Southeastern Piano Festival brings legendary pianist to Columbia

A conversation with Leon Fleisher

By Glenn Hare (Originally published in UofSC Times)

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A child prodigy at the piano, Leon Fleisher made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall at 16 and was one of America’s “young lions,” admired by the public and critics alike. Then in 1965 the music stopped after a neurological condition rendered two fingers on his right hand immobile. Bouts of depression followed, but Fleisher persevered, focusing on repertoire for the left hand only, conducting, teaching and serving as artistic director of the summer academy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After undergoing experimental treatments, Fleisher returned to playing with both hands 40 years later. In 2007, he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor, the United States’ highest arts award for individuals.

After your Carnegie Hall premiere, you were among a cadre of young pianists selling out performances across the country. Were you like a rock star of the concert piano world?

No, it was nothing like that, at least not in America. I did a tour of South America in the early 1950s, and in Buenos Aries at that time, when any musician of any fame toured the country people would form fan clubs. Members were given special cards that offered discounts on household items. For a time, members of my fan club could purchase washing machines, toasters and other things at a reduced price.

But we were primarily a product of the time. Because of World War II, many of the great European musicians came to this country. Many began teaching. My colleagues and I were the first generation of musicians in America to work with these masters. We were a continuation of that grand European tradition. My musical “father” was Artur Schnabel. His teacher – my musical grandfather – was Theodor Leschetizky, a brilliant teacher. Leschetizky was a student of Carl Czerny, my (musical) great-grandfather, who was a student of Beethoven. Musically speaking, Beethoven is my great-great-grandfather.

Is it accurate that your mother was determined to mold you into either a world-renowned concert pianist or the first Jewish president of the United States?

You have it reversed. She was determined to mold me into the first Jewish president, and if that didn’t work, then a great concert pianist.

If you don’t mind, I’d also like to ask about your right hand. Why are pianists’ right hands more vulnerable to injury?

That’s a very perceptive question. When you open the lid of a piano to reveal the inner workings, you see lots of strings of varying lengths. The longer strings on the left side produce the lower, deeper tones, and the shorter strings on the right side make the higher, lighter tones. The right hand is responsible for playing the melody — the main tune — while the left hand plays the harmony. As a result, the right hand works much harder than left hand. And the fourth and fifth fingers are the weakest, with the least independent motion. They have to work especially hard. It’s no surprise that so many pianists who develop hand problems have them in those fingers.

 Can you recall the early symptoms that led to realize something was wrong?

Writer’s cramp is the best way to describe the early sensation I felt in my fingers, and gradually my fourth and fifth started curving into the palm of my hand. They soon tightened in this position and I lost the ability to control them. I was diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological disorder akin to Parkinson’s disease. It took a long time to reach that diagnosis and there is no cure. However, the symptoms can be treated with a cosmetic drug, Botox. It relaxes the muscles enough so that I can move my fingers.

What were some of the most extreme methods you considered?

Oh, everything from hypnosis to Zen Buddhism.

Is it true that Leonard Bernstein tried to heal your hand by pouring Scotch on it?

[Laughter] That was part of the Zen Buddhism treatment.

What advice would you give others faced with similar physical challenges?

I don’t feel I’m qualified to give any advice. I only know that after several years of some pretty bad behavior, I came to the realization that music making is far more than playing with two hands. I concentrated on performing works for the left hand, of which there are many. Most were written for a pianist who lost his right hand in World War I. I also began conducting, which made me a better teacher. So, at least for me, I believe my music career is richer and deeper because of the problems I’ve experienced with my hand.

 The Brahms D Minor Concerto is considered your signature piece. You’ve performed it throughout your career – at your Carnegie Hall debut and later, after regaining the use of the right hand. Why is this work so dear to you?

My mother and father gave me a recording of it when I was very young. The D Minor is massive, powerful and emotional. The opening sound of the timpani and horns is like thunder — a defiant cry from the massed force of the orchestra. I instantly loved it. Within a year or so, I began work on making it my own. I dreamed of playing with a full orchestra. I debuted with it. I played it when I won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1952. And I made a recording of with George Szell that some people have called a classic. It’s never lost its freshness for me, and we’ve grown together throughout time.

 

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