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San Francisco Remembers Leon Fleisher

August 4, 2020

San Francisco audiences and fellow musicians locally mourn Leon Fleisher as one of their own. Fleisher, who died Sunday at age 92 in a Baltimore hospice, reportedly of cancer, was teaching and conducting master classes online as recently as last week.

Fleisher was born in San Francisco on July 23, 1928 and remained a frequent and treasured visitor, through the decades, to Davies Hall, Herbst Theatre, and the SF Conservatory of Music.

His last visit — and performance! — in the city came last year, as San Francisco Performances celebrated his 90th birthday. SF Performances shared this video today.

Fleisher’s appearances with the SF Symphony numbered in the dozens, from April 16, 1943, with Pierre Monteux, in the War Memorial, playing the Liszt Second Piano Concerto, until his last, on Oct. 18, 2008, with Marek Janowski, in Davies Hall, playing the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto.

Even in his late 80s, he recalled his San Francisco childhood with great clarity:

I came from a poor Jewish family. My mother [Bertha, born in Poland] really was a most extraordinary woman. My father [Isidor, born in Odessa] was a milliner, with Anatole of Paris, made ladies’ hats, in San Francisco on Geary Street in a little store.

One of his first customers — he came home very proud — he said he had a young actress who came into the store and bought a little pill box hat. He was very happy. He thought for a moment: “I think her name was Lucille Ball.”

And I don’t quite know how or why, but there was an upright piano in our apartment. We lived in apartments and moved around a lot, but mostly in the Fillmore/McAllister area.

And Ray, my brother, took piano lessons. He was not too interested, and not very gifted, and in those days, like with doctors, piano teachers came to the house. At the age of 5 I remember Ray’s lessons. I would kind of curl up in a little discreet corner and observe his lessons, and I thought they were really fun.

And when the teacher left and Ray would also leave because he’d go out and play ball in the schoolyard, I would go to the piano and apparently do everything that he was supposed to do at the lesson and also the preparation for the next lesson.”

The little prodigy did not disappoint. Fleisher made his public debut at age 8, a year later Artur Schnabel accepted him as a student, and Pierre Monteux (SF Symphony’s music director, 1936–1952) called him “the pianistic find of the century.”

It was under Monteux that Fleisher made his New York Philharmonic debut in 1944 in Carnegie Hall, returning five years later, again with Monteux on the podium, in Lewisohn Stadium. Numerous New York performances followed, with George Szell as conductor.

Fleisher remained a favorite of Monteux and Szell, just two of the major conductors with whom he made many important recordings. In 1952, Fleisher became the first American to win the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium.

His international stardom continued for another decade when, in the early ’60s, focal dystonia, an untreatable muscle degeneration, struck him, crippling his right hand. For the next three decades, Fleisher’s struggle with the handicap was a major medical-musical story, as well as his accomplishments in the left-hand repertory and invaluable work as educator and coach.

Fleisher was active at the Tanglewood Music Center, serving as artistic director from 1986 to 1997. In 2007, Fleisher was among Kennedy Center honorees, along with Steve Martin, Diana Ross, Martin Scorsese, and Brian Wilson.

Sixty-one years ago, Fleisher joined the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, remaining there through his long life. Yesterday, Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein responded to news of Fleisher’s death:

“With the passing of Leon Fleisher, the music world has lost one of its towering figures. Our hearts go out to Leon’s wife, Katherine, and his family and loved ones. For members of the Peabody family, it is a deeply personal loss. Leon’s remarkable gifts as a musician, pianist, and teacher were matched only by his charm, wit, intelligence, and warmth as a human being.

“As a member of the Peabody Conservatory faculty, Mr. Fleisher provided inspiration, guidance, and singular insight to hundreds of students over the years both in his piano studio and on the podium. His approach to teaching went as deep as possible — showing young artists how to connect a love of music to the world around them.

“It seems simplistic to say that there was no one else like Leon. But that is the essence of it. We were extremely fortunate to have had this man in our midst for so many years. His impact here is profound and lasting, and his absence will be felt keenly throughout the Peabody community. We have lost a giant.”

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].