Leon Fleisher: Pianist, Musician, Teacher


Leon Fleisher in 1963 (Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Bender / Wikimedia)

The latest episode of my Music for a While is called “Gettin’ Jiggy.” Why? Well, the episode begins with the Gigue (“jig”) from a violin concerto by Jean-Marie Leclair (Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder, I should specify). Lots of composers wrote gigues — Bach, first and foremost. But Leclair was not only a composer, he was also a professional dancer, interestingly enough.

What else do I got? Some Haydn, some Brahms, some Penderecki. Two popular songs — standards — from the American Songbook. And a powerhouse of a spiritual.

The Brahms is played by Leon Fleisher, the American pianist who died earlier this month. I interviewed him in 2003. Frankly, it was one of the most interesting and moving interviews I have ever done. The resulting piece was called “The Comeback Kid.” Why?

Well, for 30 years, Fleisher was forced to play with one hand alone, if he played at all. Then he came back, with two.

Let me do some quoting:

In 1964, Leon Fleisher was 37, and at the top of his game. But then disaster struck. He contracted what came to be known as dystonia, a neurological disorder making normal use of a hand (for example) impossible. In this case, it was the right hand. Fleisher’s left hand would always remain unaffected.

“For two years,” he says, “I was in a deep funk,” which is to put it mildly. It was hard to do anything. He divorced. Then he slowly started coming back to life, helping to form a chamber-music group, taking up conducting (which his ailment did not prevent him from doing) — and teaching. I hazard to ask, “Did you ever resent your students, who could play, while they might have had much less to impart, musically?” “No,” chuckles Fleisher, before adding, “There might have been a certain irony.”

A little more:

At first, Fleisher would not look at the left-hand-alone literature, which is sizable: “I denied my condition” by ignoring this music altogether. But eventually, he came to it, playing the Ravel D-major concerto, Britten’s Diversions, and other works . . .

I ask Fleisher whether, while practicing with his left hand, he would ever sneak in some right hand, just to check. “All the time, every day,” he says. Was it ever any different? “It was always the same” — “petrified flesh,” is one of the ways he puts it.

One paragraph more:

I ask him a dumb question: “Did you ever fantasize about coming back, with both hands?” “For 30 years.” I ask a less dumb question: “Did you ever doubt you would?” “No,” Fleisher says. “No. I knew that there was some kind of answer, if not a total answer.” People should understand that the agony did not lie in the denial of a glorious career — it lay in the inability to play, even for himself, “to realize what was in my head, to make manifest what was inside me.” But Fleisher had teaching, conducting, and the left hand, and these were means of doing “what keeps me going, what keeps me alive, which is making music.”

An amazing man, Leon Fleisher — brilliant pianist, deep musician, brilliant teacher.





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