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Remembering Leon Fleisher

Leon Fleisher
Joanne Savio
Leon Fleisher

A pianist known for artistic integrity, limitless determination, and rigorous mentorship talked with me at Tanglewood when he played there with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the last time.

Leon Fleisher speaks with WCRB's Brian McCreath in 2013:

When Leon Fleisher came to Tanglewood in 2013, he played Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with the BSO, a work that he virtually owned. It was a privilege to speak with him about that piece and about his artistic life during an interview the day before the performance.

Fleisher passed away on Aug. 2, at the age of 92.

At Tanglewood, our conversation was only 14 minutes long. But Fleisher responded to my questions with unfailing graciousness and a wisdom rooted not only in a career forged among some of the last century's greatest musicians, but also in his own hard-earned artistic trajectory.

We spoke about the unexpected turns of that trajectory and how he dealt with them, as well as the central role of teaching in his life. Addressing the ever-increasing technical abilities of young musicians, he says that, "All the notes [on the page] are equally black; so it's really up to us to determine the meaningfulness of each  of these notes."

Fleisher also walked me (a non-pianist) through how and why, exactly, piano music for the left hand works, and why there is "literally nothing of value for right hand alone."

I found it fascinating, and I hope you will, too.

To hear our conversation, use the player above, and read the transcript below:


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath. I'm at Tanglewood with pianist and sometimes conductor Leon Fleisher. And Leon Fleisher, thank you for taking some time today. And congratulations and happy birthday.

Leon Fleisher Isn't that kind? You're a little bit in advance, but nonetheless. Thank you, thank you.

Brian McCreath I am very curious just because we have never talked before. Your trajectory, your life has been such an incredible journey. And when you think back to the '60s, how do you find yourself as a different person now from the person you thought you might be at this particular time?

Leon Fleisher Oh, golly. You're asking these existential questions. Uh, it's interesting because had I not had this 35-year bout with focal dystonia in my right hand, I probably just would have continued being, you know, a two-handed pianist, piano player and hopefully increasing my repertoire and growing more, more wise and concise and economical in a sense with time. But I did contract focal dystonia, which limited my playing and suddenly forced me to expand my activities and vision as a musician, both in my teaching aspects as well as repertoire aspects, learning as much of the left-hand repertoire as I found interesting and challenging, and conducting. And I must say, the... some of the experiences that I've had as a conductor have been sources of supreme joy and satisfaction and gratification. So, yeah, my life did take a detour, what seemed to be a detour, that turned into a kind of turnpike to happiness or something. [Fleisher laughs] I don't know what you'd call it.

Brian McCreath You do make it sound like an opportunity, almost. And I'm especially curious about the role that teaching played during the years when there was real struggle in finding the path and finding the right way forward. What was it that teaching would do for you?

Leon Fleisher Well, I come by my love, my passion for teaching quite legitimately. I worked for ten years with one of the great, great musicians of the 20th century, Artur Schnabel. And he relished teaching. He loved teaching. And I think I, you know, that's certainly rubbed off on me. I remember those periods in my life when I was filled with questions and doubts and frustrations about what I was doing, and now that I've been able to find some of the... some of the answers that I've been looking for, I find it invigorating and enlivening to share that with younger people who are still in their, very much in their questioning modes, as it were.

Brian McCreath Do those questioning modes seem common across decades, or do people ask different questions now when they're younger from the ones they asked maybe in earlier decades?

Leon Fleisher Oh it's pretty much the same. The physical, the technical prowess seems to improve, seems to increase. It's kind of like the, you know, the four-minute mile. When I was young, that was an unattainable goal. And then somewhere, I forget whether it was in the '50s, the '60s, this young Brit called Roger Bannister achieved a four-minute mile. And today you hear these kids that are that are supremely at ease on the instrument. There's virtually nothing that they cannot do. But the great questions as to the meaningfulness of what it is they're doing and their awareness of the various, how would you call it, levels or dimensions of meaningfulness... You know, we're all challenged no matter what the instrument is, by the fact that all the notes are equally black. So, it's really up to us to determine the meaningfulness of each of these notes and how they relate one to another and how they fit into some overall scheme of transcendence and sublimity.

Brian McCreath And I think that this is something not just with pianists, that many instrumentalists are so proficient on their instruments now in a technical sense. And is there perhaps more of a danger of missing that transcendence that you see?

Leon Fleisher Unfortunately, yes. No, I think you're absolutely right. That, that kind of insight, that kind of awareness, I think is still as rare as it ever was. But as I say, the general level—it's not too nice a way to put it, but it is rather true—the level of mediocrity is constantly rising. And as I say, the great insights are as rare as ever.

Brian McCreath That's practically a headline.

Leon Fleisher [Fleisher laughs]

Brian McCreath [McCreath laughs] "The level of mediocrity is constantly rising." But I understand what you're talking about. Speaking of insight (of a very different kind here), Ravel wrote his two piano concertos around roughly the same time. And what do you think accounted for the very, very different directions he took between the G major and the Left Hand Concerto?

Leon Fleisher I'm not quite sure. I can only surmise that being faced with the limitation of writing for five fingers as opposed to ten fingers inspired him to a level that is probably unequaled in that literature. [Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand] is an extraordinary masterpiece. His goal, his stated goal was to, I think – let me paraphrase his words – he wanted it to be that if the listener closed his eyes and listened to this work, he would remark nothing amiss, which is a very sweet way of saying he wanted it to sound like two hands. And he achieved this, I think, in the most remarkable way. With the exception of the slow movement of the two-hand concerto, the G major, it's a little bit pap, you know? I don't think it's his greatest work, the G major, except for the slow movement. The slow movement is an absolute inspiration. But the left-hand concerto is just amazing.

Brian McCreath I've read – and not being a pianist, I want to ask you about this – I've read that he was very crafty and clever in, even though it's virtuosic, it fits the left hand, it conforms to the shape even of the left hand. Am I right? And what does that mean?

Leon Fleisher Well, if you just look at your hand, you'll be able to see that the four digits that are, that extend the hand, they take care of the harmonies, right, and all that underneath filler that's needed as a background. And then the thumb that comes out the side of the hand can tap out the tunes. There are about 30, 40 concertos for left hand alone. There is nothing for right hand, nothing. I mean, there's some studies for right hand alone, but nothing, literally nothing that has any value for right hand alone because, biomechanically, if you will, the configuration of the left hand allows for there being meaningful music. But the right hand, no.

Brian McCreath That's so illuminating. It all makes sense.

Leon Fleisher It's amazing. And it's amazing how far back composers have been challenged by writing for left hand. The earliest example I know is Haydn. There's one of his piano trios that in the slow movement, the first eight, ten, twelve bars, I don't remember exactly, is for left hand alone, which is quite extraordinary. Then [Carl] Reinecke, who is a contemporary of Beethoven... It goes back very far, this intrigue with writing for left hand alone.

Brian McCreath And we tend to think that it started with Paul Wittgenstein, but not at all.

Leon Fleisher Thank the Lord that there was a Paul Wittgenstein because he was possessed of a certain wealth and he unfortunately lost his right arm in World War I. He commissioned so many of these works, most of which he was thoroughly unhappy with. He had big fights with Ravel, with Prokofiev, with Hindemith, most of the people. There was only one composer whose music he felt spoke to him and expressed... and was configured in terms of relationship between piano and orchestra that was to his liking and that was the Austrian composer Schmidt, Franz Schmidt, otherwise all these other great people, Strauss, as I said Prokofiev, Britten, Ravel, he was quite unhappy with.

Brian McCreath Did the Ravel have a particular meaning in a way other works didn't for you as you begin to reform your way forward?

Leon Fleisher Well, only in the sense that it represented an admission to myself that I couldn't function with my right hand and that I better start looking at this stuff and thank, as I say, thank the Lord the Ravel exists, although there are several other wonderful pieces: I say the Prokofiev 4th [Piano Concerto], the Benjamin Britten Diversions [for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra] is a great piece of music, yeah. And I've been blessed with having composers of our day write things for me also. So, I've been able to kind of continue that tradition. I feel very proud.

Brian McCreath And well you should. If I might ask, the status of the use of your right hand in performance—

Leon Fleisher Yes, after 35 years, they put a name to what I had and though they don't know its provenance and they don't have a cure for it, they found a rather unique way of dealing with some of the symptoms of focal dystonia. Focal dystonia is an involuntary and uncontrollable contraction of certain muscles. They don't know what causes it. But they've discovered that minute applications of, believe it or not, Botox, that cosmetic drug, do help a little bit with those symptoms and it has enabled me to use my right hand in a certain limited fashion. It allows me to play Brahms's quintet, it allows me to play certain concertos, but others I still can't play.

Brian McCreath Well, Leon Fleisher, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with me today.

Leon Fleisher My pleasure, Brian.

Brian McCreath is the Director of Production for CRB.