Leon Fleisher: Relishing His Nine Lives, with Two Hands on the Keyboard

Jim Farber on March 28, 2011

It’s a well-known story within the classical music community: how pianist Leon Fleisher (born in San Francisco in 1928) rose from child prodigy (and student of Artur Schnabel) to become a star of the concert hall and recording studio, collaborating with such luminary conductors as Pierre Monteux and George Szell, only to see his career plummet in the early 1960s when he suffered a form of muscle degeneration, called focal dystonia, in his right hand.

Leon Fleisher

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The near-suicidal depression that followed gave way to a reincarnation of Fleisher’s career as a teacher, conductor, and proponent of the left-hand piano repertory. Then 30 years later, a combination of drug treatments (Botox) and physical therapy (Rolfing) allowed Fleisher to resume his concert life as a two-handed pianist.

It’s a story that can be followed in detail within the pages of Fleisher’s recently published autobiography, My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music (Doubleday), written in collaboration with music critic Anne Midgette. It’s a chatty account that takes the reader through the meteoric rise, catastrophic fall, and phoenixlike regeneration of Fleisher’s career, or careers. It’s an account that includes a cast of characters that reads like a “Who’s Who” of classical music in the second half of the 20th century.

Fleisher’s upcoming concert schedule includes three consecutive all-Schubert recitals in the Bay Area with his long-time friend and colleague the violinist Jamie Laredo: April 9 in Walnut Creek (at the Lesher Center for the Arts), April 10 in San Francisco (at Herbst Theatre), and April 11 in Palo Alto (at the Oshman Jewish Community Center).

At 82, the task of maintaining an international career as a pianist, conductor, and teacher (at the Peabody Conservatory) has to be a challenge. So, when I spoke with Fleisher by phone from his home in Baltimore, where he’s lived since 1959, the first thing I asked was the classic AARP question: “How does it feel?”

“I’m a little like the Energizer Bunny,” Fleisher quipped. “If anything stops me, it will be the traveling. That’s lost all the seduction and attraction it used to have. I just got back three weeks ago from a month-long series of concerts in China and Japan. That’s the type of travel that turns you on your head.”

On the other hand, he said, he’s definitely looking forward to his upcoming trip because it gives him an opportunity both to return to the Bay Area (“A place for which I have many warm feelings”) and to perform with Laredo, whom he considers “an extraordinary musician.” And, he added with a chuckle, because the trip will provide a doting grandfather the perfect excuse to spend time with his daughter Paula and his 10-year-old grandson Harry Samuel, who live in San Francisco.

Sophisticated, Serene Schubert

When I asked Fleisher about the decision to perform an all-Schubert program, he said, “Originally, we were going to do the three Schubert Sonatinas and end with the Brahms’ A-major sonata. Then we decided to keep the key the same, but end with the Schubert A-major sonata (for violin and piano). It’s extraordinary music that’s comparatively rarely played. These pieces have a sense of beauty and ingenuousness, joy and serenity, yet sophistication that’s quite unique. The Sonatinas are early, youthful works. But the A-major duo is a very mature composition. We wanted to focus on something specific, and that led us to the idea of an all-Schubert concert.”

When our conversation turned to the topic of Fleisher’s memoir, I remarked that I found it a very “enjoyable” read.

“That’s so nice to hear,” he said. “A number of the people that have commented to me about the book have latched onto that very word.”

It’s an account, Fleisher said, that was created through a series of extensive conversations with his cowriter, Anne Midgette. And while the tone of the narrative is distinctly conversational, it combines a wealth of autobiographical detail with musicological insights that can appeal both to sophisticates and to those coming to Fleisher’s career with fresh eyes and ears.

In addition, the book contains Fleisher’s master class discussions of piano concertos by Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann, and Mozart, and of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, which became a trademark of his years as a single-handed pianist.

Looking back on that difficult period, Fleisher said the awareness that he was losing control of two fingers of his right hand came about slowly.

“There were vague intimations that something was wrong in 1963,” he recalled. “When you work a muscle too much it contracts, it knots up. What I felt was just the opposite. It was like the muscles were unraveling. I assumed I wasn’t practicing enough. So I practiced more. And that, as it turned out, was exactly the opposite of what I should have done. At the end of 10 months my fourth and fifth fingers had dug themselves into the palm of my right hand.”

The Near-Death Knell

It was George Szell, the Cleveland Orchestra’s demanding conductor, who finally told Fleisher that he was no longer capable of playing at the highest professional level. The blow came on the eve of the orchestra’s departure for a tour of the Soviet Union.

Fleisher recalls the moment in his book.

Szell and I went into his office after a last performance. He was uncharacteristically subdued, and very serious. He was not unkind. But he wasn’t unduly solicitous either. The bottom line, for him, was always the standard of the music making of his orchestra. “I don’t think it’s possible for you to do the tour in this state,” he said. “You can’t play.” I couldn’t say anything. I had to agree. He was right. I couldn’t meet our standards anymore.

“It took me a couple of years to get out of the funk that created.”

Fleisher’s life fell apart, and he admits that he actually entertained thoughts of suicide, though he never actually went out and bought a life-ending quantity of pills. “I did do some rather reckless racing around town on my Vespa.”

For the next 30 years, Fleisher said, he looked for a cure. “Something might seem to work, and then it didn’t,” he said, the frustration of those years coming through in his voice. It was at this time that he began to search for other ways to connect with music.

“It was through teaching and learning the left-hand repertoire that I found an expansion of experience and awareness that I might never have discovered had I continued my career uninterrupted as a two-handed pianist,” he said. “That’s been the big lesson.”

Last December, Leon Fleisher became a recipient of the Kennedy Prize during a ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. One of the presenters that night was cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“They say a cat has nine lives,” Ma said to his friend, beaming in his royal box alongside President and Mrs. Obama. “You’ve had at least three, Leon. I look forward to the next six.”

So say we all.