Leon Fleisher was voted prettiest baby of the year when he was born at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco in 1928. At least, that’s what his mother told him.
“I have absolutely no recollection of that,” Fleisher said with his inimitable gentle humor.
But it wasn’t Fleisher’s good looks that got the music world’s attention, although that probably didn’t hurt. His uncanny ability to play the piano at a very early age, just by listening, first captured the attention of his brother’s music teacher. Fleisher was 4.
Although his parents, Russian and Polish immigrants, were not musically inclined, they purchased a piano and Fleisher’s brother, five years his senior, began taking lessons.
“It’s really kind of curious. Nobody in the family was musical, but they felt that a musical education could only be beneficial and desirable,” he said. “I don’t know where or how they got hold of this little upright piano, but they did. They seemed to think it was important and they gave piano lessons to my brother, who was quite disinterested.”
But Fleisher felt just the opposite about the new addition to the household, describing the piano and the sounds emanating from it as “mysterious and attractive.”
“I remember hiding in a corner of the living room. The piano teacher came and my brother’s performance was desultory. When the lesson was over and he could go back to the schoolyard and play stickball, he ran out of the house,” Fleisher recalled. “I would then go to the piano myself and replicate his lessons in a way that made the piano teacher very happy. Eventually, my parents caught on and switched the lessons from my brother to me.”
From that point, there was no going back. Fleisher followed his new passion that even he had a hard time understanding.
“I would then go to the piano myself and replicate his lessons in a way that made the piano teacher very happy.” — Leon Fleisher
“It was a bunch of things. The tactile sense — that was part of it. The sounds were beautiful. There was a kind of order, a kind of shape, a structure. There was a kind of logic,” he said. “And it certainly awakened a whole mess of feelings in me. And I just enjoyed it. I loved it.”
Fleisher is bringing that talent and love when he performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Jan. 4 and 6 and at Strathmore in North Bethesda on Jan. 5.
Fleisher played his first public performance at 8. Two years later, he and his mother moved to Italy so the young pianist could study with Austrian pianist, composer and teacher Artur Schnabel.
“It was a very tumultuous time in Europe, 1938,” Fleisher said. “He realized it was getting perilous and he sent us back to the states.” Schnabel, who is also Jewish, had fled Berlin in 1933 when Hitler rose to power.
Fleisher and his mother moved to New York, his father and brother following a year later.
At 16, still under Schnabel’s tutelage, Fleisher debuted with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Pierre Monteux, who reportedly crowned him “the pianistic find of the century.”
After Schnabel decided it was time for the 19-year-old piano prodigy to strike out on his own, Fleisher’s reputation grew to international renown. He won prestigious competitions and made many classical recordings.
In 1959, he moved to Baltimore to teach at the Peabody Institute, while still performing. But about five years later, he began to lose control of his right hand and was diagnosed with a neurological condition known as focal dystonia.
“That started in my 30s. It was in 1964,” Fleisher said. “And it was a terrible time.”
Over a period of about 10 months, the disorder caused what Fleisher refers to as a “kind of irresistible need of my fifth and fourth fingers of the right hand to curl under.”
After more than 30 years of love for and remarkable success with the piano, Fleisher found he could no longer play the music that was such a part of his soul.
“It was rough, because I had spent my whole life making music with two hands and for a couple of years, I was in a real deep funk, a real deep depression,” he said. “I couldn’t play with my right hand.”
He grew a beard and a ponytail, and was even tempted to buy a Harley Davidson like his friend.
“The sounds were beautiful. There was a kind of order, a kind of shape, a structure. It awakened a whole mess of feelings in me.” — Leon Fleisher
“I didn’t have the courage to get that, so I got me a Vespa!” he said, and laughed. “And I tooled around Baltimore in a most reckless manner.”
“But I woke up one morning and realized that my connection to music wasn’t just as a two-handed piano player. I discovered there was a literature for left hand. For one hand alone,” he said. “You can use your four digits to play harmony and you can tap out a tune with your thumb. That shows how important harmony is — and a baseline.”
Without being able perform or even play much, Fleisher turned up the intensity on his teaching at Peabody and started conducting, which he found “very satisfying.”
Peabody Institute graduate Kris Faatz, a pianist and piano teacher, was not a student of Fleisher’s, but had the opportunity to play for him in a masterclass.
“He’s known as an outstanding teacher, very down-to-earth and always giving new insight about individual pieces and music in general,” Faatz said. “With him, it was always only about the music.”
“As a teacher, he always does group lessons. Everybody watches everybody else’s lesson — more like a workshop model than the typical one-on-one,” she added. “That’s an amazing learning experience.”
Through a number of treatments and therapies, Fleisher has regained partial use of his right hand.
“I still have focal dystonia and I have to choose my playing repertoire very carefully,” he said. “I can’t play just anything, or everything. I have to choose the pieces that I can play with this condition.”
But it is the music that has inspired and lifted him and carried him through the difficult decades since the focal dystonia turned his world upside down.
“Music speaks to the very best in us. It’s ennobling, it’s what differentiates us from other forms of life. It can make us better people,” he said.
Looking ahead, past the many celebrations of his 90th year, Fleisher is reticent to make bold plans or predictions about his musical future.
“What do you want from me?” he said with a chuckle. “I’d like to be able to get up tomorrow morning!”
For more information, visit bsomusic.org/calendar.
I wrote to his manager and wish I could write to every person. He is my idol.
Wonderful! Years ago I listened to Mr. Fleisher being interviewed on NPR about his “handicap” and learned how he found a gift in what Mary Oliver would call a ” box of darkness.” I have never forgotten it. 90 years old? Impossible! Thank you Mr. Fleisher.