Fleisher, a national treasure

December 04, 2007

Baltimoreans have long acknowledged the city's good fortune in having pianist Leon Fleisher in residence at the Peabody Conservatory. Though not a native, he has made the city his home for 48 years and has enhanced Baltimore's cultural scene and reputation through teaching, conducting and, most notably, performing over these many years, even as he struggled to overcome a debilitating affliction of his right hand.

But his talent has reached far beyond the borders of his adopted city - and his receipt of a Kennedy Center Honors award last weekend confirmed that.

The honors, awarded first in 1978, are among the most prestigious given to Americans in the arts, who are feted during a weekend ceremony in Washington that culminates with a gala performance at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Mr. Fleischer is, no doubt, justifiably proud of the recognition, and Baltimore is proud of him.

What is so gratifying about Mr. Fleisher's award is that his story isn't pitch perfect. After an astonishing Carnegie Hall debut at age 16, he went on to critical acclaim as a soloist, performing and recording across the globe. Then, in 1965, he lost the use of his right hand from a neurological disorder. But the pianist didn't retreat to the classroom or behind the conductor's podium. He found a way to keep playing by performing pieces for the left hand - and mastering them.

It was a situation that lasted until 2003, when a new treatment helped engineer a bona fide comeback and an album, aptly titled Two Hands. Mr. Fleisher's tenacity in a field enthralled with the next young virtuoso is a resounding endorsement of the power of perseverance.

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