Not Your Typical Birthday Celebration

Written by Shamai Leibowitz on . Posted in Arts & Entertainment

Legendary pianist celebrates 90th birthday with live performances in the Greater Washington area.

Concert pianist Leon Fleisher marked his 90th birthday by performing a series of live concerts with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I attended his Jan. 5 performance at the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Maryland, and in between the notes, played with grace and elegance, you could hear his message of finding hope and optimism in the face of adversity.

Born to Jewish immigrant parents from Odessa and Chelm who eventually settled in the San Francisco area, Fleisher was a musical child prodigy. He began studying piano at the age of 4. By age 9, legendary pianist and teacher Artur Schnabel invited him to be his student. In his autobiography ”My Nine Lives,” Fleisher pointed out this made a direct teacher-student connection all the way back to Beethoven, much like the “begat” sections in the Bible: Beethoven taught Carl Czerny. Czerny taught Franz Liszt and Theodor Leschetizky. Leschetizky taught Paderewski, the popular Polish virtuoso-cum-statesman of the early 20th century, and Paderewski taught Schnabel. And Schnabel taught the young Fleisher.

Fleisher went on to international renown, becoming the first American to win the prestigious Queen Elizabeth of Belgium competition. He enjoyed a prolific recording career, and some of his recordings, particularly with legendary conductor George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, are considered classics.

But when he was 36, at the height of his career, he started suffering symptoms on his right hand, later diagnosed as focal dystonia, a neurological condition caused by repetitive tasks that causes the fingers to curl into the palm of the hand.

This condition halted his performing career. Describing the emotional roller-coaster he went through, he wrote: “It was hard to find words for the dark cloud that hovered over me: of anguish, of dejection, of rage. I fell into a deep depression. At my lowest point, I seriously considered killing myself. But I didn’t kill myself. I stayed alive. And, just as I was stuck with being alive, I was stuck with my love of music. Something about it was still sustaining, and still worthwhile. So I embarked on a quest to make a life in music, in any way I could.”

He eventually learned to channel his creativity in new directions, mastering the piano repertoire for the left hand, and initiating a career in conducting and teaching.

He learned and performed some famous compositions for the left hand only by Ravel, Prokofiev, and Britten that were commissioned by a wealthy Austrian pianist who had lost his right arm in World War I. But it was mainly teaching where he found his calling, and he renewed his dedication to teaching at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where he has inspired thousands of students since 1959.

Fleisher never gave up on the idea of playing again with two hands. He tried therapy after therapy, but to no avail. Then, in 1995, after endless attempts at therapies, he found a successful treatment: Botox injections and Rolfing, a form of bodywork that structurally changes connective tissues to restore their pliability and range of motion.

Fleisher gave his first two-handed recital at Carnegie Hall in 2003, and the following year, Vanguard Classics released “Two Hands,” Fleisher’s first two-handed recording since the 1960s, to great critical acclaim.

Today, Fleisher continues with an international schedule of performances, orchestral guest conducting, and master classes. Even in the highly talented field of classical music, it’s a rare occurrence to see a 90 year old perform a public concert. At his Jan. 5 performance, Fleisher played Piano Concerto No. 12 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Considered one of Mozart’s early piano concertos, the piece is not technically demanding, but it is bright, sweet, and filled with sunshine.

In celebration of his 90th year, he will appear as a soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and in recitals in Carnegie Hall and in Washington, D.C. His next performance in our region will be at the Kennedy Center on Feb. 19, in a program called Leon Fleisher and Friends: A Birthday Celebration.

 By Shamai Leibowitz