photos by: Dakota Fine
Leon Fleisher is an American pianist and conductor. He made his public debut at age eight and played with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux at 16; Monteux famously called him “the pianistic find of the century”. He became one of the few child prodigies to be accepted for study with Artur Schnabel, and also studied with Maria Curcio. Fleisher was linked via Schnabel to a tradition that descended directly from Beethoven himself, handed down through Carl Czerny and Theodor Leschetizky.
In the 1960s, Fleisher lost the use of his right hand, due to a condition that was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia. Fleisher commenced performing and recording the left-handed repertoire while searching for a cure for his condition. In addition, he undertook conducting during this time, serving at one time as Music Director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in Maryland. In the early 21st century, Fleisher regained the use of his right hand through a combination of Rolfing and Botox injections.
His memoir is entitled My Nine Lives.
BYT: Who do you relate more to as a character and see more of in yourself: Schroeder, the piano playing kid from Peanuts or Ralph, the piano playing dog from The Muppets?
Leon Fleisher: Lucy!
LF: Yeah, because I always take the football away just as he tries to kick it (laughs).
BYT: As who tries to kick it?
LF: The kids on Peanuts.
BYT: Do you have a certain animated style of playing that you call your own?
LF: No, I try actually to avoid that, simply because I think it’s a distraction. And it takes the listener to force, takes their attention away from the music, which is the star of the whole transaction. The performer is only a channel, if you will, the connection between the composer and the listener. My teacher, a very great man, Artur Schnabel, described that transaction in the following way: he said that the performer is the alpine mountain guide, absolutely essential in getting you up the mountain, as he knows the pitfalls and dangers along the way. But his purpose is to get you to the top of the mountain so that you might enjoy the view. So as performers, we are indispensable because we bring those black dots on the paper to life, but the music is the star. Many young people forget that equation and seem to feel that the more they demonstrate that they are affected by what they do, the more successful they will be, and that’s not what I do.
BYT: So no Elton John or Freddie Mercury antics for you?
LF: (laughs) No, sorry.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtEBSa_hCxs&feature=related
BYT: Have you ever thought about playing keyboard for a rock band?
LF: No, not for a rock band. I wish I could play jazz, the great tunes. I wish I could improvise.
BYT: Have you tried?
LF: Yes. I am totally ungifted. Totally.
BYT: Let’s talk about the loss of the function of your hand.
LF: Why? You like to hear about despair?
BYT: Like the Olympics, triumph over adversity.
LF: It’s like that commercial ABC aired about the skier, triumph over tragedy. Well everybody carries their own cross, and I guess it’s the way we find our way back to functionality, purpose, and intention that defines our lives, I don’t know.
BYT: How long were you not able to fence for?
LF: Well, it was a period of two years that I was in a very deep depression. And I only came out of it when I admitted to myself that my connection and relationship to music was at the base of my life, rather than being a two handed piano player. So that’s when I was able to decide for myself to look at the literature for the left handed, to start teaching and learning, and then came across the fact that some 35 years later came the scientific discovery that Botox would help alleviate some of the symptoms I had.
BYT: What year was that?
LF: That was around 1995.
BYT: Did you ever come into contact with Rick Allen, the drummer of Def Leppard?
LF: No. Really, he had focal dystonia?
BYT: No, but he lost his arm in a car accident.
LF: Oh wow.
BYT: Yeah, and he still drums for the band today with foot petals and one arm.
LF: Good god. That’s heroism.
BYT: Yes it is. I think there’s a VH1 documentary about him too. So what’s your favorite restaurant in Baltimore?
LF: Well, I’m in the slow process of becoming a vegetarian. So I’m in a state of flux at the moment. There’s one very good restaurant that we enjoy very much. Well, there are two actually. One is called the One World Cafe and one is Dogwood.
BYT: Have you been to Liquid Earth in Fells Point? It may be vegan, but definitely has some vegetarian options.
LF: No, I’ll definitely look into that. Thank you!