Cleveland -- With the grace, nonchalance and absence of fanfare with which a Mozart piano concerto begins, Leon Fleisher slipped back into two-handed piano playing this past weekend.
His appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra and music director Christoph von Dohnanyi Thursday and Saturday was only the second time since 1965 that the man still regarded as the greatest pianist ever born in the United States has performed in public with both hands. For most classical music lovers, Fleisher's return to two-handed playing is on a par with Bo Jackson returning as a star in both baseball and football.
"It was terrifying," said Fleisher, 66, on Saturday of his public return to two-handed playing. (He's been able to play with two hands for his own pleasure for several years.) "More terrifying on Thursday than tonight -- perhaps because the terror stems from self-consciousness, and because tonight I cared more about communicating what I knew about the piece than about myself."
Although it was unintentional, the concerts came almost 30 years to the day after another performance in Cleveland with the same orchestra made the then 36-year-old Fleisher realize that the crippling pain in his right hand, which had troubled him for almost a year, meant he would have to cancel his appearances for the foreseeable future.
The foreseeable future stretched into years, then decades. His only other public performance during that time was in Baltimore in 1982 for the opening concert of Meyerhoff Hall. The concert was an embarrassment to Fleisher -- not because he played badly, but because the media trumpeted his appearance as a comeback and because the pianist knew that he was not ready to resume left-handed playing.
This weekend's concerts could not have been more different. For one thing, it was not hyped. The national media was not informed, and many Cleveland music lovers who noticed the program change indicating that Fleisher was soloist in a two-handed work assumed it was a typographical error.
And the result was different. This time Fleisher clearly had reason to be pleased. He played as if each of his 10 fingers had a brain. With a delicacy of touch, flexibility of phrasing and imaginative use of color, he was able to make every note sing. And they sang with in a framework that gave them tremendous note-to-note tensile strength. And while Mozart's Concerto No. 12 is not among the composer's most difficult, nothing by Mozart easy. If Beethoven and Brahms are like forests in which trees may be hidden, Mozart is like a formal garden in which there's no place to hide. Any doubts about Fleisher's right hand were put to rest by the beauty of his trills, the ease of his arpeggios and the accuracy of his playing in extended passages of 16th notes.
"I never thought I'd see this day come," said one of the well-wishers who surrounded Fleisher in his Severence Hall dressing room.
"Neither did I," said Fleisher, who has taught at the Peabody Conservatory for more than 35 years and has helped establish the Baltimore school's international reputation.
In his dressing room, conductor Dohnanyi was jubilant.
"I don't care whom you compare him to, I don't think there is anyone playing Mozart today in a way that's so exciting and tremendously musical," said Dohnanyi, one of the world's most celebrated conductors. "I know it must be a tremendous strain on him, after all these years, to go out and do this. But he shouldn't worry about the strain -- he should be doing this 60 times a year."
The following morning at breakfast, the pianist smiled when Dohnanyi's remarks were repeated.
"That's very kind, but a little premature," Fleisher said. "I'm still discovering what I can and can't do. I feel I'm getting greater and greater control, and I'll see where it leads. But this appearance wasn't meant to be a rolling back of the clock. I'm not the same person I was 30 years ago; I wouldn't want to be. What my life is about now is passing on what can be passed on to younger people, rather than about self-aggrandizement and glory."
Leon Fleisher once described his younger self as "a piano-playing fool." For almost 20 years after his withdrawal from two-handed playing, Fleisher's case was investigated by teams of doctors from the finest hospitals in the world, including Johns Hopkins and Massachusetts General. Eventually, the diagnosis was repetitive stress syndrome and he underwent surgery in 1981. In layman's terms, he had practiced too much, too often.
"I'm beginning to discover what repetitive stress syndrome means," Fleisher said. "For a pianist, it's the result of ruthless practice that beats into the body what needs to be done and into the muscle memory what has to be remembered. It makes you tight because your muscles contract. The problem is that one contracts spiritually as well as physically."
He smiles. "Before you make your maximum effort, you need to stretch," he adds, with another smile. "Afterward, you stretch, too."
Fleisher is speaking literally; he is a great believer in stretching exercises and in various physical therapies that help people to relax. But his meaning is also figurative -- that focus and concentration need not mean a contraction of human horizons. Leon Fleisher has spent the last 30 years stretching his; he's not about to contract them.
Although he has taught at the Peabody Conservatory since 1959, Fleisher was focusing almost entirely on his performances when his career went off the rails. With the injury, his focus changed dramatically.
"I began studying with him in '65-'66, the year after he had stopped playing," said Nelitta True, now chairman of the piano department at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and one of the world's most admired and successful teachers. "He wasn't ready to accept his incapacitated right hand by investigating the left-handed repertory. But he threw himself into his teaching. We used to joke that if Peabody were burning down during a lesson, he'd never notice."
Fleisher gradually accepted his condition. He became the leading exponent of left-handed repertory, discovering and reviving interesting pieces that had been neglected; and he became a respected conductor. Most of all, he became involved in music's future -- which is to say, he became a teacher in the
broadest sense. He's Artistic Director of the Tanglewood Music Center, a summer educational institute for young musicians sponsored by the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Mass. He conducts famous orchestras, such as the Boston Symphony, but he devotes as much time to ensembles comprised by gifted students, such as the New Japan Philharmonic. He also spends an equal amount of time in master classes, and in guest professorships trying to help young musicians avoid the afflictions that nearly destroyed him.
"What's the point of killing yourself to learn all 12 of Liszt's 'Transcendental Etudes' and playing them note-perfectly on a single program?" Fleisher asked. "To make it onto 'American Gladiators?' "
Perhaps it was because his eyes had opened to more things than a career playing the piano in public that he was able to return to two-handed playing.
Last year he noticed that his wife, pianist Katherine Jacobson, a regular exerciser, faithfully stretched before and after workouts.
"Kathy never gets injured," Fleisher said. "That gave me an idea."
That idea led to regular stretching that left Fleisher's right hand feeling good enough to try to play Mozart's K. 414 in the composer's own version for piano and four strings with his own Kennedy Center Theater Chamber Players.
Then two weeks ago in Cleveland, Dohnanyi got a call from Fleisher.
"We were scheduled to play Prokofiev's Fourth Concerto [for the left hand] together," the conductor says. "He says, 'Is it all right if I make a change?' I say 'sure,' and hope he's not going to say something obscure like the Korngold Concerto for left hand, because the orchestra -- even for Leon -- would have had a fit. Then he says, 'Can I play two-handed Mozart?' and my heart leapt for joy -- I could scarcely believe it."
There was to be one proviso: No publicity advising the press that the great Leon Fleisher was making a comeback. For the Meyerhoff engagement, an announcement that Fleisher would appear on the opening program, playing a two-handed work for the first time in 17 years, created a media circus. Almost every music critic in the country asked for tickets to a concert that most would have otherwise ignored, and it was simulcast nationally on public television and public radio. Although the critics loved the performance, Fleisher realized he didn't have the strength to resume two-handed playing.
"I just didn't want a repeat of that in Cleveland," Fleisher said.
"I made my American debut almost 40 years ago in St. Louis with Leon as the soloist," Dohnanyi said. "It was some of the most extraordinary playing I've ever heard -- but no more extraordinary than Leon's performance tonight."
How about it Leon?
The pianist smiled.
"We'll see how it goes," he said.