Fleisher shows off musical gift on his 80th birthday

Concert Review

July 26, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Leon Fleisher, who turned 80 on Wednesday, marked the milestone by conducting and playing music by Mozart with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble he has been close to for more than three decades.

This was the first occasion in many years that Fleisher stepped onto the BSO podium - during the 1970s, he served as resident conductor - and it was rewarding to hear the rapport he had with the players Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore. (The program was repeated last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.) Fleisher's chief fame comes from his incisive keyboard artistry. Long denied the use of his right hand by focal dystonia, he has been able to resume limited two-hand efforts in the past decade or so thanks to botox injections. On Thursday, he provided ample evidence of how much ambidextrous artistry he still has to offer.

I was reminded during the performance of a master class given by Fleisher a few years ago for Peabody Conservatory students. He spent a long time analyzing why two particular notes came to occupy their places in a single phrase of a Schubert piece. He wanted to explore the meaning behind the distance between those two notes, the implications for the harmonic structure of the measure, the possible ways of articulating each of those notes.

It was at once an incredibly micro, yet wonderfully macro, moment - and typical of the care Fleisher affords all the black and white dots on a page of music. That same concern and sensitivity could be felt at every turn in his all-Mozart program.

Fleisher understands the difference between pretty, pleasant, on-the-surface Mozart and meaningful, eventful Mozart, and this performance was rich in the latter.

With a minimum of gesture and fuss, he conducted beautifully detailed accounts of two symphonies, No. 35 and No. 40. There were subtle dynamic contrasts, myriad tonal shadings. His tempos managed to be propulsive and yet fluid, allowing the music to breathe and flex its expressive muscle as it moved. Not all of the BSO's playing was finely polished, but it had character.

Fleisher, who was serenaded with "Happy Birthday" at the end of the concert, also offered an arresting account of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12. Sitting at a lid-less grand piano tucked in the middle of the ensemble, the pianist sounded confident and colorful, with a good deal of clarity in the articulation. Above all, phrases were alive with nuance and elegance. The pianist easily drew from the orchestra for supple support throughout.

To celebrate his 80th birthday, Fleisher was the one handing out the gifts.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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