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'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

But in 1962, at the height of his career, Leon noticed changes in the feeling of his right forearm, changes he has said "felt as if you untwisted a rope so that all the strands got looser and looser." The right hand also felt different.

"It seemed as though one or another finger was a little bit lazy," he says. "The fingers weren't responding quite the way they always had. And my reaction was, 'I'm falling out of shape; I've got to work harder.' Which, of course, is precisely the wrong thing to do."

By 1965, his fourth and fifth fingers were curling into his palm. "It came on slowly, then faster and faster. It took about 10 months for me not to be able to use my right hand anymore at the piano."

At 37, Leon Fleisher's career appeared over -- only 15 years after it had begun. He became deeply depressed. "It got very, very bad. I cannot describe that sense of sinking -- it's really despair. And eventually I was filled with self-pity and self-concern. I think it was a large factor in destroying my second marriage," says the twice-divorced pianist, who since 1982 has been married to Katherine Jacobson, 48, also a pianist and formerly one of his students. He sighs. "In a very real way, when this happened I thought my life was over."

What Leon Fleisher couldn't imagine then was just how fulfilling the life ahead of him would be. Or that, as recent developments suggest, he might one day return to the concert stage, playing as brilliantly as he once did. And playing with two hands.

Men at work

Late afternoon, Feb. 29: Somewhere in a practice room on the second floor of the Curtis Institute, a violinist is rehearsing. The sound floats down the corridor to Room 1-E, where it pauses briefly to mingle with the sound of two left hands playing two pianos inside another small practice room.

They are "the two strongest left hands in the world" -- as conductor Sergiu Comissiona describes them -- and they are rehearsing the duo version of the Bolcom piece. It is their first rehearsal together, and the pianists are, in a sense, breathing life into the newly born piece. As with any infant, the development phase is going to take a lot of work.

But first, there is the matter of scheduling future rehearsals:

Gary, consulting his appointment book: "I'm in New York Saturday."

Leon, consulting his appointment book: "I'm busy Saturday and Sunday."

Gary: "Monday I'm available. But Tuesday I go to Europe."

Leon: "I'm in Toronto the 27th and 28th."

And so it goes. Auditions, meetings, concerts, teaching, judging, traveling and, oh yes, practicing. The two men manage to agree on a few practice dates and then settle in for three hours of work.

Practice: Imagine the sound of music interrupted by staccato conversation and a lot of laughter.

"I made a mistake. Let's start over."

"I'm still not clear. Are we together there?"

"Yes. But I'm still not 100 percent clear that we should be together on that note where we just stopped."

"Sorry. Let's start again."

"Wait a minute. I've not counted something right here."

"I wonder if I'm playing it too slowly. What do you think?"

"It sounded a little fast to me."

"Aha! I got it!"

"Oh, my God!"

"That's very good!"

"Oh, let's not get carried away."

"There's something very familiar about this part -- sounds like my mother telling me to practice."

"This could develop into Cole Porter."

"Sorry, sorry, sorry."

Back and forth, the two left hands skim up and down the keys, at times threatening to unseat the bodies that must accommodate the rolling posture that comes with the use of just one hand across the entire length of a keyboard. In fact, when Gary first started to learn the left-hand repertory, he kept falling off the piano bench. When he mentioned this to Leon -- who had years of left-hand experience -- he told Gary exactly what he should do with his right hand: "Hang on to the piano bench!"

At times the music rushes out, released into the air like a startled flock of birds sent flying from the trees. At other times, it paces back and forth, back and forth, like a caged tiger. Often, it's surrounded by laughter.

And then there is this moment: It's growing dark outside, and down on the street below, a man stands motionless under the street lights, his head tilted up to the window, listening intently to the sounds flowing down from above like celestial music. Suddenly, a voice shouts: "VERY GOOD!"

It's Leon, praising Gary's playing. "I think he gave you much tougher stuff," Leon says. "Well, here, maybe," Gary replies.

A week or so later, Leon, out of the presence of Gary, suddenly brings up this rehearsal, saying: "Gary does certain things so well. He's so secure, absolutely rock-solid. So reliable. So consistent. It's great to be able to bounce off of that. I find myself from time to time just kind of smiling or even occasionally laughing. Because I hear what he's doing, and I can pick up on it and respond."

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