It has been a little while since I last wrote because I have been trying to put together what I know of my grandmother’s story. Writing about her has proven to be a difficult task as she was very secretive. I have also been working on some music projects online: concerts, interviews, and presentations. We are still in Blue Hill, where we have been going to the wild beaches and doing a bit of hiking. I love this part of the country, the home of my teacher’s summer festival Kneisel Hall, but also the home of the Blue Hill Wine Shop. I will write about Max Treitler, its colorful owner, and one of my best friends in the world in another post.
Today I want to share my memories of Leon Fleisher, the Lion of the piano, who died at age 92 yesterday. I am heartbroken because I feel that with him, an entire world of music-making has vanished. A world of integrity, intellectual depth, emotional and metaphysical symbiosis, a never-ending journey of discovery and wisdom. A world that is less visual and more obsessive with the pure beauty of sound and the ability of sound to transform Space and transcend Time. A world of love for music and a total sacrifice and abandon, and yet, a very human and imperfect world. Leon Fleisher was our Socrates, our Messiah, and our Wounded Orpheus.
I first heard about him from my friend Steven Mayer, who studied with Fleisher and described him as one of the most inspiring and powerful influences in the music scene in the United States since the 1950s. I spent the summer of 1993 listening to Fleisher’s Brahms First Concerto recording from the 1950s, with George Szell conducting. This recording became, to me, the ultimate interpretation of the work. A few years later, when I finally met him, I told him this and was startled at how dismissive he was of that recording. “Oh, it is only average,” he said, “I wish I could play it now!”
The story of Leon Fleisher is the story of the greatest tragedy in the piano world. After a brilliant start of his career, he suddenly lost the use of his right hand, particularly the fourth and fifth finger, which forced him into retirement, depression, and even brought thoughts of suicide. The first American pianist to win the Queen Elizabeth Competition, Leon was playing all over the world and practicing 8–10 hours daily. Ultimately he overdid it, or perhaps the Universe had other plans for him. He started conducting and teaching and became THE Chamber music guru at Tanglewood.
When I arrived in the US in the early ’90s, Tanglewood was the place to be. For pianists. For chamber musicians. For anybody who wanted to meet Fleisher. Only very few, very select students were accepted. I wanted to go so badly and applied in 1992 at age 18, playing the Brahms Second Piano Sonata, the Beethoven Waldstein, and who knows what else. My playing was raw, loud, and not so great. I hardly had any experience playing chamber music at all. Looking back, I know why I wasn’t accepted, but back then, I felt as if my entire world was crushed forever. This failure made me even more determined. I spent the summer of ’93 listening to the Fleisher recordings, but it took another year before I got to work with him in person.
In 1994 he was invited to give a series of masterclasses at Juilliard. I was one of the lucky students who got selected to play for him. This time, I played the Brahms Third Sonata (I was obsessed with Brahms for about four years. I think that I played most of Brahms’ works for piano as well as chamber music. I still adore Brahms, but to me, Fleisher was the ultimate Brahms interpreter. I had to get his input.)
After I played through the first movement, Fleisher sat next to me and began musing about Space, Time, and the Universe. After a while, I figured out that I had played the opening too fast. I hadn’t allowed enough time for the sound and the experience of the opening bars to transport the listener to Space. The opening bars were a journey from Earth to the Moon, to Mars. From Earth to the Moon, to Jupiter … and so on. He sat next to me and conducted with his left hand, sometimes touching my hands and slowing down the flow of my movements. He also counted the beats in the most musical, mystical, profound way. He spoke about finding the movement of the heartbeat and listening to that movement. He spoke of Brahms as the inspiration for Mahler, and of finding the sounds of Mahler’s symphonies, in the works for piano of early Brahms. He spoke of time and of how we can stop time or make time move at our whim, of controlling the moment and of listening, without moving. Listening was as crucial as making the sound. Finding Space within our music…
I stayed at every master class, even though I had to skip my regular Juilliard classes to attend the Fleisher masterclasses. It was worth it. More than worth it. If I have to pick a single critical moment in my entire music education, it would have to be my meeting with Leon.
A few years later, Fleisher was either replaced or resigned as Artistic Director of Tanglewood. I am not sure what the “behind the scenes” story was, but I no longer wanted to go to that festival and opted to spend my summers in Europe instead.
I later came across a mind-blowing speech by Leon about funding for the arts. He compared the funding in Germany vs. the system in the USA. I am paraphrasing here because I can’t find the speech online at this moment, but I clearly remember it because it made a great impression on me. Fleisher said that in Germany, the Government gives 3 billion per year for classical music. That’s because the Germans value their three B’s: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms and therefore provide a billion for each. And what do we, here in the United States, give our billions for? Do we have B’s like the Germans? Of course, we do! Beavis and Butt-head!
I remember reading this speech with my mouth open, laughing, and crying all at once. If I am not mistaken, this was a speech he gave at Tanglewood.
Yes, he was a sarcastic guy. Funny as hell. Once at a masterclass, a friend of mine played Kreisleriana for him. The friend had decided to play the movements in a different order than the way Schumann wrote them. Leon seemed amused and puzzled and asked why the order was changed. My friend said that he simply was tired of hearing the same old order and wanted to do something different. Fleisher scratched his beard for a while and then said. “Why stop at changing the order of the movements? Maybe, you can think of something much, much more original than what Schumann wrote. If you’re going to do something different, why don’t you try to have a stripper come out of the piano? Or a big red balloon? “
Another time, when a student played a particularly fast Ondine, Fleisher exclaimed: “Amazing! I never heard this piece played so fast. Why don’t you try it next door: in the Big Apple Circus?”
I loved him.
He had an imposing persona and a colossal charisma. Yes, he was a Leon. A Lion. He looked like one. He carried the music in his mind and on his shoulders. He simply was music. But he also brought incredible sadness with him. Darkness. He was only human. He was trying to find a way out of the misery of not being able to play.
He didn’t stop playing altogether.
He performed the works for the left hand, and his interpretation of the Ravel concerto was as close to perfection as anything on this Earth. I had the honor of hearing him perform it live with my friends from the New World Symphony. This was in 1999. During that visit, I also got to (finally) play chamber music for him. A friend and I played the second Beethoven sonata for him. The tempo indication was marked Presto, and I wanted to play fast. My friend felt that the tempo was too fast, so we made a compromise and did “not all that fast tempo.” Fleisher wasn’t convinced. When we talked about it, he said. “Chamber music is not the place to make compromises.”
Late in life, he was able to recover movement in his right hand and began performing with two hands again. If you have a chance, find some of his interviews, masterclasses, and writings online. But most importantly, listen to him play the piano. There is nothing like it in the world.
Music, he once said, is the greatest manifestation of humanity.