'The gods hit you where it hurts' Mysterious hand ailments ambushed the concert careers of Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman. How each met the challenge is testament to their strength and spirit. And to their friendship.

April 07, 1996|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SUN STAFF

A heavy rain is falling outside on West 57th Street when two men, both 67 years old, seat themselves at concert grands in the basement of the Steinway piano company in Manhattan. The cavernous room is filled with huge, nine-foot pianos which, with their lids up, resemble a fleet of sleek whales. They are old friends, these two great pianists and the Steinway whales.

It's been more than 50 years since Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher began coming to "The Basement," and it is as familiar to them as the ivory keys beneath their fingers. On this March night, they are here to rehearse a new piece, "Gaea," by William Bolcom, which will have its world premiere this week in Baltimore at Meyerhoff Hall.

Leon has come down from Boston, direct from daylong meetings on Tanglewood Music Center, the summer institute he directs. Gary has come up from Philadelphia after a day of auditions at the world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music where he serves as president. Whatever fatigue they might feel, however, seems to vanish as the two begin playing, turning black dots on paper into music.

They are alone in the room, but as the two pianists play, an audience materializes: Memories arrive silently and take their seats at the pianos.

After all, it was here in The Basement that Gary -- 9 years old and wearing short pants -- chose his first Steinway for a recital.

It was here that Leon and Gary met as teen-agers: two child prodigies from Russian emigre families, both on their way to brilliant concert careers.

And it was here in The Basement that a fraternity of youthful musicians dubbed the OYAPs -- Outstanding Young American Pianists -- hung out together in the 1940s and 1950s. William Kapell. Eugene Istomin. Julius Katchen. Jacob Lateiner. Gary Graffman. Leon Fleisher. Bound together by extraordinary musical gifts, these were the pianists who seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of such legends as Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein.

For these young men, the future glittered with promise: of fame, of success, of a greatness that would deepen over the years. Who could have imagined that two would die young; Kapell in a plane crash, Katchen from cancer. Or that both Leon and Gary, at the height of their careers, would find their lives ambushed?

Yet they are here, Leon and Gary, back in The Basement, acting just as one imagines they did when they were 17-year-old hotshots:

Leon to Gary, after a long passage: "That was good."

Gary: "It was by accident. It'll never happen again."

Leon: "Oy! That's where it's unplayable."

Gary: "I thought I faked it well."

They are not used to performing together publicly. In fact, when the two step onto the stage Saturday night it will be their first performance together since

"Since when?" Gary asks Leon.

Leon thinks. "I keep harkening back to the opening of Lincoln Center. We played the Bach four-piano concerto. You, me, Eugene [Istomin] and either Jacob [Lateiner] or Seymour [Lipkin]," he says of the 1962 opening. "But I have absolutely no remembrance of it -- which must mean we were pretty bad."

"And in my case," Gary responds cheerfully, "I've totally repressed it. Which is even worse."

Repression aside, the two men share close to a lifetime of memories. And they share something else: Each knows the pleasure of fashioning a brilliant musical career; each knows the pain of having their career snatched away. "The gods hit you where it hurts," Leon says of that painful time.

At the height of one of the most promising careers of the century, Leon Fleisher was forced off the concert stage when his right hand was disabled by a mysterious ailment. Fifteen years later, the gods delivered a similar blow to Gary Graffman. Despairing and unable to play with both hands, each man was forced to reshape his musical identity and, in a larger sense, to fashion a whole new life.

Now, years later, after enormous efforts to retrieve the old life and initial reluctance to accept the new one, each has arrived at a state of remarkable self-renewal and self-knowledge. The journey, however, has led them to different destinations: One finds himself in a place of acceptance; the other is still pursuing, with the promise of success, a return to two-handed performing.

But because they are not sentimental men, which is not to say they don't feel deeply, Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher choose not to dwell on past sorrow.

What is left unspoken, however, can be heard in the music being made in The Basement on this rainy night. Loss, pain, recovery, acceptance: It's all there, released through the two left hands skimming up and down the keyboards.

And on this night, in this basement, you can hear something else mixed in with the music and the laughter: friendship.

Leon: then and now

It is an unusually warm day in early March, and the window is open in Leon Fleisher's piano studio on the top floor of the Peabody Conservatory. For over 35 years, Leon has taught here, at the end of a hallway near the back stairs.

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