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Leon Fleisher, sublime pianist fearless by mysterious hand disease, dies at 92


The cause was cancer, said son Julian Fleisher, singer-songwriter and producer.

Mr. Fleishers’ mysterious hand disease, ultimately diagnosed as a neurological disorder called focal dystonia, was a dramatic and heart-wrenching twist for a child prodigy who had spent his twenties at the forefront of young American pianists after Class 1. World War.

At 24, Mr. Fleisher became the first American to win the piano competition established by Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, one of the largest musical competitions in the world. This victory launched a new major stage in his career. He performed in premier concert halls and became the favorite soloist of George Szell, the formidable conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. His recordings with Szell remain benchmarks for their clarity, precision and pure expressive musicality; Brahmss’s first piano concerto was a touchstone.

At this peak, Mr. Fleisher began to notice problems which led to cramps in the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand. The redoubling of her practice efforts only made the problem worse. On the eve of a historic tour of the Soviet Union with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1965, Mr. Fleisher realized that he was unable to perform at the required level. He canceled the tour and his other upcoming concerts.

The sudden loss of movement made him stagger, triggering depression and a desperate quest to identify and heal what was hurting him. I have tried everything from acupuncture to Zen Buddhism, he said later.

He only gradually overcame his discomfort with a career metamorphosis. He learned the surprisingly extensive repertoire for left-hand piano and staged the first of his hesitant returns in 1982 after resuming the use of his right hand. He remained, in a critical estimation, a pianist of sublime musical intelligence whether playing with one or two hands. But he also gained fame off the stage as an influential conductor and teacher.

His work with the stick has led him to explore musical paths he would never have followed as a pianist. As the 1968 co-founder of the Theater Chamber Players in Washington, a long-time resident chamber ensemble at the Kennedy Center, he has performed contemporary chamber music; as Music Director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, then Associate Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, he learned a wide range of classics from the orchestra.

His group master classes at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, coupled with a stint at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, produced several generations of prominent pianists, including Andr Watts, Yefim Bronfman and Jonathan Biss. Mr. Fleisher said his physical limitations forced him to think more deeply about the music, to put into words technique and nuance that previously were instinctive. Before my problems, he once said, I would sit and play to show my students what to do.

In the world of classical music, he has come to be regarded as a guru, known for his ability to unravel piano issues, for his inspiration, and for a series of sayings including Practice Less, Think More.

One of the problems young musicians face today, he said in his 2010 memoir, My Nine Lives, is that they come in with such a sense of seriousness. The idea of ​​the quality of this music tends to amaze them. But a big part of what we do is have these guys having fun. This land is a very important part of life.

Leon Fleisher was born in San Francisco on July 23, 1928, the second son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father, Isidor, was a milliner. His mother, the former Bertha Mittelman, had high ambitions for her children and insisted on piano lessons for her eldest son, Raymond.

Leon listened to the lessons, sat down and played them more skillfully than his brother and was soon recognized by his early teachers as a major talent.

When he surpassed the teaching abilities of his early mentors, his mother and former San Francisco Symphony Orchestra music director Alfred Hertz decided he should study with the eminent pianist Artur Schnabel. Schnabel didn’t work with kids, he didn’t want to waste time on the basics, but 9-year-old Leon was slipped into a dinner party at the Hertzes and presented for a de facto audition. There, Schnabel made an exception to his policy and admitted him to his class at Lake Como in Italy.

Mr. Fleishers’ mother accompanied her son across the Atlantic and then found them a place to live in Manhattan when Schnabel decided to move to New York as World War loomed in Europe. In 1944, 16-year-old Leon made an exciting solo debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, and guest conductor Pierre Monteux dubbed him the pianistic find of the century.

New York Times music critic Noel Straus, marveling at the delicate power of the pianists and the apparent ease of his mastering an expensive Brahms concerto, called him one of the most remarkably gifted of the younger generation of American keyboard artists.

Like Schnabel, Mr. Fleisher became a major exponent of German and Viennese classics, although as he grew older he strayed into territory his teacher avoided or outright ignored, from French composers to, worst of all, Rachmaninoff. , whose emotion and pyrotechnics scorned Schnabel. .

Schnabels’ influence was so widespread that Mr. Fleisher became somewhat dependent on it. Needing to embark on his own path, he spent a period adrift in his teenage years before finding himself in Paris to begin to forge his own identity as an artist. In 1951, he married Dorothy Druzinsky, known as Dot, who came from a famous family of harpists.

The following year, still living in Paris, Mr. Fleisher was encouraged to participate in the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition of Belgium, and he impressed a roster of judges including pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

Despite his successful career at Szell and others, Mr. Fleisher learned he was technically unemployed when he was denied a credit card at a department store. He remedied this failure by taking his job with Peabody in 1959. Three years later, he divorced Dot and married Risselle Rosenthal, a young Baltimorian known as Rikki.

Mr. Fleisher was at the peak of his career when he began to notice difficulty with his right hand. It started as a feeling of laziness in my right index finger, a slight sluggishness in his response when I wanted to play a trill, he writes in Nine Lives. It continued as a growing sense of awkwardness and the feeling that my fingers weren’t doing what I wanted them to do. … I had probably overworked my hand for years, since I started to intensify my practice following the Queen Elisabeth Competition.

Increasingly sorry, he relied heavily on his second wife for emotional support. He also grew a beard and a ponytail. I was too chicken to buy a Harley, he later joked to a reporter, so I bought a Vespa.

While struggling to find direction, Mr. Fleisher threw himself into teaching and conducting, as well as learning the repertoire for left-hand piano, Ravels’ most famous Concerto for the Left Hand, as well as other works written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was amputated after a combat injury during World War I. But he still blamed the stress surrounding his hand issues for the end of his second marriage.

Several new chapters in his life seemed to be opening in the early 1980s. He met and married Katherine Jacobson, who had been one of his students at Peabody, and his hand seemed to be improving from the syndrome surgery. carpal tunnel and other regimes. He decided he was ready for a full-fledged comeback, which he had programmed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when their new Meyerhoff Hall opened in 1982.

The event was televised live and made the news across the country. But as he prepared for the event, Mr. Fleisher was forced to realize that his hand wasn’t where it needed to be. He made it through the evening, but his dream of a real rebound seemed over.

He later joked that it was a pretend night.

In 1984, he became artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center, the training academy for talented musicians held at the summer residence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He held the post for 13 years, until he stepped down amid a rift between BSO Music Director Seiji Ozawa and a number of the centre’s administrators.

During this time, in 1991, Mr. Fleisher had his first injection of Botox in another attempt to heal his hand. He saw an improvement in this treatment and a massage technique called Rolfing that is designed to release stress stored in the connective tissues of the body.

In the mid-1990s he was cautiously trying out a few two-handed performances first with his own chamber ensemble and, in 1995, with the Cleveland Orchestra. His 2004 recording Two Hands, which gradually turned into pieces of extraordinary complexity, was received with enthusiasm and he continued to perform in concerts around the world.

Besides his wife, the survivors include three children from his first marriage, Deborah, Richard and Leah; two children from her second marriage, Paula and Julian; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Fleisher was the subject of Nathaniel Kahn’s Oscar-nominated short documentary Two Hands (2006). His awards and honors included the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007. Unsure whether to accept the honor under a political administration he did not support, he wrote an open letter to the Washington Post, protesting the Bush White House policies regarding the war in Iraq, torture of prisoners and other decisions which he said amounted to a systematic shredding of the Constitution of our nations [that] have left us weak and ashamed at home and in the world.

The letter, which detailed his inner struggle over whether to accept the honor, sparked some controversy, but made him even more of a hero in the eyes of many of his young students.

I am almost 80 years old, he writes, and I have been making music for most of that time, supported by the belief that in the words Beethoven inscribed in his copy of the Missa Solemnis, the purpose of music is to communicate from the heart to the heart. Beethoven’s vision of music as a force capable of reconciling us with one another and with the world may seem distant today, but this makes it an increasingly crucial ideal to strive for.

Midgette, the Post’s former classical music critic, co-wrote Leon Fleishers 2010 memoir, My Nine Lives.

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