Fleisher celebrates 80 years of music

July 20, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Leon Fleisher will celebrate his 80th birthday this week doing two of his favorite things - playing the piano and conducting. Joining him onstage for an all-Mozart program will be the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which shares with Fleisher a long, strong history.

"It's quite fitting that on the very day of my birthday [Wednesday], I have two rehearsals with the orchestra," he says. "It's a kind of homecoming."

Such an occasion makes a perfect time for reminiscing and taking stock. Settling into a leather couch opposite two grand pianos in a high-ceilinged salon of his handsome Roland Park home on a recent Sunday morning, Fleisher faces the inevitable question of how he feels about approaching his octogenarian milestone.

"Terrible," he says. But his eyes start laughing before he does. "Thank God I'm still ambulatory," he adds with a smile.

Fleisher is much more than ambulatory, of course.

He's also pianistically ambidextrous these days, a big deal for a brilliant artist who lost the use of his right hand in 1965 and only regained it - to a limited degree - about 10 years ago.

That's when the neurological condition that affected Fleisher's hand, focal dystonia, was treated with botox injections, which can alleviate the condition enough for some two-hand playing. It was during the decades when he was limited to left-hand repertoire that Fleisher developed a second career as a conductor.

From 1973 to 1978, Fleisher was on the BSO roster, engaged by music director Sergiu Comissiona initially as associate conductor, then resident conductor. For a dozen years, starting in 1970, Fleisher also served as music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, where he developed "whatever chops I have as a conductor."

The impressive thing about Fleisher's work on the BSO podium in the '70s wasn't necessarily his baton technique. "The hands did the job well enough," says principal bassoonist Phillip Kolker, who joined the BSO in 1972. "But it was the musical ideas he brought. They were so strong and so very convincing."

Fleisher's last BSO conducting gig was in 1982, although he has appeared many times since as piano soloist.

But that doesn't even begin to tell the story of why, as Jane Marvine, the BSO's English horn player, puts it, "There is an incredible bond between Leon and the orchestra."

In the fall of 1981, contract and budget troubles led to a lockout of the BSO musicians by management. The impasse dragged on for about four months. Fleisher decided to do something about the situation. "I just got in touch with board members I knew well and said, 'Can we talk?' " he says.

The talk proved highly productive.

"Leon was instrumental in starting the Friends of the Symphony," says Marvine, who has been in the BSO since 1978. "The group raised a lot of money, which allowed management to make a settlement. We are so indebted to Leon."

Kolker seconds that.

"I was in charge of benefit concerts that the musicians gave during the lockout," Kolker says. "We did some chamber concerts, but we also wanted to do a big orchestra concert. I called Leon and asked if he would conduct it. Without hesitation, he said yes."

Fleisher also volunteered to round up a big-name soloist for the benefit at the Lyric Opera House, where the BSO was then based. He delivered quite a box office draw, Andre Watts, a former student of Fleisher's at the Peabody Conservatory, where Fleisher has taught since 1959.

His effort to save the orchestra didn't end with the hefty program of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Copland he conducted on that occasion.

"He was in the room to help negotiate a settlement with management," Marvine says. "I still remember him with his long, wild hair, sitting through grueling hours of talks during a two-night marathon."

Fleisher also helped put together fundraising telethons for the BSO aired by WJZ-TV (one of the station's staffers who participated was a young co-anchor named Oprah Winfrey).

When the BSO went on strike in 1988, Fleisher was there yet again, organizing and conducting a benefit concert for the players.

"I have really warm feelings for this group," he says. The feelings are mutual.

Kolker says that Fleisher "always seemed to only be thinking about our own good. He's a real mensch."

Even without that above-and-beyond help that Fleisher repeatedly offered the orchestra, that bond would have been strong, for it was first forged artistically.

"He's a musician's musician," Marvine says. "His depth of feeling in music, and his ability to express it, is as good as it gets."

Fleisher demonstrated that gift while exploring the left-hand repertoire in numerous performances over the years with the BSO, some of them recorded (his account of Ravel's Concerto for Left-Hand, conducted by Comissiona, remains a benchmark).

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