Kennedy Center honoree plays at Shepherd

November 06, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - When focal dystonia gripped Leon Fleisher's right hand in 1965 so the renowned pianist could no longer play with both hands, it changed his career and his life.

"I had been playing concerts and traveling the world since basically ... 1944, and suddenly to not be able to play, ... it certainly appeared to be that my life was over," Fleisher said during a recent phone interview.

"And I fought that by growing a beard and growing a ponytail. I didn't have the courage to buy a motorcycle, so I bought a Vespa, one of those little motor scooters and I tooled around Baltimore in a most reckless manner," Fleisher said. "For about two years I was in a real funk, a real depression."

"I woke up one morning and realized my connection to music was more than as a two-handed piano player," said Fleisher, who turned his focus to teaching and conducting as well as playing pieces composed for the left hand.


After various health treatments, Fleisher was able to use his right hand consistently again around 1995 and has been playing with both hands since.

This Friday night, Fleisher will perform to a sold-out audience at Shepherd University's Frank Arts Center as part of the Friends of Music Guest Artist Series. The concert is part of an international tour this year to celebrate Fleisher's 80th birthday, which was in July.

The program, "Shall We Dance," consists of dance pieces. Fleisher will play the Fazioli grand piano the college obtained in 2003. During the second half of the program he will be joined by his wife, pianist Katherine Jacobson Fleisher.

Childhood path to career

Fleisher's love for piano music began, strangely, with his brother's dislike for the piano.

"I have an older brother, and he took piano lessons unwillingly and apparently I would sit in the corner and observe his lesson," said Fleisher, who grew up in San Francisco.

When the lesson ended, the teacher left their home and Fleisher's brother headed outside to play. Fleisher, about 4 at the time, would then go to the piano and reproduce everything the teacher had required of his brother, he said.

Fleisher showed enough talent that his parents decided to send their son to Europe to become the pupil of the great German pianist, Artur Schnabel.

"My mother went with me, which means that we split the family," Fleisher said. "It was exciting. We went on an ocean liner (in 1938). ... It was a high adventure."

They spent about four months in Italy before war clouds gathered and Schnabel informed Fleisher and his mother that he probably wouldn't be teaching the following summer in 1939. Instead, Schnabel moved to New York.

"We followed and I studied with him the following 10 years," Fleisher said.

Fleisher debuted at age 16 with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1944, gaining international acclaim.

Early retirement

Fleisher had become one of the most sought-after soloists and recitalists in the world, according to his Kennedy Center bio, when in 1965 he began to notice something was going wrong with two fingers on his right hand.

"They curled in uncontrollably," Fleisher said. It wasn't painful. "That's the irony of it. At least, if there had been some pain, I could rail and yowl and whine."

Instead, forced into early retirement, he fell into a depression. After two years, he woke one morning and realized there was more to music than playing piano with two hands. He could teach more, become a conductor and investigate literature for the left hand alone - all of which he did.

The amount of musical compositions for left-handed pianists is not inconsiderable, Fleisher said. There are approximately 30 concertos, a few of which were written for Fleisher, so he takes pride in having expanded the portfolio.

There also are about 1,000 solo piece for the left-handed pianist, though Fleisher said most of them are lousy. There's enough good ones for one or two recital programs, he said.

Fleisher has been on the faculty at The Peabody Institute in Baltimore, living in Baltimore, for about 50 years. That's long enough to have enjoyed some of the Orioles' glory days, he said.

Conducting and teaching allowed him to continue his connection with music.

"It allowed my life to continue, and also I learned a hell of a lot from it," Fleisher said. Teaching - his interaction with his students and having to learn to answer their questions without being able to show them on the piano with two hands - has been his "greatest teacher" since Schnabel, Fleisher said.

The road to recovery

In 1981, Fleisher had carpal-tunnel surgery on his right hand. The surgery provided enough relief for him to perform a two-handed recital for the opening of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

But the relief the surgery provided was a false alarm. It did not enable him to consistently play with his right hand.

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