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Leon Fleisher: A virtuoso at piano and at life | COMMENTARY

The 1961 album of Beethoven piano concertos featuring pianist Leon Fleisher with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell.
The 1961 album of Beethoven piano concertos featuring pianist Leon Fleisher with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell.

One of the tragic but ultimately heroic narratives from the last 50 years in Baltimore is that of Leon Fleisher: brilliant, internationally acclaimed pianist whose right hand mysteriously became useless, a condition that pulled him from the concert hall stage in his prime.

He was perhaps our only non-athlete celebrity whose place on the disabled list was of public note. Classical music lovers, the Peabody Institute faculty and alumni, Baltimoreans who never saw him play but boasted with pride that he lived here ― we all knew of Fleisher’s impairment. Had Jim Palmer been a music critic instead of Hall of Fame pitcher, broadcaster and aficionado of athletic injuries, he would have been all over the story.

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Indeed, Leon Fleisher’s heroic comeback is no less impressive than that of the pitcher who returns to top form after Tommy John surgery. It took him years, but Fleisher, who died Sunday at 92, persevered. He pushed back at the cruel turn his life had taken. He threw himself into teaching at Peabody. He tried for years to relieve a condition that stemmed from too much of what had gotten him to Carnegie Hall by age 16 — practice.

In the mid-1960s, when he felt the fingers in his right hand failing, he doubled down on practice, but that made things worse. Years later, reflecting on this, Fleisher worried that many aspiring pianists spend too much time at the keyboard, hoping nine hours a day will lead to virtuosity. “There is no question that what happened was the result of a very stupid kind of overwork,” he said. “It was an attempt to build muscles and it was my own stupidity. But kids fall into this and there are many reasons for it. They are bombarded with the perfection they hear on recordings.”

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Many probably heard recordings that featured Fleisher in the 1950s and early 1960s.

My first experience with him was probably in the late 1960s when I heard his recorded performances of Beethoven piano concertos with the Cleveland Orchestra. Fleisher, before he grew his beard, appears on the cover of that album. I listened Monday on Spotify, and his performances are as gorgeous as I remembered, especially the largo from Concerto No. 3 and the rondo from No. 4. It’s the Fleisher before his fingers, as The Sun’s obituary put it, “betrayed him.”

When I first heard the story of his setback, I was still new to Baltimore and saw Fleisher somewhere, perhaps walking across Mount Vernon Place to the Peabody. “There goes Leon Fleisher,” someone said. “A shame what happened to him.”

I tried to imagine how the loss of the right hand must have affected him. Imagine being in your mid-30s and suddenly unable to do the thing you were born to do, the thing for which you had received critical acclaim and standing ovations. Athletes expect this to happen, not musicians.

Anyone in the creative life who has survived psychological problems — from sudden and lingering self-doubt to full-blown, debilitating depression — remembers and understands that torment, how it can lock you in place, leave you unable to get out of bed.

Fleisher became depressed. “It got very, very bad,” he told a Sun reporter in a rare candid moment. “I cannot describe that sense of sinking — it’s really despair. And eventually I was filled with self-pity and self-concern. … In a very real way, I thought my life was over.”

But look at the record: He did not stop. He devoted his time to teaching piano and to conducting orchestras, including the Baltimore Symphony and the Annapolis Symphony. While he developed and performed a repertoire of left-hand compositions, Fleisher never gave up on the right hand, trying all kinds of remedies and medical procedures to bring it back.

When he was invited to the stage for the opening of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in 1982, Fleisher performed with two hands for the first time in 17 years. But he was in pain, and knew his right hand was still not ready.

He continued to perform from time to time with his left hand. That run included the world premier of a concerto for two pianos, called “Gaea,” written for Fleisher and Gary Graffman, another accomplished pianist who had lost use of his right hand in mid-career. They performed “Gaea” with the Baltimore Symphony and conductor David Zinman in 1996.

At some point, Fleisher discovered the importance of stretching the muscles before and after a concert, and he credited deep massage therapy with helping him. “When I started, my muscle fibers were like petrified rock,” he recalled in a New York Times interview. “Now they are getting progressively softer and more supple and gaining elasticity.”

And so he was able to perform with two hands at Carnegie Hall for the first time in 30 years. Fleisher continued to play with both hands after that. In Japan in 2009, when he was 81, he performed one of Schubert’s last three sonatas, and it was extraordinary. “He’s old and his hand is bad and he still plays like a god,” a viewer of the performance remarked.

Those who saw him as a tragic figure, who once defined him by his misfortune, ultimately came to see a hero. But others closer to him, those who had followed his journey, knew all along that Leon Fleisher was blessed with immense talent and perseverance, a virtuoso at the piano and at life.

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