Pianist Leon Fleisher and His “Nine Lives”

Leon Fleisher—pianist, conductor, icon—is synonymous with legendary pianists and musicians of the 20th and into the 21st centuries. He’s performed in great concert halls (Carnegie Hall), with major orchestras and eminent conductors (George Szell, Eugene Ormandy). He studied under the great Artur Schnabel, who was a student of Theodor Leschetizky, a pupil of Carl Czerny, who in turn studied under Ludwig van Beethoven. Not a bad line of teachers for one of the most impressive pianists today.

Pianist Leon Fleisher (photo: courtesy of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra)

He debuted with the New York Philharmonic in 1944 at the age of 16, and promptly established himself as one of the world’s premier classical pianists. But by the age of 36, at the height of his career, he was struck with focal dystonia, a neurological affliction, and two fingers on his right hand became immobile. His career was in question and the musician was forced to redirect his course.

He chose two career paths, that of conductor and teacher, and trained himself on the limited repertoire for piano left hand as he searched for a cure for his affliction. Experimental treatments using a regimen of Rolfing and Botox injections restored the mobility in his hands. Then in 2003, he returned to Carnegie Hall for his first two-handed recital in over three decades.

Since then, he’s won acclaim for his 2004 two-hand recording, Two Hands (Indieblue Music); been the subject of the 2006 Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary film of the same name (written and directed by Nathaniel Kahn); was a recipient of the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors; and released other classical albums under the Sony Masterworks label. His album, Beethoven: The Five Piano Concerti (Complete) (Columbia 1959-61) with Conductor George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, was inducted into the Grammy® Hall of Fame in 2008.

This weekend, he will perform Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. This masterpiece became the cornerstone of Leon’s concerto repertoire.

“[Ravel] really understood how the left hand works. He grasped, so profoundly, that the fingers take care of the harmony and the activity, while the thumb takes care of the tune. The thumb remains independent. That is why all the one-handed piano music is for the left hand, why there isn’t a right-hand literature.” – Fleisher*

Leon continues his course of conductor, soloist, recitalist, chamber music artist and master class mentor in college and university residencies around the world. He holds positions at the Peabody Conservatory, Curtis Institute of Music, and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. And he continues in his journey of perseverance, an inspiration for other artists, in his determination to prove he isn’t one to be defeated.

“I will never be cured…I have to accommodate to what my hand can do, every time I play. But I can live with it. Over the years, my affliction had been a heavy burden and then a burden I had learned to shift, and carry, in smaller and smaller segments. Botox melted the rest of it away. Some days are better, some days are worse…But there’s no more affliction. There’s just the way I am. And there’s the music. I can access the music. In the end, for me, that’s what really counts.”*

*From his memoir, My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music (Doubleday, 2010), co-authored with acclaimed writer and music critic Anne Midgette

Leon Fleisher plays Ravel (video)

Special Note: Leon will be signing books and CDs at the Jacksonville Symphony this weekend!

Upcoming Performances with Leon Fleisher:
May 12-14, 2011

Ravel: Piano for Left Hand
Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra

June 2, 2011
Leon Fleisher: In Focus
92nd St. Y, New York

June 12 & 13, 2011
Maestro & Friends III
Theatre des Bouffes-du-Nord
Paris, France

June 19 & 20, 2011
Opernhaus Karlsruhe
Badisches Staatstheater
Karlsruhe, Germany

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