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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Leon Fleisher

A great musician and pianist, this from the Wall Street Journal:

Leon Fleisher, a grizzled bear of a man, sits slightly crumpled in a chair at his publisher's office, somewhat worn for wear. But his eyes are as probing as searchlights. That's not surprising. The 82-year-old pianist has a reputation for piercing to the heart of things with the lyrical insights of a poet; students at the Peabody Institute have even nicknamed him "Obi-Wan Kenobi" in an affectionate reference to the wise Jedi knight from "Star Wars."
[ccfleisher] Chris Serra
We are together to talk about his new autobiography, written with Anne Midgette, titled "My Nine Lives." It's a remarkable story by any standard. A student of the legendary Artur Schnabel, Mr. Fleisher was among the best of a generation of American talents. He made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 16 with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of conductor Pierre Monteux, who dubbed him "the pianistic find of the century." Throughout the 1950s and early '60s, he fulfilled every expectation of that declaration. Then, beginning in 1962, the pianist developed weakness in his right hand, causing two fingers to curl involuntarily.

There was no explanation for it, though in time it garnered the official diagnosis of focal dystonia. "I went from doctor to doctor," he once told me. "I tried everything from aromatherapy to Zen Buddhism and no one had any answers. . . . [But] it usually happens to people who use fine muscles under pressure. It hits surgeons in the hands, horn players in the lips and singers in the vocal cords." The pianist turned to repertoire for the left hand alone, and pursued other avenues, such as conducting and teaching. In the last several years, through a variety of therapies, he has been able to use both hands again, though with some limitations.

Yet, even while retreating from the stage, he helped to shape extraordinary talents like André Watts and Yefim Bronfman. Some years ago, I witnessed the power of his approach at the Ravinia Festival outside of Chicago, as he coached a young woman in a master class. "Play it with more light," he told her. "Not with the hot light of the sun, but with the cold light of the moon." Her interpretation changed instantly. "You heard a difference?" he asked me, surprised and humbled when I related the story. "It was dramatic," I told him. "I'm gratified to hear that," he replied softly.

The secret of great musical performance lies in listening, he reveals. "It is a tripartite process: We have to be three people at once. Person A 'hears' what the music should sound like, setting the goals. Person B sits there and pushes the keys down, in response to Person A. Person C sits apart and judges, telling Person B what adjustments to make. This goes on simultaneously. Most students are concerned with producing what they want—A and B—but they have the least amount of space in their brains for listening: C.

"In all the conservatories, including my own at the Peabody Conservatory and the Curtis Institute, the kids are extremely competitive—they want to play louder and faster than the pianist in the next studio. Most of them can play the hell out of the piano in a way that their elders never could. But they belong more appropriately in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It all has very little to do with making art. They have a lot of work to do, but it's easier just to pump plastic."

Couple this lack of listening with a "competition for the entertainment dollar," he asserts, and you get a truly destructive combination. "Players try to convince us by using body English—they writhe or look up at the ceiling—all to prove how affected they are by the music. They don't realize what a distraction it really is. We are supposed to be impressed by their show of emotion, but in reality they are merely erecting a barrier between the music and my soul."

Mr. Fleisher is heir to a legacy that focused on music rather than on showmanship. ("The difference between my programs and those of other pianists," Schnabel once announced, "is that mine are boring not only in the first half but also in the second.") This has translated into a lifelong love affair with the great masterworks, especially those of one national school in particular. He writes in the book of his enduring connection to the Brahms First Piano Concerto, but that is merely one example of his admiration for Germany's musical legacy.

"French music is sensory—it involves smell and taste and touch," he explains. "The main characteristic is Impressionism: You squint your eyes and see the outlines. I've often wondered what would happen if you could squint your ears. But quantitatively, the repertoire is minimal: There is essentially Debussy, Ravel and Fauré. Russian music is very subjective—it is really built around the 'I.' The Russians write beautiful tunes, but they are often kind of whiny and breast-beating: 'Look how I suffer.' There isn't that large a quantity of it either—we mostly hear Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

"German music is what knocks you out—in quantity as well as in quality. This is a strange thing for someone of my generation to say after witnessing World War II," he admits, "but the German tradition is metaphysical. It connects with the greater cosmos. It asks in what way I am like a brook or a tree. Beethoven, for example, always strives for things beyond the merely personal. And the breadth is unbelievable—from Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven to Brahms." It is music of philosophical depth and great intricacy, and Mr. Fleisher's renderings of it over the years have been, as the Kennedy Center Honors announced when they awarded him a medal in 2007, "a testament to the life-affirming power of art."

When asked what he plans to do next, the pianist seems taken aback. His work has never stopped. "I hope to get up tomorrow," he says unceremoniously.
Mr. Isacoff is on the faculty of the Purchase College conservatories of music and dance (SUNY) and author of "Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization" (Knopf/Vintage).

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