Leon Fleisher (July 23, 1928 – August 2, 2020) was an American classical pianist, conductor and pedagogue. He was one of the most renowned pianists and pedagogues in the world. Music correspondent Elijah Ho called him "one of the most refined and transcendent musicians the United States has ever produced".
Born in San Francisco, Fleisher began playing piano at the age of four, and began studying with Artur Schnabel at age nine. He was particularly well known for his interpretations of the two piano concertos of Brahms and the five concertos of Beethoven, which he recorded with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. With Szell, he also recorded concertos by Mozart, Grieg, Schumann, Franck, and Rachmaninoff.
In 1964, he lost the use of his right hand due to a neurological condition eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia, forcing him to focus on the repertoire for the left hand, such as Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and many compositions written for him. In 2004, he played the world premiere of Paul Hindemith's Klaviermusik, a piano concerto for the left hand completed in 1923, with the Berlin Philharmonic. He regained some control of his right hand then, and played and recorded two-hand repertoire.
He was also notable as a conductor, and especially as a teacher for over 60 years at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, the Curtis Institute of Music and others. He was a Kennedy Center Honors awardee in 2007, among many distinctions.
Fleisher was born on July 23, 1928, in San Francisco, the son of Bertha and Isidor Fleisher. His parents were Jewish immigrants, his father from Odessa and his mother from Poland. His family was poor. His father's business was hat-making, while his mother's goal was to make her son a great concert pianist. Fleisher started studying the piano at age four. He made his public debut at age eight. At age nine, he became one of the few child prodigies to be accepted for study with the renowned Austrian teacher Artur Schnabel, who taught him in a tradition that descended directly from Beethoven through Carl Czerny and Theodor Leschetizky. He also studied with Maria Curcio and Karl Ulrich Schnabel. Fleisher played at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux at age 16, and Monteux called him "the pianistic find of the century."
In the 1950s, Fleisher signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Masterworks. He was particularly well known for his interpretations of the piano concerti of Brahms and Beethoven, which he recorded with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. They also recorded Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25, the Grieg and Schumann piano concertos, Franck's Symphonic Variations, and Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
In 1964, at the age of 36, Fleisher lost the use of his right hand, due to a neurological condition that was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia. In 1967, Fleisher commenced performing and recording the left-handed repertoire while searching for a cure for his condition. His first choice was Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. In addition, he undertook conducting beginning in 1968, and became associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1973, and music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. In the 1990s, Fleisher was able to ameliorate his focal dystonia symptoms after experimental botox injections to the point where he could play with both hands again.
In 2004, Vanguard Classics released Fleisher's first "two-handed" recording since the 1960s, titled Two Hands, to critical acclaim. Two Hands is also the title of a short documentary on Fleisher by Nathaniel Kahn, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best short subject on January 23, 2007. Fleisher received the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors. Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman described him as "a consummate musician whose career is a moving testament to the life-affirming power of art."
Fleisher's musical interests extended beyond the central German Classic-Romantic repertoire. The American composer William Bolcom composed his Concerto for Two Pianos, Left Hand for Fleisher and his close friend Gary Graffman, who has also suffered from debilitating problems with his right hand. It received its first performance in Baltimore in April 1996. The concerto is so constructed that it can be performed in one of three ways, with either piano part alone with reduced orchestra, or with both piano parts and the two reduced orchestras combined into a full orchestra. Composers who wrote music for him also included Lukas Foss, Leon Kirchner and Gunther Schuller.
In 2004, Fleisher played the world premiere of Paul Hindemith's Klaviermusik (Piano Concerto for the Left Hand), Op. 29, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle. This work was written in 1923, for Paul Wittgenstein, who disliked and refused to play it. However, he had sole performing rights and kept the score, not allowing any other pianists to play it. The manuscript was discovered among his papers after the death of his widow in 2002. On October 2, 2005, Fleisher played the American premiere of the work, with the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt. In 2012, at the invitation of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Fleisher performed at the Supreme Court of the United States.
He continued to be involved in music, both conducting and teaching for more than 60 years at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto; he was also closely associated with the Tanglewood Music Center. With Dina Koston, he co-founded and co-directed the Theater Chamber Players in 1968–2003, which was the first resident chamber ensemble of the Smithsonian Institution and of the Pedagogy.
His memoir, My Nine Lives, co-written with the Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette, came out in November 2010.
Fleisher died of cancer in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 2, 2020, at age 92.
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