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Fleisher celebrates 80 years of music

The Baltimore Sun

Leon Fleisher will celebrate his 80th birthday this week doing two of his favorite things - playing the piano and conducting. Joining him onstage for an all-Mozart program will be the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which shares with Fleisher a long, strong history.

"It's quite fitting that on the very day of my birthday [Wednesday], I have two rehearsals with the orchestra," he says. "It's a kind of homecoming."

Such an occasion makes a perfect time for reminiscing and taking stock. Settling into a leather couch opposite two grand pianos in a high-ceilinged salon of his handsome Roland Park home on a recent Sunday morning, Fleisher faces the inevitable question of how he feels about approaching his octogenarian milestone.

"Terrible," he says. But his eyes start laughing before he does. "Thank God I'm still ambulatory," he adds with a smile.

Fleisher is much more than ambulatory, of course.

He's also pianistically ambidextrous these days, a big deal for a brilliant artist who lost the use of his right hand in 1965 and only regained it - to a limited degree - about 10 years ago.

That's when the neurological condition that affected Fleisher's hand, focal dystonia, was treated with botox injections, which can alleviate the condition enough for some two-hand playing. It was during the decades when he was limited to left-hand repertoire that Fleisher developed a second career as a conductor.

From 1973 to 1978, Fleisher was on the BSO roster, engaged by music director Sergiu Comissiona initially as associate conductor, then resident conductor. For a dozen years, starting in 1970, Fleisher also served as music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, where he developed "whatever chops I have as a conductor."

The impressive thing about Fleisher's work on the BSO podium in the '70s wasn't necessarily his baton technique. "The hands did the job well enough," says principal bassoonist Phillip Kolker, who joined the BSO in 1972. "But it was the musical ideas he brought. They were so strong and so very convincing."

Fleisher's last BSO conducting gig was in 1982, although he has appeared many times since as piano soloist.

But that doesn't even begin to tell the story of why, as Jane Marvine, the BSO's English horn player, puts it, "There is an incredible bond between Leon and the orchestra."

In the fall of 1981, contract and budget troubles led to a lockout of the BSO musicians by management. The impasse dragged on for about four months. Fleisher decided to do something about the situation. "I just got in touch with board members I knew well and said, 'Can we talk?' " he says.

The talk proved highly productive.

"Leon was instrumental in starting the Friends of the Symphony," says Marvine, who has been in the BSO since 1978. "The group raised a lot of money, which allowed management to make a settlement. We are so indebted to Leon."

Kolker seconds that.

"I was in charge of benefit concerts that the musicians gave during the lockout," Kolker says. "We did some chamber concerts, but we also wanted to do a big orchestra concert. I called Leon and asked if he would conduct it. Without hesitation, he said yes."

Fleisher also volunteered to round up a big-name soloist for the benefit at the Lyric Opera House, where the BSO was then based. He delivered quite a box office draw, Andre Watts, a former student of Fleisher's at the Peabody Conservatory, where Fleisher has taught since 1959.

His effort to save the orchestra didn't end with the hefty program of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Copland he conducted on that occasion.

"He was in the room to help negotiate a settlement with management," Marvine says. "I still remember him with his long, wild hair, sitting through grueling hours of talks during a two-night marathon."

Fleisher also helped put together fundraising telethons for the BSO aired by WJZ-TV (one of the station's staffers who participated was a young co-anchor named Oprah Winfrey).

When the BSO went on strike in 1988, Fleisher was there yet again, organizing and conducting a benefit concert for the players.

"I have really warm feelings for this group," he says. The feelings are mutual.

Kolker says that Fleisher "always seemed to only be thinking about our own good. He's a real mensch."

Even without that above-and-beyond help that Fleisher repeatedly offered the orchestra, that bond would have been strong, for it was first forged artistically.

"He's a musician's musician," Marvine says. "His depth of feeling in music, and his ability to express it, is as good as it gets."

Fleisher demonstrated that gift while exploring the left-hand repertoire in numerous performances over the years with the BSO, some of them recorded (his account of Ravel's Concerto for Left-Hand, conducted by Comissiona, remains a benchmark).

The pianist's first big attempt to resume two-hand playing was also with the BSO, for the opening of Meyerhoff Hall in 1982. "In hindsight, he probably wasn't really ready," Marvine says. "He was struggling the whole time, but still pulled it off beautifully."

Fleisher retreated back to left-hand territory, but continued to appear with the BSO locally and on tour with left-hand concertos. "It was spectacular and exquisite, what we did together," Kolker says of those concerts.

The collaborations continued after the experimental botox therapy began. Most recently, with Marin Alsop conducting, Fleisher gave a patrician account of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in 2006.

He'll reprise that work on this week's birthday concerts, conducting from the keyboard. And from the podium, he'll lead the orchestra in performances of two Mozart symphonies, No. 35 and No. 40.

Although denied the satisfaction of two-hand piano playing for decades, Fleisher's artistic life hardly ever slowed. In addition to the conducting sideline, he was founding director of the Theater Chamber Players at the Kennedy Center.

"People keep asking me if I could live my life over, would I leave out the episode of focal dystonia," Fleisher says. "I'm not sure if I would change anything."

He might, however, change some of the musical decisions he made back in the two-fisted glory days of his early career.

"I don't listen to my old recordings," the pianist says, "but I did hear by accident my [1960 recording of the] Liszt B minor Sonata. I remember being proud of that at the time, but I was taken aback. What had I been proud of? It seemed angst-ridden."

Fleisher, readily admitting that "the piece is angst-ridden," questions his tempos on that recording.

If he were to play it now - botox can't restore all the strength needed for such a finger-buster - he would want to bring "an increased awareness of everything that is contained in the music. There is more stuff that needs a little more time to be absorbed and relished," he says. "That's my way of saying I played too damn fast."

(That Liszt recording, along with five other vintage Fleisher albums, recorded 1956-1963, will be digitally released by Sony BMG Masterworks on Tuesday as a birthday salute.)

The topic of velocity is one that Fleisher thinks deeply about, especially when considering the next generation of keyboard talents.

"The four-minute mile was a barrier that could never be broken, and then along came Roger Bannister," Fleisher says, "and now it's broken every Monday, Wednesday and Friday."

Likewise with piano playing.

Young pianists, Fleisher says, "especially Asian kids, scamper around the piano. They really belong in Cirque de Soleil. They get caught up in it. I can't blame them in a way - there's a delight in getting around those 88s. But that's not what music is about. Besides, some other kid down the block, or on another street, or in another country can play just a little bit faster."

At any speed, Fleisher's music-making at the piano remains an enriching experience, as two sublime recordings, his first of two-hand repertoire since the 1960s, reconfirm. The first of those, Two Hands, released in 2004, also led to an Oscar-nominated documentary of that name about Fleisher and his successful struggles.

It's no wonder that Fleisher is still in demand. This week's Baltimore concerts follow immediately after appearances in Germany - a recital with his wife, pianist Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and concerts as conductor and soloist with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra.

Later this summer, he'll continue celebrating his birthday musically by performing concertos with the Boston and Chicago symphony orchestras.

Among other acknowledgments of his octogenarian status is a program in October that will find Fleisher making music with three pianists who were once his students - his wife, Yefim Bronfman and Jonathan Biss. "Great joys are joys that are shared," Fleisher says. This concert will be given in Boston, New York and Baltimore's Shriver Hall.

In addition, the pianist can be counted on to perform fundraising concerts for liberal political causes and animal rescue services.

"I haven't reached the point of nonactivity, where you sit back and come out with aphorisms," Fleisher says.

Maybe not, but he easily dispenses words of wisdom nonetheless, especially on the topic of a musician's fundamental responsibility.

"Music is a wonderful thing," he says, "but it's just dots on a paper until we come along and bring those dots to life. A self-aggrandizing approach to great music doesn't really work. It's very tempting to turn oneself into the star, but we ain't the stars. We are the middlemen."

As he turns 80, Fleisher remains one of the most compelling middlemen in the business.

Leon Fleisher

Born: July 23, 1928, San Francisco

Principal teacher: Artur Schnabel

Orchestral debut: New York Philharmonic, age 16

Historic win: first American to take top prize at Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition in Brussels, 1952.

Music director : Annapolis Symphony, 1970-82

Associate/resident conductor: Baltimore Symphony 1973-78

Faculty member: Peabody Conservatory, 1959-present

Recipient: Kennedy Center Honors, 2007

If you go;

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with pianist/conductor Leon Fleisher, performs at 8 p.m. Thursday at Music Center at Strathmore, 8 p.m. Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. $25 to $60. 410-783-8000,

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