When I wrote up my 2013-2014 classical season preview for City last summer, I selected the Ying Quartet's concert with Leon Fleisher as my top pick. The concert sold out weeks ago. The Ying Quartet, of course, sells out every concert on its own. Pairing The Ying Quartet with legendary pianist Leon Fleisher could easily have sold out a larger venue.
It came almost as a surprise that Fleisher found the time to speak with me. At 85, his career has spanned the globe for decades. By age 9, Fleisher was a student of Artur Schnabel. By age 16, Fleisher made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Pierre Monteux. In 1952, at age 24, he was the first American to win the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium. There isn't a grand classical venue or a top-notch orchestra at which Fleisher hasn't performed.
And yet, when I rang the provided number, Fleisher himself answered the telephone and proceeded to spend an unhurried 45 minutes talking with me about everything from President Barack Obama to Fleisher's earliest memories of listening to his older brother taking piano lessons. In my research, I had come across a story Fleisher told a British newspaper of how his mother gave him a choice between becoming a concert pianist or becoming the president of the United States. It was where I started, asking him what kind of a president he would have made. His laughter was deep and easy, and his response completely candid: "I would probably be a lousy president."
Fleisher offered the pivot that he was very lucky to have a mother whose vision for her second son happened to coincide with whatever gifts he had. "That's really lucky, you know," says Fleisher, "a parent who sees her child without telling him to become something or another, because so often the gift of the child lies in a different direction."
From an age even before kindergarten, Fleisher's days in San Francisco were "pretty well regulated with practicing and tutoring," he says. He never attended public school.
But it was not Fleisher's many successes that have ended up defining him as a pianist or as a man. In 1965, at the age of 36, Fleisher lost the use of the fourth and fifth fingers on his right hand due to a condition known as "focal dystonia." Fleisher first noticed the sensation that the two fingers wanted to curl into his palm. His initial response was increased practice, and in less than a year those two fingers were essentially curled into the palm of his hand and were going numb.
"After the onset of this focal dystonia, I moped around and whined for about two years," says Fleisher. "Then I realized it wasn't piano playing that had me in its thrall, but that it was music, and that there were other ways of reestablishing that connection."
I asked Fleisher whether there was any difference between a pianist having to adjust to illness or injury and a classical musician who is unable to reach the zenith of a full-time performance and competition career. Fleisher thought not. In either case, "It takes the ability to step back and find ways to keep that connection going, to find continued activity in the realm of music," he says.
Even so, Fleisher's path was not just to find a broader relationship with music through outlets like playing left-hand-only repertoire, conducting, or teaching; it was to search far and wide for treatments and cures, as well as continually returning to the piano keyboard with both hands on the ivories. "There was always that hope that as mysteriously as it appeared, it might disappear," says Fleisher. "Having done it [played the piano] for 35 years, you don't just drop that."
It wasn't until 1991 that Fleisher got the diagnosis of focal dystonia and began treatments involving Rolfing and botox. In 1995, he resumed delivering two-handed concerts. A documentary on his journey, appropriately titled "Two Hands," was nominated for an Academy Award in 2007. As he said in a PBS Newshour interview in 2011, "When it works, it's a state of ecstasy."
In spite of the evidence that would suggest that Fleisher is never going to let go of two-handed piano performance, he remains unwavering in his belief that he is committed to music as a whole, not just piano performance. "It's a very personal thing," Fleisher says. "The wonderful thing is that music is always there and available to you, whether or not you are able to earn a living, keep a roof over your head, keep your refrigerator stocked by means of making music, or whether you do it through any other way. Music is always there for you. There's no need ever to relinquish it."
His tone is at once authoritative without being condescending, something like James Earl Jones, and this becomes the bigger surprise of my conversation with Fleisher. When I scroll through my memories and impressions of seeing and hearing him, the sounds and images are quieter and unassuming. Fleisher is about Brahms, and a pedagogy passed down from pupils of Beethoven (1712-1773) to Carl Czerny (1791-1857) directly to Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915) directly to Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) and thus to Fleisher. For Fleisher's 85th birthday last year, Sony Classical released "Leon Fleisher: The Complete Album Collection," a 23-disc boxed set, heavily weighted into the lineage of composers flowing through his teachers and his parents' Russian/Polish heritage.
I seized upon mention that, among his Western medicine attempts for a cure, Fleisher had experienced Eastern healing and meditation. Fleisher gave back a very candid cut.
"Everything in our life and our culture today is calculated to prevent us from self-reflection," says Fleisher. "We're bombarded on all sides by distractions, by efforts to keep us from self-examination, to keep us from thinking. Music in elevators. Traffic on the streets. Very little time or space for a kind of self-reflection or meditation."
And within that space, what does Fleisher still want to do after more than 80 years at the piano, conducting, teaching, and writing a memoir titled "My Nine Lives"?
"The great composers — the truly, truly great ones — they gave us some of the greatest creations in the history of humankind, and there are mysteries in there that continue to need to be resolved," says Fleisher. "It's a never-ending process, and one that we can look forward to in playing with the Yings. Not ever having played with them before, there will be this process of getting to know them, giving ideas, getting ideas. That's what is fascinating. The performance, in a way, is secondary. It's the process that's so gratifying and enlivening."
A few days later I was speaking with David Ying, cellist in the Ying Quartet, who is himself a Grammy-winning musician climbing toward the great summit of classical-music performance. Indeed, the concert on February 23 will include one piece with Fleisher, the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34. The rest of the concert will be pure Ying Quartet, including the Schumann String Quartet No. 2 in F, Op. 41, No. 2 and the Prokofiev String Quartet No. 2, Op. 92.
Ying doesn't expect there will be differences in how the rehearsals are conducted. "Whether we're playing with Leon Fleisher or a freshman student at Eastman, we're not interested in recreating our way, we're interested in learning new things about the piece," says Ying.
Even so, Ying and I are both conscious that we're talking about the Leon Fleisher, and Ying reveals a child-like excitement. "I expect it will be like one of those games you play: If you could have dinner with anybody, who would it be? We get to spend a couple of hours with Leon Fleisher, and everybody else gets to be invited to the dinner," says Ying. "Four hundred and 50 people will get to share that experience in Kilbourn Hall. We only wish we had a little bigger hall."
Fleisher will also lead a piano master class Thursday, February 20, 3:30 p.m. at Hatch Recital Hall, and a chamber music master class Friday, February 21, 6:30 p.m. at ESM's Ciminelli Formal Lounge. Both events are free and open to the public. For more information visit esm.rochester.edu.