Leon Fleisher liked to say that he lived multiple lives over his 90-plus years. He morphed from child prodigy to seasoned performer, from anxious pupil to accomplished teacher, from master of the piano to a man betrayed by his own fingers. Mr. Fleisher never stopped advancing or adapting, never checking any one box long enough to be defined by it.
Mr. Fleisher, a musical force for more than eight decades both internationally and in Baltimore, his home since 1959, died at 92 in a Baltimore hospice, his son Julian confirmed. He took his last breaths Sunday with his wife and two of his daughters by his side.
His son said people would approach his father “like a monument,” only to realize he was down to earth and would always talk. “He was a nice guy. He was a very nice guy,” Julian said. “He never had a mean word to say about anybody.”
Mr. Fleisher taught piano for more than 60 years at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
Peabody dean Fred Bronstein said Sunday night that the music world has lost one of its “towering figures.”
“Leon’s remarkable gifts as a musician, pianist, and teacher, were matched only by his charm, wit, intelligence and warmth as a human being,” Mr. Bronstein said in a statement. “It seems simplistic to say that there was no one else like Leon. But that is the essence of it.”
The dean said Mr. Fleisher provided inspiration and guidance to students, helping them connect a love of music to the world around them; the impact he left would be “profound and lasting.”
At age 6, he was a prodigy, a pianist with immense talent and immeasurable potential. In his early 20s, burned out and seemingly ready to call it quits, he revived his career by winning a European competition, the first American to do so. In his mid-30s he began suffering the debilitating effects of a neurological condition that would cost him the use of his right hand. In his late 60s, after years of treatments, therapy and dead-end diagnoses, he regained sufficient use of that hand to play the complicated pieces that once came to him so naturally.
The great French and American conductor Pierre Monteux called a 12-year-old Fleisher “the pianistic find of the century.” In 1952, when a 24-year-old Fleisher became the first American to win the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Music Competition, the applause was so raucous that a bell had to be rung to quiet the audience.
Fifty-five years later, after his comeback from the neurological impairment that left him playing only with his left hand, critic Harvey Steiman was moved to write, following a 2007 concert in Aspen, Colorado, “If Bach had a modern piano, this is how he’d play it.” Baltimore Sun classical music critic Tim Smith, upon the 2013 release of a 23-disc career retrospective from Sony Classical, called Mr. Fleisher “one of the most compelling pianists in the world.”
“Leon holds an important, even iconic place in the history of the piano and pianists,” Juilliard’s Robert McDonald told KQED in 2018. “A career of his distinction evolves always because of the value of its artistic force. Fleisher has occupied this role in our culture for decades.”
Leon Fleisher was born July 23, 1928, in San Francisco. His father, Isidor, was from Odessa; his mother, Bertha, from Chelm, a small town in Poland. They emigrated to the U.S. following World War I and met while living in lower Manhattan. They later moved to San Francisco. From the beginning, Fleisher wrote in his 2010 memoir “My Nine Lives,” his mother had grand ambitions for young Leon. “She was fixated on getting the best for her family, and she would do whatever it took to achieve that end,” he wrote. “She certainly had big dreams for me. I was going to be either the first Jewish president or a great concert pianist.
“The piano was purchased for my brother, Ray, five and a half years older than I,” Mr. Fleisher wrote. But Ray, once the lessons were over, would head outside to play, while Leon would go to the piano and repeat the entire lesson his brother had just finished. It didn’t take long to figure out who was the more likely pianist.
Thus 4-year-old Leon began studying piano. At 8, he gave his first public recital, at the San Francisco Community Playhouse; a year later, the renowned Austrian teacher Artur Schnabel broke his vow to never accept any student under 16. For the next 10 years, Mr. Fleisher would study under Mr. Schnabel in Lake Como, Italy, and in New York City.
In 1944, at age 16, he made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall. By age 20, he had spent three years touring Europe and North America.
And then, at age 20, “life caught up with me,” Mr. Fleisher told The Sun’s Paul B. Moore in 1962. He gave up performing, largely gave up practicing and spent a year living in Paris and New York, in an apartment on Fifth Avenue.
In 1951, Mr. Fleisher, by then married to Dorothy “Dot” Druzinsky, was recruited by the State Department and Ford Foundation to enter the Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium. Although reluctant at first, the young American turned a lot of heads. For the competition’s finale, he played Brahms’ 1st Concerto, and played so lustily that two strings popped in his piano during the first movement.
He won anyway. “Victory was sweet,” Fleisher wrote in his memoir.
“That started my second career,” he told The Sun in 1962. In 1958, he was asked to represent the U.S. at the Brussels World’s Fair. Soon after that, he was invited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to play for King Baudouin of Belgium at the White House. He was a featured soloist when the New York Philharmonic opened its new hall at Lincoln Center in 1962. By the middle of the decade, he was firmly ensconced among the world’s most renowned pianists; recordings of his concerts with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, playing the concertos of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, were acclaimed.
Mr. Fleisher moved to Baltimore in 1959, joining the faculty at the Peabody Institute (later to become part of the Johns Hopkins University), where he held the Andrew W. Mellon Chair.
Seemingly at the top of his game, Fleisher began noticing problems in his right hand. “It seemed as though one or another finger was a little bit lazy,” he told The Sun’s Alice Steinbach in 1996. “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.”
Mr. Fleisher lived in the 1700 block of Park Avenue in Bolton Hill at the time.
“He had a lovely house and it was a showplace,” said former state Sen. Julian “Jack” Lapides, a friend and former neighbor. “As a person, Leon was modest and self-effacing. He had a great love for all humanity.”
By 1965, as he was preparing for a tour of Russia with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, his fourth and fifth fingers were curling into his palm. Within about 10 months, he could no longer use his right hand on the piano.
“Nobody really thought that whatever was wrong with me was more than a temporary setback,” Mr. Fleisher wrote. I would surely get better in time. Surely I would.”
Surely he did, but it would take decades. Diagnoses came and went: He had had suffered a repetitive stress injury; he was exhibiting the early signs of Parkinson’s. He underwent all manner of treatments: cortisone injections, traction, acupuncture, even shock treatment and brain surgery. His right hand continued to clench, then unclench, on its own.
But Mr. Fleisher’s left hand was unaffected, and he soon became the master of one-handed piano playing: Ravel’s Concerto in D for the Left Hand, Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 4 for the Left Hand, Britten’s Diversions for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra. “Probably the most famously debilitated musician of our time,” The New York Times once called him.
Mr. Fleisher threw himself into teaching, at the Peabody and elsewhere, including Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto. In 1967, he founded the Theatre Chamber Players of the Kennedy Center in Washington. He spent 11 years, beginning in 1986, as artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. Mr. Fleisher served as resident conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 1973 to 1978 and was music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra from 1970 to 1982.
By 1982, he had regained enough control to attempt playing two-handed for the inaugural concert at the BSO’s new Meyerhoff Concert Hall. Originally set to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, he scaled back, saying he would play the less-ambitious, but still beautiful, Cesar Frank’s Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra. The night of Sept. 16, 1982, he soldiered through the piece and received a standing ovation, and even played a Chopin nocturne as an encore.
“It was a joy to hear the pianist’s intelligence and technique once again in the two-handed repertoire,” Sun critic Stephen Cera wrote the next day. Still, he said, “Fleisher’s unbearable nerves prodded him to rush at times, and his right hand, sadly, proved less agile at this stage than it had been.”
In and around the music community in Baltimore, he was long held in high esteem.
“He was my chief resource and orchestral adviser as I mediated a potentially crippling strike of the Baltimore Symphony in the early ’80s,” recalled attorney Ronald M. Shapiro.
The BSO’s guest pianist, Lura Johnson, said, “Leon was just an angel. As he progressed, his musicianship did nothing but grow deeper. ... He liked the German composers, and his music did not seek to impress or merely entertain. He sought the deep stuff and he sought to speak the truth.”
Brian Prechtl, chair of the BSO’s Players’ Committee, said, “He was beloved by our musicians. It feels like one of our family has died. Going back to 1954, Leon had a partnership with the Baltimore Symphony.”
Jonathan Palevsky, program director at Baltimore classical station WBJC-FM, said, “Leon Fleisher was the classical music soul of the city. Who else if not Fleisher? When I came to Peabody in 1982, he’d already been there 20 years. He was an extraordinary musician and kind of irreplaceable for Peabody and the city. We shall not see his like again.
“We were very lucky to have him, and we did for roughly 60 years.”
Gregory W. Tucker, a Baltimore public relations executive, purchased Mr. Fleisher’s Bolton Hill home in 1997. “We bought the 1880 house from another couple who purchased it from his ex-wife,” said Mr. Tucker, who now lives in Guilford but retains ownership of the home.
“They told great stories about the house and said that Mr. Fleisher had left the imprint of his hands in the basement floor; ‘L.F. 3-3-66.’ I thought that was just awesome,” he said.
About a year ago, Mr. Tucker and his wife hosted the principal BSO musicians and Mr. Fleisher at their Guilford home.
“He came over a couple of days before to try my piano and had it tuned to his specifications,” said Mr. Tucker, also a pianist. “And he signed the frame of my Steinway on 3-15-19.”
The Morning Sun
Services are private.
In addition to his son Julian, survivors include his wife, Katherine Jacobson; another son, Richard “Dickie” Fleisher; three daughters, Deborah Fleisher, Leah Fleisher and Paula Fleisher; and two grandchildren.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen contributed to this article.
An earlier version of this story misstated who was at his bedside when he died Sunday. Along with two of his daughters, his wife was also present.