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7.10.08

Leon Fleisher Celebrates 80th Birthday with Friends

Leon FleisherThe Shriver Hall Concert Series opened its 2008-2009 season with a birthday celebration concert for the venerable Leon Fleisher, who shared the stage with his distinguished students Jonathan Biss, Yefim Bronfman and Katherine Jacobson Fleisher. The screening of Nathaniel Kahn’s brief documentary Two Hands introduced the audience to Fleisher’s remarkable career as perhaps the most highly regarded and quotable piano teacher of our time. Better yet, the HBO-produced, Academy Award-nominated documentary was full of insight into a person now better known for his mind and teaching than as a performer, having taught at Peabody and Curtis for decades. A favorite quote directed to a student: “There is no reason to play faster just because you can!”

Two Hands frames Fleisher’s 40+-year battle against focal dystonia in his right hand – a neurological disorder that instructs the fingers to cramp inward or spasm outward due to chronic misuse – which halted his performing career. Fleisher, along with other musicians afflicted with the condition including Gary Graffman (there are murmurings that Glenn Gould stopped performing because of the condition), tried basically every therapy possible, included hypnosis, to release the muscles. Fleisher eventually grew a beard, enjoyed some scotch, and focused more on teaching, conducting, and performing left-handed repertoire. And what a pedagogue Fleisher became, since he could no longer “push students off the bench” to show them how it should be done. (Note to music students: if your teacher cannot help you feel good when you play, find a teacher who can and be prepared for retraining, as pain is not to be ignored.)

Now 80 and with considerable hindsight, Fleisher is not sure he would change the path of his life. The “pain” has been countered by “commensurate ecstasy.” Recent Botox treatments have allowed Fleisher to return to the stage with two hands, and Two Hands ends noting that in 2005 he performed 48 concerts in 31 cities. However, Fleisher has never been cured of dystonia and his return has been tricky, especially considering Peter Dobrin’s Philadelphia Inquirer review of his 2003 performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Curtis Symphony titled, “The Sound of a Faltering Icon is Melancholy, Indeed,” with the rather unfortunate single-word synopsis of his performance as “sad.” These ears have not heard Fleisher since that 2003 performance.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Leon Fleisher (Washington Post, October 7)

Tim Smith, Leon Fleisher and friends deliver memorable marathon (Clef Notes, October 6)

Kevin Lowenthal, Concert celebrates Fleisher's many gifts (Boston Globe, October 6)

Harry Rolnick, The Sounds of Eight Hands Playing (ConcertoNet.com, October 2)
Fleisher opened the pianistic part of the evening with the words: “In these times of turmoil with strong opinions and emotions, I think it is somehow salutary to begin the evening with a AAA-rated piece.” The arrangement of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze was poetically voiced. Yefim Bronfman’s performance of Robert Schumann’s Arabesque contained a similar gentleness to Fleisher’s playing with every voice phrased to compliment the other, and a brief quotation of Schumann's The Poet Speaks, op. 15. One quickly recognized Fleisher’s musical DNA in Bronfman in terms of posture, etched tone, and genuineness. In yet another plaintive work, Jonathan Biss (primo) joined Fleisher in Schubert’s fascinating Fantasy in F minor, which might have been undermined by too reserved a tempo and Biss’s bizarre cheek shaking. The first half of the program ended with Bronfman (primo) and Fleisher performing Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, nos. 6, 8, and 10, with incredible expression and style.

The second half of the program included Katherine Jacobson Fleisher (Leon’s wife) performing Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511; Biss in an impeccably detailed, layered performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 27 in E minor without distracting mannerisms; and both Fleishers in Ravel’s La valse filled with fun four-handed glissandi. Happy Birthday, Mr. Fleisher!

The first concert in Shriver Hall's regular season will feature the unclassifiable contralto Ewa Podleś in a recital with pianist Garrick Ohlsson (October 19, 5:30 pm).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

LF's career was salvaged by undergoing Rolfing treatments,aka,Srutuctural Integration.
EVERY athlete&musician should avail themselves of this 're-alignment'of their corporal instruments.