, their hair falls out, and their personalities seem to reverse. Youthful, bleeding-heart liberals become cantankerous conservatives. Starry-eyed innocents have a way of becoming crusty cynics. But Leon, I've decided, must have something peculiar in his DNA. He goes on being the same Leon."

Which in itself is a cause for celebration.


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