At age 90, the flame of famed concert pianist Leon Fleisher continues to burn bright. We enjoyed a conversation with the Maryland resident in advance of his upcoming Ocean City performance with the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra
He was a child prodigy. He made his public debut at age 8 and played with the New York Philharmonic at 16. In terms of musical training, he is a direct descendant of none other than Ludwig van Beethoven. Legendary conductor Pierre Monteux called him “the pianistic find of the century,” and he is a Kennedy Center Honors recipient, along with the likes of Arthur Rubinstein, Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern and Yo-Yo Ma. Yet for his illustrious achievements and accolades, Leon Fleisher knows the bitter sting of defeat. In addition to two failed marriages, Fleisher confronted what to a lesser man would have spelled the end of his career and the negation of his legacy, when at age 36 he was struck with a neurological condition called focal dystonia, costing him the use of his right hand. But, despite it all, the intrepid maestro prevailed, first mastering a left-handed repertoire and ultimately returning to using both hands, following what was then considered experimental treatment with Botox injections that somewhat ameliorated his incurable condition.
Today, at age 90, Fleisher is still working ivory-covered miracles. On April 22, the Baltimore resident will perform as part of the season finale of the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in Ocean City. In recognition of this grand occasion, Coastal Style sat down with Fleisher, to talk about his life and career.
Coastal Style Magazine: Where were you born?
Leon Fleisher: San Francisco, California.
What about your parents?
My father was from Russia; my mother was from Poland.
Your father was a hatmaker?
Yes (laughs), like Anatole of Paris! (From the Secret Life of Walter Mitty.)
When did you begin studying piano?
At about 4 years old.
Were you petrified on the night you were scheduled to perform as a soloist at the New York Philharmonic?
Well, I’d say more excited than petrified. Remember, basically everything I had done to that point — my entire life, if you will — was leading to that. Also, I was very well prepared. I had played that same piece [Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor], with the same conductor [Pierre Monteux], the year before,
with the San Francisco Symphony.
Explain to me, please, how you are linked directly to Beethoven by way of training.
Sure. My teacher was named Artur Schnabel. Schnabel studied in Europe with someone named [Theodor] Leschetizky. Leschetizky himself studied with Carl Czerny. It was Czerny who was a student of one Ludwig van Beethoven. So, that’s the lineage that links me to Beethoven.
Well, thank you, but, to be honest, there is a weak link in that lineage.
My teacher’s teacher, Leschetizky, was a weak link because he didn’t perform very much, but he taught night and day. He was what we in the business refer to as a “teaching ho” — and he taught everybody, which diluted things a bit.
So, legend has it that in 1964, you contracted a condition called focal dystonia in your right hand. Is that accurate, and what is focal dystonia?
Yes, that is quite right. It’s a neurological movement disorder, like Parkinson’s. Focal dystonia attacks only one or two sets of muscles. It creates involuntary and uncontrollable contractions of just a muscle or small sets of muscles, attacking a part of the body that is in general use. Golfers often get this, in the form of yips; surgeons get it, too.
Do you think you contracted focal dystonia because of all those years of practice on the piano?
Well, you may wish to speak with neurologists or neuroscientists about that. But one theory I’ve heard is that sometimes, the brain is working too fast.
The messages it’s sending are so fast and cascading one upon another that the muscles get confused. It’s a field of ongoing investigation. But I’ll tell you this: There are many in the music industry who experience dystonia or have dystonic problems, and once word gets around the industry, they sometimes have a difficult time getting engaged or hired. And that can ruin their lives.
How bad did your particular case of dystonia get?
It affected the fourth and fifth fingers of my right hand. The flexors of that hand would curl my pinky and ring finger under and into my palm, and for me to get the extensor muscles to relax them and extend them outward required an enormous effort. It was gradual at first but
got progressively worse. After something like 10 months, my fingers would curl under, and there was just nothing
I could do about it.
Did you get depressed or have a blue period as a result of your condition?
(Laughing) Yes, a blue-with-purple-polka-dots period. I had fallen into quite a funk, actually. I had arrived at the pinnacle of my profession — and wham! When the gods choose to hit you, they really know where to hit you.
I would imagine so.
I have a feeling you’re going somewhere with this, and I’m intrigued to know where (laughs).
(Laughing) That is quite perceptive of you. I’m curious to know if you, during this dark period of uncertainty, had adopted specific coping mechanisms to dull the pain, whether those were constructive, destructive or both.
My way of dealing with this situation at its worst was basically to grow a ponytail [laughs], and I got a Vespa, and I would tool around Baltimore with my ponytail and my Vespa. I also screwed up my first marriage; it didn’t help my second marriage either. But for people familiar with music, I am now on my own Eroica, my
third symphony, like Beethoven’s, and my wife, Katherine, and I will be celebrating our 36th anniversary soon. I was lucky to find her.
Is there a cure for focal dystonia?
Unfortunately, no. Not yet, anyway.
How did you treat your condition?
I had gotten into an experimental program at the NIH that was using Botox injections to treat conditions like mine. What they did is inject Botox into the contracted muscle, and it relaxes it for a time. And to that extent, it helped a little bit, but it was certainly not the answer to the condition.
How often did you get such injections?
Once every three or four months. Botox is heavy stuff. You have to be careful. Eventually, though, you wind up having no reaction at all to it.
So, bottom line: Botox was never a cure and only helped to small extent, correct?
How did you guarantee yourself a steady income during those years?
I’ve been affiliated for a long time, since 1959, with the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, which is the oldest one in the land. So what I did is teach more, increase the number of students I had and adopted a modified concert schedule, for which I developed a left-handed repertoire, as a kind of Ripley’s [Believe It or Not] curiosity. I had a five-fingered career going for quite a while, and that worked [laughs].
So how are you doing these days?
I can play with two hands again, but I am careful about how I approach it. When I playing a concert, often what I do is play the first half of the concert by myself, with two hands or left-handed. For the second half of the performance, I play with my wife, with four hands on one piano, with me using both hands.
Are some pieces more difficult for you than others?
Yes. I can’t play everything. Running scales… Mozart, this kind of clarity of articulation, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and such… these things are difficult.
Playing chordal things is much easier for me, like Brahms. Fortunately, at the tender age of 90, I’m seeing a Chinese therapist who practices acupuncture combined with a certain kind of message therapy, and he is actually helping change my condition. So, I’m starting to play a little bit more these days.
Which leads us to your upcoming performance with the Mid-Atlantic Symphony. What will you be performing that afternoon?
Yes, I’m really looking forward to that. You know, Maryland is my home state, and they have done such a wonderful job at the MSO, so I’m especially looking forward to this concert. On that day, I’ll be performing Egmont Overture, by Beethoven, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, and Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler. There will also be a lecture approximately 45 minutes before the performance.
Thank you for your time today, Mr. Fleisher. May your upcoming concert in Ocean City be a resounding success.
Thank you very much. This was fun. I hope you and the rest of the Lower Eastern Shore turn out in force at the Powell Convention Center on [April] 22nd. It’s going to be a fun day, and at my age, I’ll take as many of those as I can get!
Editor's note: Visit MidAtlanticSymphony.org for tickets to see Leon Fleisher perform April 22 during the MSO’s season finale at the Performing Arts Center at the Ocean City Convention Center.
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