Pianist joins pop-culture elite with Kennedy honor

December 03, 2007|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to the Sun

Capping a career marked by disability, a triumphant comeback and even an Oscar nomination, Baltimore pianist Leon Fleisher proudly joined a coterie of pop-culture figures this weekend in accepting the Kennedy Center Honors.

The Peabody Conservatory faculty member, who spent nearly four decades playing a left-hand-only repertoire because of a neurological disorder, was feted alongside filmmaker Martin Scorsese, singer Diana Ross, comedian Steve Martin and singer-songwriter Brian Wilson. Fleisher was celebrated by notables ranging from cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman to President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"I'm particularly proud of this one because it's been given to me by my peers in my country," Fleisher, 79, said in anticipation of the gala performance last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. "I've received a lot of foreign honors, but this one is especially nice."

Presented annually since 1978, the Kennedy Center Honors are among the loftiest awards given in the performing arts. The winners are announced in September, then spend a star-studded weekend in Washington, where they receive the awards at a State Department dinner, gather at the White House and are honored with performances at the Kennedy Center. This year's ceremony will be broadcast at 9 p.m. Dec. 26 on CBS.

The proceedings this weekend featured a mix of the glamorous and the governmental. Soul queen Aretha Franklin, American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, singer Lyle Lovett, actor Terrence Howard, actress Christine Baranski and comedian Martin Short attended the weekend's black-tie events, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey.

The unlikely mix made for amusing moments. As he stood for photos in the White House's East Wing, Fleisher told reporters he had run into Short as they left their hotel. Short said jokingly to Fleisher, "I hope you win."

The gala itself was filled with good humor. Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, actress Cameron Diaz and actor Robert De Niro paid tribute to Scorsese, the 65-year-old director of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas who won his first Oscar this year for The Departed. Looking up to the presidential box, De Niro said that if Scorsese "were directing the Kennedy Center Honors, I would have already whacked Steve Martin."

A vaudeville-style show paid tribute to Martin, 62, who began his career as a wild and crazy stand-up comedian but has gone on to movies and to writing essays, novels and plays, including the just-published autobiography Born Standing Up. The bit included actor Steve Carell doing stand-up, actor-clown Bill Irwin in pantomime and Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth singing "Pennies From Heaven."

Vanessa Williams, Ciara and an incendiary Yolanda Adams paid musical tribute to Ross, who earned fame singing Motown hits in the Supremes and in a solo career, as well as acting - she earned an Oscar nomination for Lady Sings the Blues. Last night, as she wore a large white dress and even larger hair, childhood friend Smokey Robinson called her "as big as the Beatles, but with better wardrobe."

The second half of the gala was to include tributes to Fleisher and to Wilson, 65, who was the creative force behind such sunny early 1960s hits by the Beach Boys as "Good Vibrations" and "Don't Worry, Baby." His career was derailed in the mid-1960s by personal demons, including drugs and psychological problems, but in recent years, the reclusive Wilson has been touring again.

In a conversation last week from his Baltimore home, Fleisher showed dry wit in looking forward to the gala, where he shared a box with President Bush.

"You don't have to sing for your supper at the Kennedy Center and don't even have to say a word," he said. "Of course, that works both ways. If you wanted to say something, you can't."

Award recommendations come from the Kennedy Center's national artists committee; members include, among other performers, pianist Emanuel Ax, soprano Renee Fleming, actor Laurence Fishburne and singer Kenny Chesney.

The San Francisco-born Fleisher has lived in Baltimore since taking his teaching position at Peabody in 1959. He had a notable debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1944 and made memorable recordings until a debilitating ailment struck his right hand in the mid-1960s. He then started playing the surprisingly large piano repertory for left hand only, took up guest conducting and was artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts from 1986 to 1997.

The affliction in Fleisher's right hand was later diagnosed as a neurological condition called dystonia, and Botox treatments since 2001 have enabled him to tour with a two-hand repertoire and make recordings, including the aptly titled Two Hands. His comeback was the subject of a short documentary of the same name, which was nominated this year for an Academy Award.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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