Leon Fleisher, spellbinding pianist with one hand or two, dies at 92

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Leon Fleisher, spellbinding pianist with one hand or two, dies at 92
Leon Fleisher returns to playing two hands after years suffering with a injured right hand at Carngie Hall in New York, Oct. 31, 2003. Fleisher, a leading American pianist in the 1950s and early ’60s who was forced by an injury to his right hand to channel his career into conducting, teaching and mastering the left-hand repertoire, died on Sunday in a hospice in Baltimore. He was 92. Chris Lee/The New York Times.

by Allan Kozinn

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Leon Fleisher, a leading American pianist in the 1950s and early ’60s who was forced by an injury to his right hand to channel his career into conducting, teaching and mastering the left-hand repertoire, died Sunday in a hospice in Baltimore. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his son Julian, who said he was still teaching and conducting master classes as recently as last week.

Fleisher came to believe that his career-altering malady, focal dystonia, was caused by overpracticing — “seven or eight hours a day of pumping ivory,” as he told The New York Times in a 1996 interview — and for 30 years he tried virtually any cure that looked promising, including shots of lidocaine, rehabilitation therapy, psychotherapy, shock treatments, Rolfing and EST. At times, he later said, he was so despondent that he considered suicide.

But he also realized that the musicality and incisiveness that had been so widely admired in his early years could be mined in other ways. He had joined the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory, in Baltimore, in 1959, and he devoted himself more fully to teaching, both at Peabody and at the Tanglewood Music Center, where he was artistic director from 1986 to 1997.

He also made his way through the estimable catalog of works composed by Ravel, Prokofiev and many others for pianist Paul Wittgenstein (the brother of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), who lost his right arm during World War I, and commissioned new left-hand works from American composers. He helped start the Theater Chamber Players in Washington. And he began conducting.

Eventually, a combination of Rolfing — a deep massage technique — and Botox injections provided sufficient relief that he was able to resume his career as a two-handed pianist in 1995. He continued to play recitals and concertos, and to make recordings, until last year.

Fleisher often pointed out after his comeback that he was not, and never would be, fully cured. But he also acknowledged, late in life, that the incapacitation of his right hand in 1964 ultimately gave him a far more varied musical life than he might have had if he had been able to pursue a conventional career as a virtuoso pianist.

That realization is implicit in the title of his autobiography, “My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music” (2010), which he wrote with music critic Anne Midgette.

Early in his career, though, Fleisher was a commanding pianist who produced a warm, sharply etched and thoughtfully contoured sound that was ideally suited to 19th century Viennese classics — Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert, most notably — but also yielded illuminating readings of Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Liszt, and of contemporary American composers like Roger Sessions (with whom he briefly studied music theory) and Aaron Copland.

Fleisher’s recordings of the Brahms and Beethoven piano concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, made between 1958 and 1963, are still considered among the most vivid and moving accounts of those works.

In the 1990s, he recorded spellbinding performances of the peaks of the left-hand repertoire, including concertos by Ravel, Prokofiev and Britten, chamber music by Korngold and Schmidt, and solo works by Saint-Saëns, Godowsky and Bach (Brahms’ left-hand arrangement of the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin).

Even after he returned to recording two-hand works, on the albums “Two Hands” (2004) and “The Journey” (2006), he continued to revisit the left-hand works that had kept him going for three decades.

His album “All the Things You Are” (2014) included not only left-hand arrangements of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and the Jerome Kern song that gave the collection its name, but also pieces composed for Fleisher by George Perle and Leon Kirchner, and a deeply thoughtful, spacious reconsideration of the Bach-Brahms Chaconne.

Leon Fleisher was born in San Francisco on July 23, 1928, to Isidore and Bertha Fleisher. His parents, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe — he was from Odessa, then in Russia, now in Ukraine; she was from Poland — each managed one of the family’s two hat shops.

An older brother, Raymond, was given piano lessons. He showed little interest in them, but when Raymond went out to play after his lessons, Leon, who was then 4 years old, would go to the piano and repeat, by ear, everything he had heard.

His mother soon decided that Leon, rather than Raymond, should study the instrument. She made her intentions for her younger son clear: He would either be the first Jewish president of the United States or he would be a concert pianist.

So devoted was his mother to his musical training that after two weeks of kindergarten, during which he objected strenuously to nap time, she withdrew him from public school and hired tutors so he could devote his time to practicing at the piano. She also found ways of bringing him to the attention of two important San Francisco conductors, Pierre Monteux and Alfred Hertz, who in turn persuaded pianist Artur Schnabel to take Leon on as a student in 1938, when he was 9, despite his policy of not teaching children.

By the time Leon began working with Schnabel, he had already played a few concerts, but Schnabel’s single condition for teaching the boy was that there be no more concerts. Schnabel relaxed the rule in 1944 and allowed Fleisher to play the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor with Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony and then with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, also with Monteux conducting.

Noel Strauss, reviewing the performance for The New York Times, wrote that Fleisher, making his New York debut, “scored heavily in the exacting work and at once established himself as one of the most remarkably gifted of the younger generation of American keyboard artists.”

In 1945, at Ravinia, Fleisher played the Brahms again — it quickly became one of his signature pieces — as well as the Liszt Concerto No. 2 in A, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He also performed four concertos at Ravinia the next summer, under the direction of William Steinberg and Szell, who soon engaged Fleisher to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra, which he took over later that year.

By 1949, although he had played with many of the major American orchestras and had given recitals across the country, engagements began to dry up. Fleisher moved to Paris in 1950 and remained in Europe — relocating first to the Netherlands, then to Italy — until 1958.

In 1952, he became the first American to win the gold medal at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. That victory included a substantial list of engagements in Europe; it also revived interest in Fleisher among American orchestras, managers and concert promoters.

When Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra were signed to a new recording contract with the Epic label in 1954, Szell invited Fleisher to be his go-to soloist for recordings of the great piano concertos.

Shortly after his return to the U.S. in the late 1950s, Fleisher accepted an offer to teach at the Peabody Conservatory, while also pursuing a hefty performing and recording schedule.

“I was driven, if anything, even harder by all of my successes,” he wrote in his memoir. “There was always more to attain, and more to achieve, and more musical depths to plumb, and lurking behind it all, the terrifying risk of failure.”

Failure was not far away. During the winter of 1963, he noticed what he described as laziness in his right index finger, as well as “a creeping numbness” in his right hand. By the summer, the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand had begun to curl inward toward his palm.

The timing was disastrous. Fleisher had planned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his New York debut with a busy season that included 20 performances in New York alone and a spring 1964 tour of the Soviet Union, in which he was to be the soloist in Mozart’s Concerto No. 25 in C (K. 503) with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Shortly before the tour, Fleisher performed the Mozart in Cleveland. Szell noted the strain Fleisher was under and told him that he did not feel he could undertake the tour. Pianist Grant Johannesen traveled with the orchestra instead.

“The initial problem was a very stupid kind of overwork,” Fleisher said in 1996, cautioning young pianists against following his path. “I see kids still falling into this, and there are many reasons for it. The perfection that they’re bombarded with from recordings. The kind of sound a Horowitz produced, which is wonderful, but people don’t realize that he had his technician work very hard on the piano, so the piano itself helped. So when kids go to an acoustically dead hall, and get a dead piano, and try to make these Horowitz kinds of sounds, they end up brutalizing themselves.”

Fleisher resisted taking up the left-hand repertoire, partly because he felt that to do so would be an admission that he would never regain the use of his right hand. But after two years without playing concerts, he reconsidered, agreeing to play both Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand and Benjamin Britten’s left-hand work “Diversions” with Seiji Ozawa and the Toronto Symphony in 1967.

The next year, with pianist and composer Dina Koston, he started the Theater Chamber Players, a flexible chamber group meant to present both contemporary music and classics.

The ensemble — initially based at the Washington Theater Club, later at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and ultimately at the Kennedy Center — provided an opportunity for Fleisher to both play and conduct. And an invitation to become music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in Maryland, a semiprofessional community group, gave him a chance to work on the symphonic repertoire.

Soon, Fleisher was guest-conducting around the country — his debut at the head of a professional orchestra took place at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival in 1970 — and in 1973 he became associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

He held that post for only five years, but he maintained a close relationship with the orchestra thereafter. When the ensemble was preparing to inaugurate the new Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in 1982, its music director, Sergiu Comissiona, invited Fleisher to be the opening-night soloist.

Having recently had an operation to relieve carpal tunnel syndrome, Fleisher began to regain the use of his right hand, if only partly and inconsistently. But he felt he could make the jump back to two-handed playing, with the televised opening of Meyerhoff Hall as the occasion for his comeback.

In a bold moment, he told the orchestra that he would play Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. But as the occasion drew near, he decided to play Franck’s shorter and less pianistically exposed Symphonic Variations instead.

Most listeners thought the performance went well. But Fleisher was not satisfied. In his view, the amount of effort he expended working to control his right hand precluded the kind of interpretive depth he hoped for, and he dropped plans for a broader return to two-handed playing.

Shortly after the Baltimore performance, Fleisher married Katherine Jacobson, a pianist who had been one of his students at Peabody.

She survives him as do his children from his first marriage, to Dorothy Druzinsky Fleisher: Deborah Fleisher, Leah Fleisher and Richard; and his children from his second marriage, to Rikki Rosenthal: Paula Fleisher and Julian; and two grandchildren. Both of Fleisher’s earlier marriages ended in divorce.

In 1991, Fleisher found a doctor who was experimenting with Botox injections for injuries like his. At first he found that the injections loosened up his still-cramped fourth and fifth fingers, to the point where he could play. But the injections wore off, and Fleisher was still looking for a permanent cure.

Having tried Rolfing in the 1970s, he decided to try again in 1994. This time he had better results, and he found that a regimen of Rolfing and Botox injections was enough to keep him in playing trim.

As an experiment, he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 (K. 414) with the Theater Chamber Players in April 1995, and with the Cleveland Orchestra and at Tanglewood shortly thereafter.

“Nothing felt sweeter,” he wrote in his memoir of those first performances, “than the feeling of those notes falling into place, the right hand singing, the left hand balancing it on the lower part of the keyboard, and the piece growing into something whole and complete, a dream become reality.”

Fleisher gradually reclaimed the repertoire he had been unable to play for more than three decades — but cautiously, building his recital programs with both two-hand and left-hand works, and playing programs of piano four-handed works with his wife.

He was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 2006, and in 2007 he was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor. A film about his struggle with focal dystonia, “Two Hands,” directed by Nathaniel Kahn, was nominated for an Academy Award for best short documentary in 2006.

Toward the end of his life, Fleisher spoke about the level of despair he felt when he was unable to use his right hand. But, having regained that ability, he was also philosophical about the challenges life presents.

“There are forces out there,” he told The International Herald Tribune in 2007, “and if you keep yourself open to them, if you go along with them, there are wondrous surprises.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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