With new box set, pianist Leon Fleisher celebrates the sounds of a lifetime

At 85, Baltimore musician continues rigorous performing and mentoring schedule

  • Leon Fleisher, pianist and Peabody faculty member who remains a major musical force at 85.
Leon Fleisher, pianist and Peabody faculty member who remains… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
August 13, 2013|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

On an upper floor of the Peabody Conservatory the other day, the sound of a piano played by a single hand could be heard coming from Leon Fleisher's studio. Even through the closed, thick door, there was no mistaking the authority behind that sound.

Fleisher, who turned 85 on July 23, remains one of the most compelling pianists in the world, whether playing with one hand or two — only for the past dozen or so years, thanks to Botox injections, has he enjoyed limited reuse of his right hand, immobilized nearly five decades ago because of focal dystonia.

Inside his studio at the conservatory, Fleisher talked about his health, his career and future plans.

"My right hand is getting tired," he said. "But I'm doing fine — knock on wood. I'm still ambulatory. I'm just waiting until the battery runs out," he added with a laugh.

It's hard to imagine that battery will ever lose its charge.

To mark Fleisher's birthday milestone, Sony Classical has just issued a 23-compact disc set of his recordings released between 1956 and 2009, an impressive testament to his productivity.

So far this summer, the pianist has traveled to Taiwan, Japan and China for concerts, in addition to performing with the Boston and Chicago symphonies at their summer festival locations. And he spent several weeks mentoring young musicians at the venerable Marlboro Festival in Vermont.

"That was a great pleasure," Fleisher said. "I remember having some of the same questions and challenges that they have now. It's great to be able to suggest not answers, but possibilities. The main job of a teacher is not to teach how loud or soft, fast or slow something should go, but how to learn — what things you need to look for in order to make your decisions."

The coming season is packed with more teaching. Fleisher will be working with piano students at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, the Royal Conservatory in Toronto and, of course, Peabody, where he has been a fixture since 1959.

"People change here with a certain regularity, which keeps me fresh — and, I hope, them," he said.

A Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2007 and author (with Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette) of "My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music" in 2010, Fleisher seems to thrive on a packed schedule.

Fleisher, who added conducting to his skill set in the years after his right-hand trouble began, will be on the podium several times this fall. He will lead the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, as well as the famed Cleveland Orchestra, where he has been designated artist-in-residence.

An October engagement with the Naples (Fla.) Philharmonic will find Fleisher performing a Mozart concerto for two pianos with his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher. He will also conduct that program, which includes the premiere of a work by Katherine's nephew, Nicholas Jacobson-Larson, written for four harps and orchestra. The four harpists will be three of Fleisher's children and his daughter-in-law.

"That's nepotism to the nth degree," Fleisher said, "a true family affair."

As for this month, Fleisher has been busy preserving some of his music-making for Bridge Records. He is recording pieces for left-hand-alone written for Fleisher over the years by such notable American composers as Lukas Foss and George Perle.

The recording will include a novel item. "It's my first crossover piece," the pianist said, as he started playing, with exquisite nuance, the great Jerome Kern song "All the Things You Are" in an elegant left-hand arrangement by a former Peabody student of Fleisher's, Stephen Prutsman.

While awaiting that new recording, the pianist's fans can dig back into a hefty portion of his past on the Sony boxed set. More than 19 hours and a lifetime of musical wisdom are packed into "Leon Fleisher: The Complete Album Collection."

Given that record companies often put out such collections to commemorate late, lamented artists, Fleisher wasn't sure how to view this one at first.

"Sony never told me about the box set," he said, "so I had quite a scare a few weeks ago when I saw it. What do they know that I don't know?"

Fleisher, whose dry wit is as well-known as his brilliant pianism, broke into a little grin. He is the first to pull someone's leg or poke fun at himself, as he does with perfect deadpan on a recently posted YouTube video, part of the quirky "Conversations with Nick Canellakis" created by a droll young cellist of that name.

The interview starts off with Fleisher closing his eyes — "I can hold a conversation while I'm sleeping; that's how I often teach" — and goes on tongue-in-cheek tangents from there. The pianist claims that he gets his "best work done on the toilet," for example, and that he has X-ray vision in his right eye (he uses Canellakis for an embarrassing demonstration).

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