A Great Pianist and Teacher, Locating the Keys to Perseverance

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

There's a lot of bad news out there about classical music -- slumping ticket sales in many cities, shrinking output from the major record companies, the so-called "graying" of the audience. Every now and then we get a bit of luck, however, and one of the chief joys of the last dozen years has been the gradual return to public performance of one of the greatest and most searching of all pianists, Leon Fleisher.

For music lovers, this is news on the level with Muhammad Ali staging a sudden comeback with his punch still intact, or J.D. Salinger publishing a new novel, or Bobby Fischer slashing his way through a chessboard once again. Listeners who grew up on Fleisher's magnificent, long-ago recordings and never dreamed they would be able to hear the pianist play without impediment have been rewarded with a series of fresh albums and concert appearances. And tonight, Fleisher will cap his recent triumphs with the richly deserved Kennedy Center Honors.

"I was amazed, moved and utterly delighted when they told me," the 79-year-old Fleisher said recently in his Baltimore home. He had just presented a seminar in Beethoven sonatas at Carnegie Hall, played concerts in Europe and been honored by the World Piano Pedagogy Conference in Las Vegas. But he sounded happy to be back in the city where he has lived and taught since 1959. "Baltimore is on such an up these days," he said. "It's as full of vitality and energy as it has ever been in the nearly half-century I've been here."

Back when Fleisher started teaching at the Peabody Conservatory all those years ago, his future seemed assured. He had everything -- a technique that knew no difficulties, a bejeweled tone, meticulous musical taste and a sure intellectual and expressive grasp of whatever he played. Famous since his mid-teens -- Fleisher made his formal debut in 1944 at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic -- he had won the prestigious Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition of Belgium in 1952, after which he played in the leading concert halls throughout the world and was generally accepted as one of the world's best young pianists.

And then, in 1965, at the age of 37, damaged and miserable, he canceled all engagements and withdrew from performing.

"Basically, my right hand turned to stone," Fleisher recalled. "In the early 1960s I was practicing seven or eight hours a day, and when I noticed some weakness in my right arm, I only practiced harder. It was all wrong. I never allowed my muscles to decontract, and as a result I essentially ruined my arm."

Fleisher famously refers to those long-ago practice sessions as "pumping ivory" and notes that a lot of young pianists from his generation were similarly damaged. "We all wanted to be so strong, and it was all a terrible mistake. We all wanted to be like Vladimir Horowitz, to have that killer technique. And we harmed ourselves enormously in the process."

His condition would eventually be diagnosed as dystonia, a neurological movement disorder. But that explanation would come many years later; at the time, all that was clear to Fleisher was the fact that he could suddenly, mysteriously, no longer play. "We knew nothing about repetitive stress syndrome in those days. I saw doctors, I saw hypnotists, and nothing worked. There was no explanation, no answer at all. I was miserable."

After a long period of despondency, Fleisher realized that, as he put it, he loved music more than he loved the piano, and he found other ways to serve the art -- teaching, making occasional appearances as a guest conductor and playing works for the left hand alone (of which there are a surprising number, due to some distinguished commissions from a wealthy pianist who lost an arm in World War I). From 1986 to 1997, he served as the artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts.

Still, Fleisher never quite gave up hope that he might be able to play the piano again with both hands, and occasional attempts were made. In the mid-1990s, a technique called Rolfing -- a form of tissue manipulation discovered in 1940 by a biochemist named Ida Rolf -- helped him make a partial recovery. He compared it to a "massage in slow motion."

"The therapist searches out points of contraction in the muscle and then applies pressure in such a way as to stretch out the fibers," Fleisher said. "If the muscle is healthy, there should be no pain; if there is pain, something is wrong. When you resist, you tighten up, but once you give in, the pain will likely resolve itself and disappear."

Rolfing allowed Fleisher a way of working around his disability. He did not conquer so much as adapt, using his right shoulder more than is customary, leaning deeply into the keyboard and raising his wrist unusually high, but he made appearances at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere in some limited two-hand material.

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