Advertisement
News

'The gods hit you where it hurts' Mysterious hand ailments ambushed the concert careers of Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman. How each met the challenge is testament to their strength and spirit. And to their friendship.

A heavy rain is falling outside on West 57th Street when two men, both 67 years old, seat themselves at concert grands in the basement of the Steinway piano company in Manhattan. The cavernous room is filled with huge, nine-foot pianos which, with their lids up, resemble a fleet of sleek whales. They are old friends, these two great pianists and the Steinway whales.

It's been more than 50 years since Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher began coming to "The Basement," and it is as familiar to them as the ivory keys beneath their fingers. On this March night, they are here to rehearse a new piece, "Gaea," by William Bolcom, which will have its world premiere this week in Baltimore at Meyerhoff Hall.

Advertisement

Leon has come down from Boston, direct from daylong meetings on Tanglewood Music Center, the summer institute he directs. Gary has come up from Philadelphia after a day of auditions at the world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music where he serves as president. Whatever fatigue they might feel, however, seems to vanish as the two begin playing, turning black dots on paper into music.

They are alone in the room, but as the two pianists play, an audience materializes: Memories arrive silently and take their seats at the pianos.

Advertisement

After all, it was here in The Basement that Gary -- 9 years old and wearing short pants -- chose his first Steinway for a recital.

It was here that Leon and Gary met as teen-agers: two child prodigies from Russian emigre families, both on their way to brilliant concert careers.

And it was here in The Basement that a fraternity of youthful musicians dubbed the OYAPs -- Outstanding Young American Pianists -- hung out together in the 1940s and 1950s. William Kapell. Eugene Istomin. Julius Katchen. Jacob Lateiner. Gary Graffman. Leon Fleisher. Bound together by extraordinary musical gifts, these were the pianists who seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of such legends as Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein.

For these young men, the future glittered with promise: of fame, of success, of a greatness that would deepen over the years. Who could have imagined that two would die young; Kapell in a plane crash, Katchen from cancer. Or that both Leon and Gary, at the height of their careers, would find their lives ambushed?

Yet they are here, Leon and Gary, back in The Basement, acting just as one imagines they did when they were 17-year-old hotshots:

Leon to Gary, after a long passage: "That was good."

Gary: "It was by accident. It'll never happen again."

Leon: "Oy! That's where it's unplayable."

Advertisement

Gary: "I thought I faked it well."

They are not used to performing together publicly. In fact, when the two step onto the stage Saturday night it will be their first performance together since

"Since when?" Gary asks Leon.

Leon thinks. "I keep harkening back to the opening of Lincoln Center. We played the Bach four-piano concerto. You, me, Eugene [Istomin] and either Jacob [Lateiner] or Seymour [Lipkin]," he says of the 1962 opening. "But I have absolutely no remembrance of it -- which must mean we were pretty bad."

"And in my case," Gary responds cheerfully, "I've totally repressed it. Which is even worse."

Repression aside, the two men share close to a lifetime of memories. And they share something else: Each knows the pleasure of fashioning a brilliant musical career; each knows the pain of having their career snatched away. "The gods hit you where it hurts," Leon says of that painful time.

Advertisement

At the height of one of the most promising careers of the century, Leon Fleisher was forced off the concert stage when his right hand was disabled by a mysterious ailment. Fifteen years later, the gods delivered a similar blow to Gary Graffman. Despairing and unable to play with both hands, each man was forced to reshape his musical identity and, in a larger sense, to fashion a whole new life.

Now, years later, after enormous efforts to retrieve the old life and initial reluctance to accept the new one, each has arrived at a state of remarkable self-renewal and self-knowledge. The journey, however, has led them to different destinations: One finds himself in a place of acceptance; the other is still pursuing, with the promise of success, a return to two-handed performing.

But because they are not sentimental men, which is not to say they don't feel deeply, Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher choose not to dwell on past sorrow.

What is left unspoken, however, can be heard in the music being made in The Basement on this rainy night. Loss, pain, recovery, acceptance: It's all there, released through the two left hands skimming up and down the keyboards.

And on this night, in this basement, you can hear something else mixed in with the music and the laughter: friendship.

Leon: then and now

Advertisement

It is an unusually warm day in early March, and the window is open in Leon Fleisher's piano studio on the top floor of the Peabody Conservatory. For over 35 years, Leon has taught here, at the end of a hallway near the back stairs.

Today, 21-year-old Naida Cole, one of his 10 students at Peabody, is playing. Leon sits behind her -- much the way a psychoanalyst does -- score in hand, head moving to the music, his dark eyes restless behind horn-rimmed glasses. He is an imposing, intense figure who, were it not for his wry sense of humor, easy laugh and casual attire -- striped polo shirt, cotton pants and athletic shoes -- might seem intimidating.

He sighs when Naida stops, then moves a chair next to her at the piano. "Amazing," he says. "Makes my arms tired just to watch." His voice is compelling: musical, low and almost as expressive as his legendary eyebrows.

For the next hour, in the presence of his other students, he will go through the piece with Naida, listening, suggesting, analyzing, sometimes playing with his left hand, sometimes humming and sometimes just raising those eyebrows to make his point.

Later he will describe his teaching approach: "What one listens for is what's behind the notes. I listen for the kind of mind that has the ability to detect organization in the abstract."

Pianists from around the world vie for a chance to have Leon Fleisher listen in such a way to their playing. And not just aspiring musicians but seasoned professionals as well. "He has developed into one of the greatest teachers -- in fact, perhaps the greatest teacher -- of our own time," says Piero Weiss, head of Peabody Conservatory's music history department.

Advertisement

Pianist Lorin Hollander was 27 when he first worked with Leon; he likens him to a Zen master in the way he imparts knowledge. "Leon's ability is not achieved through a technique but through a deep love, compassion and care for the soul of the student," says Mr. Hollander, now 51. "And in that relationship he makes it possible for something authentic and deeply human to happen."

The great teacher in Leon's life, of course, was the legendary Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel. Once described as a pianist "who was to music in the first half of this century what Aristotle was to philosophy in the fourth century B.C.," Schnabel had a reputation for teaching "head, not hands." His focus was on great music, not great pianism.

This approach is favored by his great student as well. "I like to say that I teach music on the piano," Leon says one night after a rehearsal. "Passion, not technique, is what I learned from Schnabel." The remark recalls a time he heard Schnabel play. Leon was about 17 and passing through Chicago, where Schnabel was performing the C Major Mozart Concerto. Leon Fleisher pushes his glasses up on his forehead, closes his eyes and remembers:

"It was like having an out-of-body experience. He was playing the slow movement, and, I swear, the top of my head came off listening to the incredible beauty and spontaneity and " He stops, searches for a word, finds it: " and oneness with the music. It was really a transcendent experience," he says, using words not unlike those critics have chosen to describe the sound of Leon Fleisher at the piano.

Lessons at 5

When he began studying with Schnabel in 1938, Leon was not quite 10. But his career as a prodigy was already in high gear.

Advertisement

Born in San Francisco in 1928, the son of a Polish mother and a father from Odessa who was a hat maker, Leon started lessons at age 5.

"I began to play when they got a little, old upright piano for my older brother," Leon recalls. "He's the one who started taking the lessons. And I would listen to the lessons, and, apparently, after the teacher left I would go and do what the teacher asked of him with far greater ease than he was able to do."

Exit his older brother from the piano; enter Leon, who a year later gave his first recital. Thereafter, young Leon's life became one of practice, private tutors and the isolation of a prodigy. "My mother was quite driven for me," he says of his early life, which he describes as "painful."

It was also a costly life, one that could not be supported on the income of a hat maker, and eventually a benefactor was found: James David Zellerbach, chairman of Crown Zellerbach Corp. and later U.S. ambassador to Italy. He became the boy's mentor and paid for his musical education until Leon was 20.

The meeting between Leon and Schnabel in 1938 was the result of a trick played by another influential friend: Alfred Hertz, a San Francisco conductor who had taken an interest in the 9-year-old Wunderkind. Schnabel, who never accepted a pupil under 16, had declined several times to hear Leon play. So Mr. Hertz invited Schnabel to dinner and had Mrs. Hertz sneak Leon into the living room.

"The dining room doors were closed," Leon recalls, "and when dinner was finished and they opened, there I was, sitting at the piano." Leon played two pieces. Schnabel listened. "He asked me then and there to come and study with him that summer in Italy."

Advertisement

The move to Lake Como proved complicated. Leon and his mother made the trip while his father and older brother remained in San Francisco. "That is when I became aware that all kinds of gyrations were being experienced by my family for my sake."

Artur Schnabel's older son, Karl Ulrich Schnabel, was 29 when Leon arrived in Italy and remembers him as "astonishingly normal -- very open and nice. Of course, the impossible part was his mother, as it generally is. She read only books about Mozart; she wanted her son to be a second Mozart."

Leon may have been a normal boy, but some gaps remained between his experience and that of many children his age. Out for a walk one day with his teacher, an animal appeared. What could it be? The master teacher identified the creature as a pig. And his student's response? "Amazement," Leon says now of his first porcine encounter. "Just amazement."

Leon's work with Schnabel in Italy lasted only a year before war clouds forced Schnabel to move to New York. Leon and his mother followed, a move that further disrupted the Fleisher family. After giving up his millinery business in San Francisco to move east, Leon's father was never able to establish himself in New York. It was a disappointment that did not go unnoticed by Leon.

"There was this quite heavy sense of responsibility that the family had relocated because of me and that the job problems were because of me, and that I had to make all that worthwhile. That is a heavy load for a kid at 11, 12, 13, 14," Leon says, ticking off the years.

He was also increasingly aware of his isolation from young people his own age. "I really resented it. I lived in Washington Heights, and the only opportunity I had to be with my peers was a couple of free hours in the afternoon. I'd go to the public park and play Ping-Pong. Or when I knew my mother wouldn't come looking for me, I'd join a softball game. But that was dangerous for the hands."

Advertisement

Leon Fleisher, a handsome man whose thick, dark hair curves back from his forehead in a Beethovian sweep, does not offer up such personal feelings easily or often. Supremely gifted in the way he uses language and always cordial, there is about him, nonetheless, a slight resistance to the pressures of interrogation and personal disclosure. It is not, perhaps, an unusual response from someone who since childhood has been subject to public scrutiny.

Growing up

Public interest in the young pianist accelerated when Leon made his Carnegie Hall debut at 16 with the New York Philharmonic and Pierre Monteux. His performance of the daunting Brahms D minor Concerto prompted Monteux to call Leon "the pianistic find of the century."

Then at 19, Leon decided to interrupt his career. Two things had occurred: He had made the "painful" decision to move out on his own, away from his family, and he was forced out of the Schnabel nest as well.

"I was in despair," he says of leaving Schnabel. "He realized I'd gotten into a state of laziness whereby I wouldn't look for the answers myself. Instead, I'd think, 'Oh, I'll just play for Schnabel and have the Truth laid on me.' He caught on very quickly. He said, 'You know how to find the answers and the solutions. Now you must find them by yourself.' It was terrible. So much so that for a couple of years I didn't seriously play. I wanted to find that part of my life which young people usually go through -- and that I never had a chance to go through. So I went to Paris."

There, he lived over a Moroccan nightclub on the Left Bank. Listening to a Schnabel recording one day, his passion for the piano returned.

Advertisement

" 'Isn't that beautiful?' I thought, listening to Schnabel. 'But I'm not sure I would want to do it that way myself. ' And it was like a lightning bolt had hit me. What sacrilege! What had I just thought? But from that moment on, I started to get back to the piano. And I started thinking, 'Oh, that reminds me of something Schnabel said. I wonder if it would work here.' And suddenly from deep down, I realized nothing had been lost."

Far from it. In 1952, Leon Fleisher became the first American to win the rigorous Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Music Competition. His performance elicited so much response that a bell had to be rung to silence the enthusiastic audience.

Schnabel, who died in 1951, did not live to see his pupil embark on a brilliant career. Even before his death, the relationship had -- become strained. "I think his final memories of me were less than happy," Leon says slowly. "While I was with Schnabel, I went a couple of times to visit Horowitz, and word got back to Schnabel. I later heard he was made quite unhappy by that. In fact, I was told he referred to me by saying, 'Oh, you mean that Horowitz student.' "

Between 1952 and the mid-1960s, Leon's concert performances were acclaimed by critics and audiences. His 1958 recordings of the five Beethoven piano concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra remain among the best ever made of those masterworks.

But in 1962, at the height of his career, Leon noticed changes in the feeling of his right forearm, changes he has said "felt as if you untwisted a rope so that all the strands got looser and looser." The right hand also felt different.

"It seemed as though one or another finger was a little bit lazy," he says. "The fingers weren't responding quite the way they always had. And my reaction was, 'I'm falling out of shape; I've got to work harder.' Which, of course, is precisely the wrong thing to do."

Advertisement

By 1965, his fourth and fifth fingers were curling into his palm. "It came on slowly, then faster and faster. It took about 10 months for me not to be able to use my right hand anymore at the piano."

At 37, Leon Fleisher's career appeared over -- only 15 years after it had begun. He became deeply depressed. "It got very, very bad. I cannot describe that sense of sinking -- it's really despair. And eventually I was filled with self-pity and self-concern. I think it was a large factor in destroying my second marriage," says the twice-divorced pianist, who since 1982 has been married to Katherine Jacobson, 48, also a pianist and formerly one of his students. He sighs. "In a very real way, when this happened I thought my life was over."

What Leon Fleisher couldn't imagine then was just how fulfilling the life ahead of him would be. Or that, as recent developments suggest, he might one day return to the concert stage, playing as brilliantly as he once did. And playing with two hands.

Men at work

Late afternoon, Feb. 29: Somewhere in a practice room on the second floor of the Curtis Institute, a violinist is rehearsing. The sound floats down the corridor to Room 1-E, where it pauses briefly to mingle with the sound of two left hands playing two pianos inside another small practice room.

They are "the two strongest left hands in the world" -- as conductor Sergiu Comissiona describes them -- and they are rehearsing the duo version of the Bolcom piece. It is their first rehearsal together, and the pianists are, in a sense, breathing life into the newly born piece. As with any infant, the development phase is going to take a lot of work.

Advertisement

But first, there is the matter of scheduling future rehearsals:

Gary, consulting his appointment book: "I'm in New York Saturday."

Leon, consulting his appointment book: "I'm busy Saturday and Sunday."

Gary: "Monday I'm available. But Tuesday I go to Europe."

Leon: "I'm in Toronto the 27th and 28th."

And so it goes. Auditions, meetings, concerts, teaching, judging, traveling and, oh yes, practicing. The two men manage to agree on a few practice dates and then settle in for three hours of work.

Advertisement

Practice: Imagine the sound of music interrupted by staccato conversation and a lot of laughter.

"I made a mistake. Let's start over."

"I'm still not clear. Are we together there?"

"Yes. But I'm still not 100 percent clear that we should be together on that note where we just stopped."

"Sorry. Let's start again."

"Wait a minute. I've not counted something right here."

Advertisement

"I wonder if I'm playing it too slowly. What do you think?"

"It sounded a little fast to me."

"Aha! I got it!"

"Oh, my God!"

"That's very good!"

"Oh, let's not get carried away."

Advertisement

"There's something very familiar about this part -- sounds like my mother telling me to practice."

"This could develop into Cole Porter."

"Sorry, sorry, sorry."

Back and forth, the two left hands skim up and down the keys, at times threatening to unseat the bodies that must accommodate the rolling posture that comes with the use of just one hand across the entire length of a keyboard. In fact, when Gary first started to learn the left-hand repertory, he kept falling off the piano bench. When he mentioned this to Leon -- who had years of left-hand experience -- he told Gary exactly what he should do with his right hand: "Hang on to the piano bench!"

At times the music rushes out, released into the air like a startled flock of birds sent flying from the trees. At other times, it paces back and forth, back and forth, like a caged tiger. Often, it's surrounded by laughter.

And then there is this moment: It's growing dark outside, and down on the street below, a man stands motionless under the street lights, his head tilted up to the window, listening intently to the sounds flowing down from above like celestial music. Suddenly, a voice shouts: "VERY GOOD!"

Advertisement

It's Leon, praising Gary's playing. "I think he gave you much tougher stuff," Leon says. "Well, here, maybe," Gary replies.

A week or so later, Leon, out of the presence of Gary, suddenly brings up this rehearsal, saying: "Gary does certain things so well. He's so secure, absolutely rock-solid. So reliable. So consistent. It's great to be able to bounce off of that. I find myself from time to time just kind of smiling or even occasionally laughing. Because I hear what he's doing, and I can pick up on it and respond."

Secure. Rock solid. Reliable. Consistent. It seems to describe not only Gary's musical voice but his personality as well. "He is terribly organized and foresees most every eventuality," Leon says.

He pauses, half-closes his eyes, a habit he has. "It has always seemed to me that Gary has dealt with his hand problem -- from a psychological point of view -- much better than I did. He seemed to be more orderly."

When Gary learns of Leon's assessment, he responds instantly: "Yes, but Leon really was cheated. He stopped playing 15 years before I did. At 35 instead of 50. That's a very big difference. His career was only 15 years; mine was 30 -- twice as much."

Gary: then and now

Advertisement

It is teatime at the Curtis Institute of Music, and Gary Graffman, cup in hand, is surrounded by young music students eager to talk to him. Naomi Graffman, Gary's wife of 43 years, sits nearby at a table, dispensing tea and sympathy at this traditional Wednesday afternoon gathering of students and faculty.

It's all very civilized, an hourlong break during which lessons and practice give way to slices of cake and an exchange of ideas through words rather than music. It's a perfect setting for Gary and Naomi. Urbane, sociable, gracious, they know how to make even the most nervous young student feel at ease.

Gary, who graduated from Curtis in 1946, never dreamed that 40 years later he would take the reins of this venerable music school. He was, after all, on his way to a superstar career as a concert soloist. Sitting in his elegant, wood-paneled office overlooking Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, he laughs at how things turned out.

"It's absolutely the most far-fetched idea -- to think that I would have any kind of position where I would sit behind a desk and have people reporting to me," he says. "I didn't even know what that term -- 'reporting to me' -- meant, to tell you the truth."

It is a typically straightforward remark from an accomplished but modest man who manages to combine a courtly, polite manner with an endearing air of youthful enthusiasm and sly humor. He is an approachable man; open, unguarded and appealingly self-confident; one imagines he is still remarkably like the boy who walked through these doors in 1936.

He was 7 then, a piano prodigy wearing a white sailor suit and carrying pedal extensions. Accompanied by his father, violinist Vladimir Graffman, he had come down on the train from his home in New York City to play at the annual auditions for prospective students.

Advertisement

Among those judging the auditions were the brilliant but formidable Isabelle Vengerova, who would become his piano teacher for the next decade, and pianist Josef Hofmann, then one of the most famous people in music. The young pianist was not unnerved by this all-star lineup.

"I don't remember my actual playing," he says, "but I do remember speaking to Hofmann in Russian, using the familiar form of address. Which was all I knew."

Not long after the audition, Gary Graffman was accepted as a pupil, one of the youngest ever admitted to Curtis.

During 10 years of study with Vengerova at her New York apartment, the young pianist lived as normal a life as possible, given his extraordinary talent. Unlike so many prodigies who study only with private tutors, Gary, an only child, attended Columbia Grammar School in Manhattan and was allowed to perform publicly only occasionally. His parents were not, he says, in the business of being stage managers.

"My mother was not at all a 'musician's mother.' Actually, she had no interest in music. And my father was very careful about my appearances. Actually, he was very happy for me to play two or three times a year, enough so I'd have something to strive for."

At 12, Gary made his Town Hall recital debut. Peabody musicologist Piero Weiss, also 12 then and studying with Vengerova, first heard Gary play at that New York recital. Mr. Weiss recalls: "Gary came out on stage in a Lord Fauntleroy collar and knickers -- really very funny. But his playing was fantastic!"

Advertisement

(About that outfit, Gary would later say with typical self-deprecating humor: "One of my aunts said that I looked like a midget Cossack.")

Just eight years later, Gary had captured the coveted Leventritt Award, which launched his career on the international concert circuit and led to a busy recording career. He excelled in playing the virtuoso piano works of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Liszt and Chopin, as well as the classical and early Romantic repertory.

Still, determined to deepen and widen the quality of his music, Gary began several years of intensive study with Vladimir Horowitz in New York and with Rudolf Serkin at Marlboro, Vt.

By the 1960s Gary Graffman had established himself as a pianist of power, authority and awesome technique, prompting New York Times critic Harold Schonberg to call him "the great architectural draftsman" of contemporary pianists. Another critic, writing in 1967, described him as an artist who had established his "pre-eminence among the new breed of pianists -- the ones who seem to have structural steel in their arms and fingers, who rarely, if ever miss a note."

It is, in hindsight, a review that eerily and unintentionally *T pinpointed part of the problem that, years later, would plague Gary Graffman as it had Leon Fleisher.

"Of course, we had no idea then," Gary says, a trace of wistfulness edging his distinctive voice. as he reflects on the fate of the OYAPs. "We thought we'd be playing a hundred concerts a year, every year, and playing whatever we wanted to play."

Advertisement

Wrong notes

It was in 1976 that Gary observed something different about his right hand: His control over the ring and little fingers seemed weaker. Then in 1977 he noticed he was hitting wrong notes. "There's a famous passage in the second movement of the Brahms second concerto which is almost unplayable anyway, but I always was able to play it. And suddenly I found I'm not able to play it."

He voiced his concern to his former teacher, Rudolf Serkin, who laughed and said, "Is that the only thing in that piece that's giving you trouble?"

It got worse. The fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand began to curl under involuntarily. "Things were really getting bad," he says. "But I didn't admit it to myself or to Naomi." When he finally did, his wife was not surprised. She'd been aware that for some time he had been "playing clinkers in pieces he was practicing that he shouldn't be playing clinkers in."

Leon had noticed a change, too. He remembers Gary playing "a Tchaikovsky that was really kind of messy. And he was always very clean and played quite immaculately."

When Gary told him about the disabled hand, Leon felt almost relieved. "I felt that sense of being able to share something like this. What a load off my mind. I had thought I was the only one."

Advertisement

In 1979, Gary canceled two years of concerts, about 100 engagements per year. Then he joined his friend Leon in making the round of doctors, seeking a diagnosis and a cure.

Hand injuries

As it turns out, there is no definitive answer, no precise diagnosis for either pianist.

Leon's injury, which eventually involved numbness and pain from carpal tunnel syndrome, has been described as an early example of repetitive stress syndrome or overuse syndrome. Leon now identifies the origins of the problem in his brutal over-practicing after he won the Queen Elisabeth Competition -- his attempt, ironically, to emulate the virtuoso playing of such pianists as Gary Graffman and William Kapell.

"I remember hearing Leon practice a Tchaikovsky concerto in London in 1960 or '61," Naomi Graffman says, "and it really sounded like he was going to come out of there with no fingers left on his hand."

Gary's hand problem seems to be related more to misuse than overuse. He traces it to a 1967 concert with the Berlin Philharmonic and an unresponsive piano. "It was brand new and very dull, and I banged the piano with such anger and frustration that the knuckle on my fourth finger came out a little bit." An X-ray showed the finger was sprained.

Advertisement

Gary, however, had concerts to play and did not allow it time to heal. "Apparently I favored the finger and developed some new fingerings which were not natural to my hand," he says. "And it worked very well."

So well it became routine. But the new fingering placed different stresses on his right hand, causing certain muscles between his fingers to become too strong and others too weak. This was discovered only after the hand had given out, and he'd gone through a string of doctors -- some 40 in all.

Suffice it to say that neither pianist was ushered off the stage of two-handed performing without a struggle. Leon tried almost every treatment suggested to him by the legion of doctors and therapists he consulted: psychiatry, lidocaine injections, traction, hypnosis, acupuncture, Tiger Balm, L-Dopa treatment, zero balancing therapy, est, the Alexander technique, biofeedback, myotherapy.

Gary's search eventually led him to a biofeedback specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He and Naomi rented an apartment in Boston where they spent three or four days every week while Gary worked with a biofeedback machine and a physical therapist. After two years -- during which time he studied Asian art at Columbia University -- Gary decided to abandon his efforts. He began learning the left-hand repertory. He also began teaching.

Gary's pragmatic approach to this disappointment was a learned one, says his wife. Both his mother and father were unsentimental people who believed in accepting whatever came your way and then moving on with your life.

"Gary's father was dead by the time this happened to his hand," Naomi says. "But he was a very practical person who would have said, 'Well, that's the way it is. Now do something else. ' He was a very stiff-upper-lipped person. And I think Gary inherited that from him."

Advertisement

The truth of her assessment is evident when Gary talks about his hand problem -- without a trace of sadness.

"Yes, I would like to play my Brahms concertos and Beethoven concertos. But I don't think I would be willing to do what Leon does. And that is: spend hours and hours and weeks and months and years going to therapy and doctors -- unless I saw improvement. Of course, Leon sees improvement. I never saw improvement."

The 'charade'

Unlike Gary Graffman, who stopped playing when his hand curled inward, Leon Fleisher tried to regain use of his hand by forcing it to play. "I tried so hard that I eventually developed carpal tunnel syndrome," he recalls. A 1981 operation on his wrist, performed to the accompaniment of Mahler's First Symphony, lessened the pain and numbness but did not restore full motor control.

The relief he felt nonetheless encouraged Leon to accept an invitation from Sergiu Comissiona, then music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, to "play any work you wish" at the 1982 opening of Meyerhoff Hall. Leon accepted the offer with the understanding that he would perform as a two-handed pianist or, if unable to do so, be allowed to withdraw. Leon, who was the Baltimore Symphony's associate conductor from 1973 to 1978, had also appeared with the orchestra 11 times playing Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand; he hoped never to play it again.

Promoted heavily as a "comeback," Leon Fleisher's return to two-handed pianism after an absence of 17 years attracted enormous attention from fans, the musical community and the national media.

Advertisement

Leon, however, privately agonized over the concert. As the day of the opening drew closer, he became more anxious, knowing the stamina and motor control in his right hand was not what it should be. "The morning of our rehearsal in Meyerhoff, there was press and cameras everywhere," he says, choosing his words carefully. "And I was alone in the dressing room, in tears. I was sobbing. Because I knew it was all a charade."

That night he played Cesar Franck's "Symphonic Variations" before television cameras and an adoring, wildly cheering audience. On Page 1 of the next day's New York Times, its senior music critic wrote: "Leon Fleisher, the two-handed pianist, is back, doing what he once did as well as any pianist in the world."

"It was awful," Leon says. "All these wonderful dates for the following season -- with a dozen orchestras -- had come in as a result of all this noise about Meyerhoff and the 'return.' And my manager was accepting these dates." He pauses. "And I was hoping. Maybe it would happen." He pauses again. "But as the following year approached, and I saw that it wasn't going to happen again " His voice trails off.

He was saved from despair this time, he says, by the response of Mr. Comissiona, then music director of the Houston Symphony.

Mr. Comissiona remembers that conversation vividly: "I told him, 'Leon, we didn't engage one, two, three or four hands. We engaged Leon Fleisher to play music. We want you to come.' "

It was that response, Leon says, that made him realize he might be accepted as a soloist on the concert stage performing with his left hand only. All but one of the 12 orchestras agreed immediately to a left-hand concert.

Advertisement

"And that really sustained me," he says. "Because I've made a career since 1983, a most unique career, out of five fingers. I mean, that's unheard of and that was because of Sergiu's immediate, unstudied 'Well, come play left hand.' " He pauses. ++ "Wow!"

Reclaiming the repertory

In the past year -- slowly, quietly and with as little publicity as possible -- Leon has been reclaiming the two-hand solo repertory. He played with two hands in Cleveland last April. In Carnegie Hall in January. And, also in January, two back-to-back performances in Washington.

It's beginning to look as though Leon may be on the verge of yet another chapter in a remarkable career: a return to the concert stage as a two-handed performer.

His January performance at Carnegie Hall received an excellent review from the New York Times and an even better one from Naomi and Gary Graffman. "I can't imagine a cleaner, more elegant, more relaxed sound -- if he had had four hands, all of them working perfectly," says Naomi who, out of anxiety, kept her eyes closed while Leon played.

Gary watched as well as listened to the program. "I knew what he was going through. And I could see from where I was sitting that his hand was still clenching a little bit. But the proof is in the playing. And if I had no idea that he had ever had a problem, I would not have known it."

Advertisement

Leon credits his progress to a technique called Rolfing, a form of deep connective tissue massage. Twice a week, for more than a year now, Leon has been seeing a Rolf-er named Tessy Brungardt.

"When he began," Ms. Brungardt says, "his arm -- to quote Leon -- 'felt like petrified rock.' It's really changed. His arm is much softer, and he has much more rotation and flexion. And I can see his hand changing; I can see the muscles developing in his fingers as he practices."

Despite Leon's enthusiasm for Rolfing, it is not an option that interests Gary. "Of course, I could be wrong," Gary says, "but I don't believe it would help me 100 percent. And if it helps me 80 percent, I'm not interested. And since I have a rich, full life now, I don't have time for it. I'd rather study Chinese characters, frankly," he says, referring to his interest in the art and language of China.

Based on the recent changes in his right hand, Leon is planning performances with the San Francisco Symphony in September. There is also talk of playing with the Berlin Philharmonic. "We'll see how this thing goes," he says, carefully avoiding any word that even hints of "comeback." Others are less cautious about heralding his progress. He has been the subject of recent articles in People magazine and the New York Times, and Jane Pauley came to town to do a feature for NBC's "Dateline."

And what if it all falls apart? Again?

Deborah Fleisher, 42, the oldest of Leon's five children, is a harpist who understands the fragile nature of a musician's psyche. She believes her father will handle whatever happens with maturity. "He's older and has more perspective now," she says. "And I think there's a humility to him now that makes him very aware of the frailties of life."

Advertisement

Major influences

Despite all the changes in the lives of Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, one fundamental truth remains: With or without the use of their right hands, these two pianists have been, and continue to be, major influences in the world of music.

Indeed, who is to say that what each has invested in the future of young musicians is not at least as great as anything they might have accomplished as virtuoso soloists? By any standard, their lives have been rich and fulfilling, strewn with honors and admiration.

Still.

Leon: "The great music is for two hands. And there's a part of me that would like to continue it in public, even if only to play for my students."

Gary: "Of course I'd like to play. But I am not unhappy. There are all kinds of things I'm interested in. But if I could push a button and go back, yes, I would do it."

Advertisement

You will not hear the sound of four hands playing this Saturday at Meyerhoff Hall. But if all goes according to plan, Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher will walk on stage and, playing with the two strongest and best left hands in the world, fill the room with powerful, amazing music. And they will do it together.

Pub Date: 4/07/96

In concert

What: World premiere of two specially commissioned piano concertos for the left hand by William Bolcom, which when played together on Saturday create a third concerto for two left hands.

Who: Leon Fleisher (Thursday and Saturday), Gary Graffman (Friday and Saturday)

When: 8: 15 each night

Advertisement

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $18-$51

Information: (410) 783-8000

Pub date: 4/07/96


Advertisement