When violist Alice Kurs joined the Annapolis Symphony 31 years ago, she had no reason to suspect the fledgling community orchestra would soon play host to such musical luminaries as Isaac Stern, Andre Watts and Jaime Laredo.
But in 1969, Leon Fleisher was engaged as the orchestra's second music director. The artistic fortunes of the ensemble rose dramatically during his 12-year tenure.
Music cognoscenti know Mr. Fleisher as the outstanding American pianist of his generation, whose magnificent career has been hampered by a severe stress ailment in his right hand; also as the master teacher who has attracted so many of the world's finest young pianists to his studio at the Peabody Conservatory.
But to Annapolitans, Leon Fleisher is the guy who put their orchestra on the map. As the Annapolis Symphony prepares to inaugurate its 35th anniversary season this weekend by bringing Mr. Fleisher back to play what has become his signature work -- Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand -- many of his former players are contemplating what he has meant to their orchestra.
"Of course we knew of him as a great pianist, and we were all excited when he consented to join us," Ms. Kurs recalls. "It was also a thrill when he'd bring in his famous friends to perform with us. But what impressed us the most was that he was a born teacher. Playing under him was just a fantastic learning experience."
"He didn't do it with technique, and I don't remember him as a conductor who had to talk a whole lot," says Susan Dapkunas, a violist about to begin her 26th season with the orchestra. "It was his overall musicality that got us. At concerts that 'extra something' would kick in and magic would happen. It was like we were under some kind of spell."
It's been 14 years since Maestro Fleisher laid down his Annapolis baton to pursue other conducting opportunities, but he has equally vivid memories of those moments.
"I felt a freshness and a sense of wonderment from those players that you don't always get from a more professional orchestra," he says. "Those concerts were proof of the musical adage that one can play better than one knows how if the goal is commonly recognized."
The decision to pursue a conducting career came in response to his physical difficulties, but Mr. Fleisher traces his desire to conduct back to the summers he spent as a youth playing piano reductions of symphonic works for the students of Pierre Monteux -- the great conductor, pedagogue and mentor to the Baltimore Symphony's David Zinman.
After playing for countless young aspiring conductors, Mr. Fleisher asked Monteux if he too could be coached. "He wouldn't let me," Mr. Fleisher recalls with a chuckle. "He told me, 'Once you get the stick in your hand, you won't ever want to put it down.' "
But with his chosen career impeded by injury, Mr. Fleisher gravitated to the podium, founding the Washington Theatre Chamber Players in the late 1960s, and assuming the directorship of the Annapolis Symphony in 1969.
It was in Annapolis that he first truly felt the wisdom of Monteux's admonition. "It was all new repertoire for me," he recalls, "and I was discovering it all for the first time. I've done the pieces since. They've grown. I've grown. I've learned from my experiences. But I can say that some of the most satisfying and gratifying musical experiences I've ever had took place right there on the Maryland Hall stage. This was an exceedingly important period in my musical development and in my life."
The orchestra Mr. Fleisher left behind is currently being led by Gisele Ben-Dor. Beginning her fifth year with the orchestra, Ms. Ben-Dor this weekend will conduct David Ott's specially commissioned "Annapolis Overture," the extraordinary Second Symphony of Charles Ives and the Concerto for Left Hand.
Mr. Fleisher is especially thrilled to be bringing the Ravel to Annapolis. "It's a great masterpiece whether played by one, two or 10 hands," he says. "And this time around, I'm looking especially forward to hearing the orchestra and seeing some familiar faces. It should be fun."
When: 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday
Where: Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis
Tickets: $18-$26; $5 for students, Friday only
Call: (410) 269-1132 or (410) 263-0907