The Kennedy Center

Leon Fleisher


Leon Fleisher (Pianist, conductor, and teacher; born July 23, 1928, in San Francisco, California)

His musicianship is the stuff of legend, and his personal story is as heartbreaking as it is life affirming. Leon Fleisher was well on his way to conquering the music world at 16, singled out as "one of the most gifted of the younger generation of keyboard artists" by Olin Downes in The New York Times and soon hailed quite simply as "the pianistic find of the century" by the great conductor Pierre Monteux. He was cruelly sidelined at the height of his powers by a rare neurological disease that lost him the use of his right hand. Undeterred, while being told by his doctors that he would never play again, he became an inspirational teacher and an inspired conductor, all the while playing-and in fact revitalizing-the left-handed repertory, determined not to be defeated. Fleisher was, as the Times dubbed him, "a pianist for whom never was never an option." He underwent brain surgery, grueling experimental treatments, years of trials that certainly would have discouraged any ordinary mortal. Then, against all odds and baffling medical experts, he returned. "His comeback," wrote Holly Brubach in The New York Times in 2007, "has catapulted him up next to Lance Armstrong as a symbol of the indomitable human spirit and an inspiration to a broader public."

Leon Fleisher was born in San Francisco in 1928. He had his piano debut at the age of eight, began studies with Artur Schnabel at nine, made his San Francisco Symphony debut at 14, then he had his Carnegie Hall debut at 16 playing with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux. He won the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition in Belgium in 1952, became one of the most sought-after soloists and recitalists in the world's finest concert halls, and began a rich series of recordings with, among others, Georg Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra. His landmark version of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms concertos as well as his solo recordings of Schubert and his explorations of the American repertory would become cult classics.

Even before the loss of his right hand in 1965 forced a radical change in his musical life, Fleisher already had gravitated towards education as well as towards conducting, which he studied with Monteux. As confounder and director of the Kennedy Center's Theater Chamber Players, Fleisher has been an energizing powerhouse behind that most delicate and personal of musical fields. As a conductor, his accomplishments have included tenures as associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony and as music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and of the Tanglewood Music Center, as well as enthusiastically received performances with the Baltimore Opera. His associations with the Peabody Conservatory of Music-where he has been on the faculty since 1959-as well as with Curtis Institute of Music and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto have turned Fleisher's generosity of spirit into an exhilarating wave of influence over new generations of pianists, with his students so far including such piano greats as André Watts, Lorin Hollander, Yefin Bronfman, and Louis Lortie. When limited to performing with the left hand alone, Fleisher championed that repertory and created definitive interpretations of Ravel and Britten. He also encouraged and inspired composers to create new works for the left hand, a mission that so far has resulted in what is perhaps the most original American work of that genre: William Bolcom's Concerto for Two Pianos Left Hand, composed for Fleisher and his friend Gary Graffman, who also suffered neurological problems with his right hand. Curtis Curtis-Smith's Concerto for the Left Hand was composed for Fleisher, as have been major works by Lukas Foss and Gunter Schuller.

Fleisher was named "Instrumentalist of the Year" in 1994 by Musical America. He has received honorary doctorates from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Townson State University, the Boston Conservatory, and the Cleveland Institute of Music. Johns Hopkins University gave him its President's Medal. The filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn's short documentary "Two Hands," chronicling Fleisher's heroic journey, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2007.

"In the end," wrote Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times, "his diverse legacy may well prove more pervasive and lasting than if he had simply continued his career as a pre-eminent two-handed pianist." Still, Fleisher needed to play again. He has. Returning to Carnegie Hall at 67 for his first two-handed concert there in nearly four decades, Fleisher made history once again. "The listener was immediately impressed by the pearly beauty of Fleisher's sounds-as gentle as it was firm, ruminative and intensely poetic yet without any smearing of the melodic line," wrote Tim Page in The Washington Post in 1996 after the Carnegie Hall concert. "Indeed, I would rather listen to Fleisher, even in his current, delicate shape, than to most other pianists now before the public."

"I'm not sure I would change anything that happened to me," Fleisher has said, bravely, and also wisely. To hear him say this, to hear him make music, is a gift.

September 2007
Leon Fleisher