Kennedy Center to honor `heroic artist' Fleisher

September 12, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Leon Fleisher, the eminent Baltimore-based pianist, is one of five artists who will receive the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors in December. The typically wide-ranging list also includes comic actor and writer Steve Martin, singer Diana Ross, film director Martin Scorsese and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.

This is the 30th presentation of the Kennedy Center Honors. The recipients will be saluted in a gala attended by President Bush and the first lady, and held at the center's opera house Dec. 2. The show will be taped for nationwide broadcast Dec. 26 on CBS.

"I'm very moved by this award," Fleisher said yesterday from his Roland Park home. "I think it's probably the highest award a performing artist can receive from his country."

Each year, the Kennedy Center's board of trustees selects honorees notable for "lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts."

Recommendations for the awards come from the center's national artists committee, which this year included pianists Emanuel Ax and Evgeny Kissin; sopranos Renee Fleming and Anna Netrebko; actors Laurence Fishburne and Catherine Zeta-Jones; directors Francis Ford Coppola and Rob Marshall; and singers Melissa Etheridge and Kenny Chesney.

Previous Kennedy Center honorees, among them rock singer Elton John and director Steven Spielberg, also submitted recommendations for the 2007 list.

"I'm very gratified by the fact that it's an apolitical honor," Fleisher said. "It is given by colleagues and professional people who are aware of what [an artist] has done, so it really is apolitical -- and that much more of an honor."

The 79-year-old Fleisher, one of the most incisive and admired American pianists and a longtime member of the Peabody Institute's music faculty, was forced to rethink his career in 1965 when his right hand became disabled by a neurological condition.

He turned to music for left hand alone and also became an accomplished conductor. In recent years, thanks to a new therapy that involved applications of Botox directly to his right hand, Fleisher began to resume two-hand performances. He has made two acclaimed recordings of two-hand repertoire since 2004; they were his first in four decades.

"Leon Fleisher's story is that of a heroic artist, and we're proud to be honoring him," said George Stevens Jr., who created the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978 with Nick Vanoff. Stevens will produce and co-write what will be the 30th consecutive show and telecast.

"I grew up as a kid watching the Kennedy Center Honors on TV and seeing some of my heroes, like [Arthur] Rubinstein and [Leonard] Bernstein receive the awards," Peabody Institute director Jeff Sharkey said yesterday. "To have Leon among the greatest musical luminaries in the world is exactly what he deserves, and a great honor for us at Peabody."

Fleisher learned that he was on the 2007 list last weekend. "I got the news late, actually," he said. "It was sent to my management over the Labor Day weekend and lay on a pile of things."

The pianist and the other honorees will receive the actual award Dec. 1 at a State Department dinner given by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During the show Dec. 2 at the Kennedy Center, the honorees will be saluted by various performers.

"The most pleasant aspect of this is that I don't have to say anything or do a damn thing," Fleisher said. "I can just sit there and grin in self-satisfaction."

In July, he had to cancel a performance because of an inflammation in both hands, but Fleisher said that "those issues are now resolved."

Fleisher heads to Europe today for performances with the Orchestre National d'Ile de France, playing the Concerto for Left Hand by Maurice Ravel on a Central European tour.

In announcing the 2007 honors list, Kennedy Center chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman described Fleisher as "a consummate musician whose career is a moving testament to the life-affirming power of art."

Last year, Fleisher earned another substantial honor, this one from the French government -- Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters. "That was wonderful," the pianist said. "It's their highest honor for an artist."

Fleisher is not expecting any other awards in the near future.

"That's enough for the time being," he said with a laugh. "I guess the next thing is a roasting. That's when you know you've really made it."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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