By Barbara Trainin Blank @traininblank
It was not only outsized musical talent but fortitude that enabled Leon Fleisher to continue his accomplished career despite a debilitated right hand.
At age 90, Fleisher is still the latter – continuing an international schedule of performances, guest conducting and master classes that might be daunting for a younger man. This year, he is appearing with the Toronto Symphony and Peter Oundjian and in recitals at Carnegie Hall and San Francisco, among others. He performed at both the Ravinia and Tanglewood festivals in 2018.
Oundjian is conducting The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 5 at Strathmore – in “A Birthday Celebration for Leon Fleisher.” The pianist, who now resides in Baltimore, will play his beloved Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major.
The program concludes with Brahms’s Second Symphony.
“The loud, brilliant, flashy thing no longer interests me,” Fleisher said. “The Mozart doesn’t require the banging. At 90, I can’t scamper around the keyboard like a lot of young people.”
Moreover, Fleisher said, “Mozart’s music flowed out in a state of perfection.”
At 90, Fleisher speaks with the energy of a much-younger person.
It was in 1965, right before a scheduled tour of Russia with The Cleveland Orchestra, that Fleisher began to suffer the symptoms of what was later diagnosed as focal dystonia – a neurological condition that causes the fingers to curl into the palm of the hand.
Fleisher made his debut with the New York Philharmonic at 16 with conductor Pierre Monteux, who called him “the pianistic find of the century.”
He was the first American to win the prestigious Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition in Brussels in 1952, and his recordings, most notably with George Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra, are considered definitive.
Fleisher began studying piano at four. Five years later, Artur Schnabel – the master pianist, composer and teacher – invited the boy to be his student, first in Lake Como, Italy, then in New York City.
After a decade, Fleisher said, “My teacher kicked me out, saying I would become lazy, to learn to play the notes, but not search deeply into their meaning.”
Ironically, it was his brother who started out taking lessons.
“He wasn’t happy,” Fleisher admitted. “But I found the lessons fascinating. I’d hide in the corner of the living room and listen to them. When they were over, my brother would play stickball, and I would replicate them.”
The lessons were not only “exciting and pleasurable, but a source of receiving cookies,” he laughed. “My mother gave me a choice – to be the first Jewish President or a concert pianist.”
After his disability set in, Fleisher went through period of despair, then overcame it: he mastered the piano repertoire for the left hand, launched a conducting career, and renewed his dedication to teaching at Peabody School of Music.
“I was lucky a number of composers – like Lucas Foss – saw fit to write music for me,” Fleisher said.
Finally, in the mid-1990s, combined therapies of Botox injections and Rolfing restored sufficient use of his right hand for a career renaissance.
“More people would “benefit from knowing about focal dystonia, which happens not just to pianists but to French horn and oboe players,” he said.
The condition still limits somewhat the music what he can play with two hands. “I have to be careful,” he said.
But Fleisher prefers to focus on the positive.
The pianist was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007, which recognized him as a “consummate musician whose career is a testament to the life-affirming power of art.”
Leon Fleisher will perform Saturday, Jan. 5, at 8 p.m. at The Music Center at Strathmore, located on 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda. For more information, visit www.strathmore.org.