In a recent conversation with the Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko, the subject turned to Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, a work recorded by virtually every pianist of renown, dead or alive. I raved about the electrifying recordings of William Kapell and Dimitri Mitropoulos, Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Toscanini. Demidenko dismissed them all.
“The benchmark for me is [Leon] Fleisher’s recording with [George] Szell,” he said with a calm, serious tone in his voice, referring to the preeminent San Francisco-born pianist's collaboration with the late conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. “Fleisher’s recording is unsurpassed. What an agile, brilliant mind. And what a very interesting man. I have great respect for him.”
Leon Fleisher is ninety years old today. One of the most refined and transcendent musicians the United States has ever produced, he continues to inspire generations of musicians as a teacher, mentor and performer.
“Except for my sight, which is fast diminishing, I’m hale, hearty and ambulatory,” the pianist tells me in a recent phone interview from his home in Baltimore.
I ask for Fleisher's account of that 1958 Brahms recording, which he made as a 29-year-old with Szell. “If I remember correctly, there was a snowstorm, and my piano didn’t arrive until the second and third movements,” he says. “Oh yes, I would do it differently today. It’s about growth. It’s a continuing process.”
Fleisher was born in San Francisco on July 23, 1928; the country, then led by President Coolidge, was mere months from facing the Great Depression. San Francisco was still recovering from the 1906 earthquake, which left half the city covered in ash, and destroyed many of its music venues. (Fleisher has lived through 16 presidencies. “We’re going to hell in a handbasket,” he says of the current administration.)
But there was hope buried in the rubble. Musicians like opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini vouched for San Francisco, declaring it her favorite city in the world in 1910. The city hosted the World’s Fair in 1915. Composer Sergei Prokofiev visited from Russia in 1926; Maurice Ravel, the French author of the Concerto for the Left Hand that Fleisher would play “a thousand times” in his career, followed in February 1928 and conducted the nascent San Francisco Symphony.
Today, world-class arts institutions abound near San Francisco City Hall, and Fleisher is one of the most iconic pillars of the city's musical legacy. In February 2019, San Francisco Performances presents Fleisher and his star pupil, pianist Jonathan Biss, in a celebratory 90th birthday recital at the Herbst Theatre.
“I keep coming back to the view of the War Memorial Opera House,” Fleisher says of the building where he heard and later met composer Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1934.
“I remember living on Fulton Street opposite the park; how, much to my mother’s dismay, I walked on the concrete walls of the park," recalls Fleisher of his San Francisco youth. "I also lived on Pierce Street. It’s too bloody expensive a place to live today! Oh, but the Golden Gate, the view from Berkeley, from Oakland, it’s quite invigorating. The air is really quite special.”
Fleisher’s mother and father, immigrants from Poland and Ukraine, respectively, were hat makers who owned stores on Geary and Fillmore. For his mother, the piano represented “a gateway to a new and better world," and so Fleisher began studying with distinguished Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel at age 9.
“Schnabel certainly had to convince me of the value of things. There are dimensions of meaningfulness in music. German music is metaphysical," Fleisher told me in a previous interview in 2014. "Schnabel said Mozart is the most inaccessible of the great masters because with the fewest number of notes, he accesses the deepest levels of human awareness and experience."
That early advice from Schnabel informed Fleisher's approach for decades to come, and foreshadowed the effect he'd have on younger musicians: "You hear a great performance of that music and it can be soul-shattering. It can transform a person," he says.
Fleisher reinvents himself
In 1944, at age 16, Fleisher was hailed by conductor Pierre Monteux as “the pianistic find of the century." A gold medal at the 1952 Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium further solidified his reputation as an outstanding, young American pianist. Alongside firebrands Eugene Istomin, Claude Frank, Graffman and Jacob Lateiner, Fleisher was among the precocious musicians who helped secure America’s status as a classical music powerhouse.
“It seemed like a new period when Americans were dominating,” says Jerome Lowenthal, 86, a longtime professor of piano at Juilliard who first met Fleisher at pianist William Kapell’s home in 1952. “They were a very brilliant group of pianists, close friends, and they shared their struggles as well as their aspirations.”
At the height of Fleisher’s fame and powers, disaster struck. In 1964, at age 36, Fleisher lost control of his right arm. A mysterious, incurable ailment—later diagnosed as focal dystonia—caused his fourth and fifth fingers to curl up. It was a devastating loss for the piano world, which had lost Dinu Lipatti, 33, to cancer in 1950 and Kapell, 31, to a Bay Area plane crash in 1953.
“He is without doubt one of the major musical figures of the second half of the 20th century,” says pianist Gary Graffman, 89, former head of the Curtis Institute and Fleisher’s close friend of over 70 years. “I’ve always admired his playing very much. His whole approach to music is honest and convincing, very unique and personal. That he managed to accomplish everything he has, despite a playing career that was halted at age 36, is simply amazing.”
In 1967, after a nearly two-year absence from touring due to his ailment, Fleisher began his transformation, concentrating on the piano’s left-handed repertoire, starting with Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. In the decades since, the list of contemporary composers who’ve written left-handed works for Fleisher includes Gunther Schuller, Lukas Foss, Leon Kirschner and William Bolcom.
In classical music, character is revealed in the form of tone, and many of Fleisher's colleagues and former pupils, themselves now concert piano greats, praise Fleisher’s tone as altogether inimitable.
“I don’t think any of us who studied with him ever managed to reproduce his tone,” says award-winning pianist Jonathan Biss, 37, who teaches at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. “It’s a searing sound—he genuinely hates excess—and it gets to the center of the note and the musical idea in such a direct way.”
“His sound is definitely unique, and startling in its clarity and intention,” says Robert McDonald, who worked with Fleisher as a 21-year-old and is currently on the piano faculties at Juilliard and Curtis. “It has so much to do with how he thinks about and hears rhythmic direction in a phrase and the complex energy behind it.”
“His sound can be quite indistinguishable from the musical integrity of his playing, his seriousness of purpose,” says pianist Garrick Ohlsson, 70, the only American to ever win the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. “It’s an incredibly etched, crystalline and beautifully balanced sound.”
Continuing a legacy
In 1968, at the suggestion of a student, Fleisher stepped behind the podium, taking on the role of conductor. In 1973, he became the associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony.
“I had a wonderful experience playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with him as conductor one summer in the 1970s,” says Ohlsson. “Even though he wasn’t playing anymore, I held him in a certain kind of awe and respect. He embodies a living tradition stretching back to Schnabel and Rachmaninoff, and as his junior colleague, I didn’t find him to be a formidable authority figure—I found him to be a generous, helpful, easy colleague. I’m a complete admirer of Leon Fleisher from start to finish.”
In 2004, after receiving botox injections in his right hand, Fleisher regained some function and released his first two-handed recordings since the 1960s. “I must say that at age 90, I can’t really count on my hand for too much," he says of his current state. "It might be a little bit better because I have not ceased to experiment, I’m still trying this and that. I can do certain things. And those things I try to do as well as I can.”
In the end, perhaps the role in which Fleisher continues to make the largest impact, touching generation after generation, is that of teacher. In 1959, Fleisher accepted a position at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Today, nearly sixty years later, his influence is found virtually everywhere—his pupils are esteemed faculty members of Juilliard and Curtis; some are renowned artists like Biss, André Watts and Hélène Grimaud.
As a testament to Fleisher's influence, in 2014, arts patrons Robert Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker donated $1 million to the Peabody Institute to create a scholarship fund for students of the great pianist.
“Leon holds an important, even iconic place in the history of the piano and pianists,” says Julliard's Robert McDonald. “A career of this distinction evolves always because of the value of its artistic force. Fleisher has occupied this role in our culture for decades.”
It’s been over seven decades since Fleisher and his peers put the United States on the classical music map—a golden age of artistic growth. Generations have come and gone, and the culture of America marches on—albeit, now to a vastly different beat. Biss speaks passionately about the need to preserve Fleisher's musical legacy.
“There are very few people who do work that is important to the degree that it sort of outlives them. Leon Fleisher is one of those people," says Biss. "He certainly was a fantastic guardian of the culture he inherited himself, and it’s up to us now to be equally good guardians of what we inherited from him. And if we can’t, then shame on us.”
Ten years ago, Fleisher wrote the following words in a piece that was published in The Washington Post: “I am nearly 80 years old and have been making music for almost all of that time, sustained by the belief that, in the words that Beethoven inscribed in his copy of the Missa Solemnis, the purpose of music is to communicate from the heart to the heart. Beethoven’s vision of music as a force capable of reconciling us to each other and to the world may seem remote, but that renders it an ever more crucial ideal for which to strive.”
Today, at 90, the inimitable artist is still plodding away, illuminating the darkness with his indomitable spirit.