American pianist Leon Fleisher (born 1928) is considered one of the top classical musicians of the 20th century. His career is especially notable for its partial interruption by a serious physical malady, and then its resumption after a long medical and musical journey.
Fleisher caught the attention of San Francisco Symphony conductor Alfred Hertz, who slated the eight-year-old to perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2. The performance and attendant publicity attracted the attention of other top musicians. According to Terry Teachout in Commentary, French conductor Pierre Monteux, who led the San Francisco Symphony during the 1930s, proclaimed Fleisher “the pianistic find of the century.” Less encouraging was famed Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, who, according to Teachout, asked Fleisher if he was a pianist and, on hearing the affirmative reply, answered, “Bad business. Bad business.”
Rather than exploiting their son's precocious talent, Fleisher's parents enrolled him as a private student of Artur Schnabel, an Austrian pianist who was less famous as a virtuoso than as an insightful pianist and an influential teacher. First, the boy traveled to Italy to study with Schnabel; when Schnabel left Europe for the United States, they continued these studies in New York City. When Fleisher turned 12, his parents gave him a recording of Johannes Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1, the work consisting of seven or eight 78-rpm records. Fleisher recalled that his hair stood on end, and he played the first side of the first 78 for a week before even moving on to the second side, where the piano entered.
During his teens, Fleisher emerged as one of a group of talented young American pianists vying to become big stars in the postwar classical world. His training with the cerebral Schnabel endeared him to critics but left him less equipped for raw power than other American favorites of the 1950s such as Van Cliburn, the young Texan who stunned the world by traveling to the then U.S.S.R. and besting Russian pianists in a major competition, and Byron Janis. In 1952 Fleisher won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium, becoming the first American to take home first prize at that prestigious event. This achievement earned him considerable press attention.
Seeing a chance for his big breakthrough, Fleisher redoubled his efforts, often practicing the piano for seven or eight hours every day. He toured Europe several times and gave recitals in South America. As a piano concerto soloist (a piano concerto is a work for piano and orchestra), he often appeared with the Cleveland Orchestra under its acerbic Hungarian-born conductor George Szell; the Cleveland Orchestra was (and remains) one of the top orchestras in the United States, and Fleisher's performances and recordings from this period were widely praised.
In 1964, in the midst of a hectic schedule of concertizing, the 36-year-old Fleisher began to notice numbness and cramps in the fingers of his right hand. Critics, usually in his corner, also began to comment negatively on his playing. At the time, repetitive-motion injuries were poorly understood by doctors, and Fleisher responded to his condition by redoubling his practice efforts—the worst possible course in such a situation. The situation worsened after Fleisher cut his right thumb in an accident at home, and sometimes two of his fingers curled uncontrollably against his palm, as if in a fist. It fell to Szell to deliver the news that Fleisher should temporarily withdraw from the concert stage, which he did in 1965.
Fleisher eventually rallied, snapping out of his depression, if not out of his physical ailment. He began to explore the repertory of piano music written for the left hand alone. Classical composers such as Maurice Ravel and Sergei Prokofiev had, often at the request of pianists who had lost an arm during military service, composed piano music requiring only one hand. Fleisher made several recordings of such music. “And the thing that was so insidious,” he later told Holly Brubach for the New York Times, “was the suggestion, for a while unspoken and then spoken, that it's all in your head, man. You know, go get it talked out.” Not surprisingly, the suggested psychotherapy also had no helpful effect. In 1981 Fleisher underwent hand surgery that temporarily restored the use of his right hand, and he made a return as soloist in a concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on September 16, 1982. The effects of that treatment, too, failed to last.
During the years Fleisher was unable to perform, he became involved in conducting and teaching. He had already studied conducting with Monteux; now, with Szell's help, he honed his skills and began landing increasingly prominent posts. Starting as artistic director of the Theater Chamber Players in Washington, D.C., he was appointed as music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in Maryland in 1970, as associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony in 1973, and as that orchestra's resident conductor in 1977. From 1986 to 1997 Fleisher served as artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center, in Lenox, Massachusetts, a prestigious concert venue and educational center. He took on top-flight students including the young African American pianist André Watts. Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music named him its Andrew Mellon chair in piano. These activities deepened Fleisher's perspective on piano music, exposing him to the other side of the concert stage. Formerly buttoned-down in appearance, he grew his hair long, grew a beard, and began using a Vespa scooter for transportation.
In the mid-1990s, Fleisher began to benefit from new medical treatments. For two years he underwent twiceweekly sessions of Rolfing, a physically vigorous form of massage. “The muscles in my arm were like petrified wood,” he told the Globe & Mail interviewer, but his therapist soon began to make progress. At around the same time, his condition was correctly diagnosed as focal dystonia, a rare movement disorder. Doctors suggested injections of botulinum toxin, trade-named Botox, to numb and thus release the stiff muscles in his hand, and this combination of treatments showed dramatic improvements. In 1996, Fleisher made a triumphant return to the stage at New York City's Carnegie Hall. In the years since, he has continued to perform and record to critical acclaim; some of the most difficult piano repertoire has been beyond his powers, but not more so than would be expected for a pianist over age 70.
As a result of his experiences, Fleisher has been an advocate for less strenuous practice regimes, recognizing that hours-long keyboard sessions had damaged his health and could also injure his students. Noting the large number of classical pianists who suffered strain injuries (including several of his 1950s competitors), he urged that these musicians be given more instruction in how to take care of themselves physically. Athletes, he pointed out, routinely stretch before competitions; as he told the Globe & Mail, “Nobody tells musicians to stretch.”
In his elder years, Fleisher has remained active as a pianist, conductor, and teacher, often performing and recording with his second wife, pianist Katherine Jacobson Fleisher. In 2010 he shared his experiences in his memoir My Nine Lives. He has been married twice and his son Julian Fleisher is a jazz vocalist.
Awarded the Kennedy Center Honors, one of the highest U.S. artistic awards, in 2007, Fleisher was further honored by the release, on the major Sony Classical label, of a major box set covering most of his previous recordings—something done for very few classical artists. In 2014, he earned a Grammy award nomination for his album All The Things You Are. His scheduled appearances in the fall of 2016 included a season-opening slot with Katherine Jacobson Fleisher and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina.
Fleisher, Leon, with Anne Midgette, My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music, Anchor, 2011.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor emeritus, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer, 2001.
Commentary, February 2011, p. 63.
Entertainment Close-up, October 22, 2015.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 16, 2001, p. 1.
New York Times, June 10, 2007, Holly Brubach, “The Pianist Leon Fleisher: A Life-Altering Debility, Reconsidered.”
PR Newswire, July 9, 2013.
Washington Times, November 30, 2007, p. D1.
Morning Edition (National Public Radio radio broadcast), November 7, 2000.❑