Determined to play his part, on or off piano

Through his struggle with his right hand, Leon Fleisher has told himself that the music comes first.

Classical Music

November 25, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

The music of Beethoven invariably suggests struggle, determination and, more often than not, triumph. It's a good match for pianist Leon Fleisher, whose life has had a large share of all three conditions.

Next weekend, he is slated to play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 -- the one nicknamed Emperor -- for the first time in four decades. The performance, with the Concert Artists of Baltimore, will certainly involve struggle and determination. And triumph?

"There ain't no guarantees," says Fleisher, 73, with a smile. "But I'm gonna try."

The previous triumphs in the pianist's career started at age 6, when he gave his first public concert. At 14, having studied with keyboard legend Artur Schnabel, Fleisher made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony, whose music director, Pierre Monteux, hailed him as "the pianistic find of the century."

Two years later, he was a soloist with the New York Philharmonic. At 24, he became the first American to win the important Queen Elisabeth International Competition in Brussels. In 1959, Fleisher joined the faculty at the Peabody Institute (where he continues to teach).

Widely admired

International concert tours and several stunning recordings, especially those with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, helped make Fleisher one of the most admired keyboard artists of the day.

"When he was at his peak," Michael Steinberg writes in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "his playing combined intellectual power, warmth of feeling, grace, taste and sensuous beauty."

Then, in 1964, in the midst of that peak, a strange ailment incapacitated his right hand, which curled up on itself.

"For the next two years, I was in deep depression," Fleisher says in the grandly scaled music studio of his home perched high on a Roland Park hill, with a panoramic view overlooking Falls Road. As he talks, he frequently pulls on the knuckles of his right hand, or squeezes on a pen.

"I thought my life was over," he says. "The thing that saved me was the realization that my connection was with music, not necessarily exclusively with piano playing. There had to be another way of staying involved with music other than playing concerts with two hands."

Fleisher began to investigate the limited, but substantive, repertoire of works for left hand alone, which helped him launch a fresh wave of triumphs. In addition to being a performer again, he was an instigator.

"With a certain pride, I can say I've been the cause of at least a half-dozen new works to be written for left hand," he says.

New phase of career

This second phase of Fleisher's career was not confined to the keyboard. He became an accomplished conductor as well, serving for years as music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and associate and resident conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

"I had some satisfaction, some gratifying experiences conducting," he says. "But I was always looking for a way to get back to at least limited piano playing with two hands."

Fleisher tried various therapies and, finally, surgery, which proved effective enough to allow a much-publicized return as a full-fledged pianist, performing with the BSO in 1982. But total recovery remained elusive.

Part of the trouble was with the diagnosis. What originally had been thought to be carpal-tunnel syndrome was recently identified as another debilitating condition.

"They finally decided it was focal dystonia," Fleisher says. "Repetitive stress syndrome might contribute to this, but they have no idea what causes the involuntary curling under or flexing of the muscles."

Last year, the pianist tried what he calls "a very curious way of dealing with the situation" -- injections of a botulism toxin.

"Whoever discovered the idea of using that in therapy must have been on some very powerful stuff," he says, laughing.

Small doses of the toxin keep the curling symptoms in check for about six months at a time. Although there's a possibility that the toxin could end up causing a new set of problems down the line, Fleisher plans to continue the treatment.

"I had an injection before playing K. 488 [Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23] with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg last January, and it seemed to help," he says.

"It was curious. I had practiced redistributing a lot of notes to make it easier on my right hand, but when the performance started, I reverted right back to what I did when I played that concerto 40, 50 years ago."

Fleisher switched his playing method again, in mid-performance, to the way he had prepared for the concerto, but the experience showed him how far the rehabilitation of his right hand had come.

His still-rare excursions into the repertoire that he once owned occur only after a systematic working out of how best to negotiate the notes within his physical limitations. In recent years, he has felt confident enough to try out the two daunting concertos by Brahms.

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