Like the Biblical figure Job, the classical pianist Leon Fleisher had it all, lost it, and got it back.
For his first few decades, Fleisher — who will be teaching master classes and lecturing throughout next week at the 2014 Southeastern Piano Festival — led a charmed life.
Born in 1928, he was a child prodigy whose life became a series of professional peaks. He gave his first recital at age 8; by 9, he was being tutored in Italy by the great pianist Artur Schnabel. At 16, he was playing with the New York Philharmonic; by 24, he was the first American winner of the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition.
Then it was on to a highly productive decade as the lead pianist with George Szell’s Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, where Fleisher distinguished himself on classic Columbia recordings of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor and Beethoven’s piano concerti, among many others. His contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s were Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould and Gary Graffman, all of whom he counted as friends.
Everything was going great, personally and professionally, right up to the age of 36, when his right hand staged a rebellion.
“I just had these two fingers that wanted to make a fist all the time, as if taking refuge from the keyboard in the safety of my palm,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir My Nine Lives.
No one knew it at the time, but the problem was focal dystonia, a neurological condition where a set of muscles involuntarily contracts. His career as one of the leading concert pianists of his day was over, sending him into near suicidal depression.
Several new careers, however, were just beginning. Fleisher became a teacher at the Peabody Conservatory, a conductor, and learned to play music written for the left hand. He never gave up on his right hand, though, and by the early 2000s, his patience was rewarded. Through massage therapy and botox injections, he regained the use of both hands. Although there’s no cure, the regimen provides some control.
So, how is the right hand doing today?
“It’s coming along,” he says in a phone interview. “It’s been in a rather unchanged state for some time now. It fluctuates, goes up and down, and I can use it for certain things and I can’t use it for other things.”
He is looking forward to next week’s classes, which he knows can be intimidating for young students.
“It’s got to be awfully difficult to get up there and perform with conviction, and with a sense of authority,” he says, “knowing that there’s some old codger sitting around just waiting to criticize you, and I try to avoid that kind of situation.”
The key to a performance is having a unique interpretive quality — which is, also, part of the reason Fleisher takes a slightly dim view of competitions.
“What happens is the person who wins is that person who least offends the greatest number of jurors,” he says. “So that’s already a kind of compromise.
Jurors hate to be embarrassed in their judgment, so they almost inevitably vote for the most reliable one — the one who makes the fewest technical errors, because that’s countable. You can count mistakes. Whether that person has individual insight into the meaningfulness of the music is something else.”
Fleisher’s had a life where great triumphs very often came at a cost. Were the highs higher or were the lows lower?
“Well, I think that if you’re capable of experiencing great highs, that means you’re also capable of experiencing great lows,” he says. “And this alternation, I think it’s what they call life.”
At 85, he still has goals for the future.
“They have to do mostly with having the opportunity to study new works and to work on them, either with students or with orchestras. Other than the fact that I hope I will still wake up in the morning.”
He isn’t letting anything slow him down. He just returned from a tour that took him from Dusseldorf, Germany, to a concert with the Juilliard Quartet in Dallas. After next week’s piano festival, he goes back to Germany, then to Marlboro, Vermont, and then to Switzerland.
He doesn’t have any problem staying booked, either.
“Yes,” he says. “I’m unbelievably lucky.”
Leon Fleisher’s master classes are open to the public and will be held at the USC School of Music June 17-18 at 4:30 p.m. and June 19 at 10 a.m. Fleisher will also give this year’s Marian Stanley Tucker Guest Lecture at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 19, at the Music School. Visit sepf.music.sc.edu for more information.
Now in its eleventh year, the Southeastern Piano Festival is beginning to feel “like a real festival of the city, with so many concerts happening in so many venues,” says Artistic Director Marina Lomazov. “It’s a new development of the festival, that it’s branching out.”
Founded in 2003 by Lomazov and her husband, Program Director Joseph Rackers, the festival attracts young pianists from throughout the country and beyond for intensive study and the Arthur Fraser International Piano Competition. This year’s festival will have a major artist, Leon Fleisher, teaching master classes.
“It’s a combination of technical excellence and artistry,” Rackers says of what it takes for pianists to be accepted into the program. “The ability to create color with the instrument, to really create beautiful phrases and really to communicate the music to the audience.”
For the general public, the festival will also be holding concerts at the Koger Center, the USC School of Music, the Columbia Museum of Art and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.
The festival kicks off with the Piano Extravaganza with the South Carolina Philharmonic at the Koger Center on Sunday, June 15, at 4 p.m. The concert — which also marks the end of the Philharmonic’s 50th anniversary season — includes popular University of South Carolina pianists Phillip Bush, Charles Fugo, Lomazov and Rackers.
Additional concerts this year include:
• Zachary Hughes and Susan Zhang will perform in the Alumni Celebration Concert at the USC Music School Recital Hall on Monday, June 16, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 (free for 18 and younger.)
• Andrew Tyson, winner of the recent Queen Elizabeth and Leeds Competitions, will perform on Tuesday, June 17, at 7:30 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in the Rising Star Showcase. Tickets are $30.
• Ingrid Jacoby, winner of the Concert Artist Guild Award, among many others, will perform an Artist Showcase concert on Wednesday, June 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the USC School of Music. Tickets are $30.
• Alexander Korsantia, winner of the First Prize and Gold Medal of the Artur Rubinstein Master Competition and First Prize at the Sydney International Piano Competition, will perform on Thursday, June 19, at 7:30 p.m. at the Columbia Museum of Art. Tickets are $40.
The week concludes with the Arthur Fraser piano competition on Friday and Saturday, June 20-21. Students compete all day Friday in sessions that are open to the public, and winners perform Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Music School Recital Hall. Tickets are $10.
Most of the events of the festival, to be held June 15-22, will be at the USC School of Music at 813 Assembly St. For a complete schedule and additional information, visit sepf.music.sc.edu.
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