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Pauline Lerner

Leon Fleisher Is Great at 80!

August 18, 2008 at 7:21 AM

An all Mozart program with Leon Fleisher as conductor and pianist -- what an extraordinary concert I was fortunate to attend. Before the concert, I wondered whether an 80 year old man could have the manual strength and dexterity necessary to play a piano concerto. I also wondered how he would function as a conductor.

I probably would have been more doubtful if I had known more about Mr. Fleisher. When I came home from the concert, I read about him on the Internet. I learned that he started playing the piano at the age of 4 and had his first recital at age eight. His career as a pianist skyrocketed. Among his noteworthy achievements of this period were recordings of major piano concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. His career as a pianist was stopped suddenly at age 37 when he was stricken with focal dystonia, a disease which immobilized two fingers of his right hand.. Looking back on this period of his life, Mr. Fleisher said that it taught him that there is more to music than just two hands. He developed outstanding careers as a teacher and a conductor and occasionally gave performances of piano pieces for the left hand. He never lost hope that his dystonia would be cured and that he would play the piano with both hands again. He tried many remedial treatments, both conventional and unconventional. He finally became involved in a clinical trial at NIH which gave him lasting relief. He was given botox injections at the sites where the affected muscles contacted nerves. He played his first postdystonia, Photo two-handed concerto at Carnegie Hall at age 67 after an absence of almost forty years.

My seat at the concert hall put me just above and behind Fleisher’s left shoulder. If my opera glasses had been a little stronger, I could have read the music in front of him. I could see that his age had affected his body. He conducted sitting down, and his hands never went above his shoulders. At first, I doubted that I could play in an orchestra with him as conductor because his movements were so subtle. However, before the end of the first piece, I could “read” his conducting easily.

I could tell that Fleisher had great rapport with the orchestra because they followed his signals beautifully. The first piece was Mozart’s Haffner Symphony, which started with a fast and loud rush. Mozart had given the instruction to play the first movement “with great fire,” and the orchestra certainly did. I found myself listening very carefully because there were changes every couple of measures which kept the music very dynamic.

Next was Mozart’s Piano Concerto #12, K.385. This is an early concerto by Mozart, and, like many early works by many composers, it is considered “immature” and is seldom played. Mr. Fleishman found and brought to life all the subtle changes in mood inherent in the score. The piano part was technically easily but very rich emotionally as Mr. Fleishman played it. I was very moved, and I could tell that the rest of the audience was, too, by the long, loud applause and standing ovation when he finished the piece.

The last piece was Mozart’s Symphony #40 in g minor, one of my very favorite pieces of music. Having played this with a community symphony orchestra, I feel that I have learned about it from the inside. At this concert, I was very aware of changes in the music – changes in instrumentation, themes chasing each other around, and some emotions seldom heard in Mozart’s symphonic works, including anxiety, tension, and sadness. However, Mozart remains Mozart, and the symphony ends with a happy feeling that everything is going to work out just fine. With Fleishman conducting, all of these feelings were articulated cleanly and beautifully.

Mr. Fleisher loved music, and he never chose any other career path. Love of music, performing music beautifully in several different roles, and sheer perseverance have made him an outstanding and inspiring musician.


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