Leon Fleisher: playing catch up on the piano

A shot of Botox in hand lets musician tackle the tough pieces again

May 12, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Under the best of circumstances, the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Johannes Brahms can be a scary prospect for a soloist. The outer movements abound in two-fisted, blood-and-guts action; the rapt Adagio in between calls for an exceptionally poetic touch. Ultimately, what the concerto demands from the pianist is total, unconditional victory.

So why is Leon Fleisher, who hasn't enjoyed full, free use of his right hand for almost 40 years, attempting such a task in Baltimore this week? "It's interesting and it's fun," he says.

And how is this eminent American pianist steeling himself for the event? "I try to take care of myself with a program of walking," Fleisher says. "And supplements. I hope they don't ask for a urine test afterward." With that, his free-range eyebrows seem to expand to double their size, complementing the broad smile that breaks out on his weathered face.

In some ways, it won't matter exactly how the 75-year-old plays the Brahms concerto tomorrow night at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with the Concert Artists of Baltimore. It's important enough that he's playing this piece, which is all about struggle, depth, determination - qualities that have come to define Fleisher.

This particular concerto will always be associated with him, thanks to a definitive 1958 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, led by George Szell. (A few years later, the same forces collaborated on an equally revered account of Brahms' Concerto No. 2.)

But such heavy-duty works, along with the vast majority of all piano music, were denied to Fleisher in 1965, when his right hand became disabled by a neurological condition known as focal dystonia.

(Focal dystonia causes healthy muscles to contract involuntarily; among an estimated 300,000 people in this country affected by the disorder are about 10,000 musicians. Last month, the principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra announced he would have to retire because of it at the age of 39.)

After an initial period of depression, Fleisher jump-started his career by mastering the small, but significant, keyboard repertoire for left hand alone. He also channeled his energies into conducting. But, naturally, he wanted most of all to reclaim two-hand territory.

There were a few returns to the field over the years, helped along by various medical and therapeutic procedures ("I tried everything from aromatherapy to Zen," he says, "including pot"). But he never enjoyed more than brief periods of right-hand usage.

Then, around 2000, he tried something associated primarily with the vain and wrinkle-wary - an injection of Botox into the hand. Fleisher enjoyed remarkably positive results. Injections every six to eight months now make it more comfortable and practical to tackle the regular piano literature.

Botox is not a full cure, by any means, and Fleisher still limits the number of his two-hand performances. But it's hard not to think of him as a reborn pianist. Each time he ventures back into the public arena with both hands, the results inevitably become newsworthy.

In December 2001, he revisited Beethoven's Emperor Concerto for the first time in four decades. Edward Polochick, who conducted that performance at Meyerhoff with his Concert Artists of Baltimore, remembers it well. "I freaked," he says. "I thought, `Oh my God, it's like turning the clock back 30 years.' The playing was not without some smudges here and there, but it was just incredible. During the second movement, it was as if time stood still in that hall."

Last October, as part of his season-long 75th-birthday celebration, Fleisher gave his first solo recital at Carnegie Hall since 1947, playing two-hand and left-hand music. "One wanted to shake both Mr. Fleisher's hands," Bernard Holland wrote in The New York Times.

And this summer, the pianist will record his first solo recording of two-hand music in more than 40 years. The CD, to be released on the Vanguard Classics/Artemis label, "will include some Bach, Debussy, Chopin and Liszt," Fleisher says. "And also some Spanish pieces. I'm looking forward to it. Proceeds will go to benefit musicians with dystonia."

Familiar voice

Sitting in the cafeteria at the Peabody Institute on a breezy afternoon, Fleisher speaks in calm, soft-spoken tones that give an almost musical dimension to his well-chosen words. It's a very familiar voice at the school, where he has been on the faculty since 1959.

If he has felt any trepidation about this week's performance, it doesn't show. Fleisher, who tried out the Brahms concerto with the San Francisco Symphony and Florida Philharmonic in the mid-1990s, pre-Botox, to decidedly mixed reviews, more recently performed it at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado.

"I thought I'd die because of the altitude," he says. "I did the concerto the following week with the Chicago Symphony [at the Ravinia Festival] and it was, relatively speaking, a snap. So I informed my manager that henceforth I would only perform the Brahms D minor Concerto at sea level or lower."

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