If he wanted to get extra attention for his program tonight in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, Leon Fleisher could steal a title from a recent movie and call it "My Left Hand."
Widely acclaimed as one of the great pianists of the 20th century, Fleisher has not given a solo recital in Washington for more than 25 years -- not since his right hand began to give him trouble and finally became useless for music, disabled with a problem that the doctors would eventually identify as carpal tunnel syndrome.
There is not much work around for a one-handed pianist, but Fleisher found plenty of other things to do, teaching at the Peabody Conservatory, conducting, serving as co-director of the Theater Chamber Players (which he founded with Dina Koston in 1968) and, in recent years, as the artistic director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood.
He has also played a lot with orchestras in concertos for the left hand, notably those by Ravel and Prokofiev. And for one evening in 1982, when the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was dedicated in Baltimore, he brought his right hand out of retirement for a brilliant performance of Franck's Symphonic Variations with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. But though the audience went wild, the right hand evidently did not meet Fleisher's exacting standards on that evening; he abandoned plans for a revival of his concert career and put his right hand back into retirement.
Now he has returned with a solo program calculated to demonstrate that, come to think of it, there is plenty of work around for a one-handed pianist. "It's tougher than two-hand music," Fleisher said in an interview this week. "It's a lot of work to play for a whole evening with only five fingers. When you use two hands, you can relax sometimes -- let one hand do the work for a moment while the other one rests; a lot of music is written to allow that. But when you have only five fingers, every one becomes vital."
Left-hand music is not the hottest or most abundant part of the piano repertoire, but Fleisher finds a lot of it worth playing. "The left-hand repertoire is not by any means all salon music; besides what I will be playing in this program, there is enough very good music for at least another full recital," he says with the air of someone who plans to play it frequently and probably record it in the near future.
Tonight's program is a benefit for the Theater Chamber Players, three of whom will join him in a suite for piano and strings, but it also looks like the beginning of a comeback. That may be true, he says: "I did a full solo recital in Charleston a few days ago, I've already done this program at Ravinia and Tanglewood, and I'm planning to do it in Toronto and a few other places. It's beginning to look like a normal tour."
The chamber music suite on the program is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who was a child-prodigy classical composer and an Oscar-winning writer of Hollywood soundtracks. Fleisher finds both sides of Korngold's personality in his Suite for Piano Left Hand and Strings: "It's in five movements; the second may remind you of 'Der Rosenkavalier'; the fourth is like Mahler; and the first, third and fifth are right out of Errol Flynn movies."
Part of his program will be a sort of memorial to other pianists who have had problems with their right hands. A transcription of Bach's famous Chaconne for unaccompanied violin was written by Brahms for his friend Clara Schumann when her right hand was temporarily disabled; two pieces by Alexander Scriabin, a prelude and nocturne, as well as a left-hand etude composed for Scriabin by his friend Felix Blumenfeld, commemorate that Scriabin apparently also suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome.
No disability is associated with the "Metamorphoses of J. Strauss Themes" by Leopold Godowsky, a virtuoso pianist and composer who displayed his amazing technique by making his compositions fiendishly subtle and complex, rather than in the loud-and-fast style usually given the virtuoso label. Why did Godowsky, who had two perfectly usable hands, write this music for the left hand? First Fleisher responds with a joke: "He must have been a sadist." Then he gets serious: "Godowsky was profoundly interested in the challenge of the left hand; he also wrote some extraordinary transcriptions of Chopin for the left hand."
One work, the Chacony by Robert Saxon, was written for Fleisher, who has been inspiring composers to add to the growing left-hand repertoire. A number of other musicians, particularly pianists, violinists and guitarists, have been having carpal tunnel problems in recent years -- partly, medical specialists suspect, because of the tensions of a concert career in our time and the physical strain of constant practice.
"If you look at all the pianists who have problems with their hands," Fleisher says, "they all have right-hand problems. That's because the right hand has to work harder than the left; the tune is usually in the right hand and you also have to use more power to produce the kind of sound you want from the short, tightly tuned treble strings that are the right hand's territory."
After audiences get used to the program he is playing tonight, Fleisher is considering some prime candidates for another left-hand program: "Six delightful etudes by Saint-Saens, something like a baroque suite; a four-movement sonata by Carl Reinecke; a sonatine by Dinu Lipatti that is a little bit like Stravinsky; and a suite by Max Reger that ends with a fugue."
It sounds like a busy life and an interesting new twist in a professional career that he began as a 14-year-old piano soloist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1942 and has continued as the teacher of such keyboard giants as Andre Watts, Lorin Hollander, Yefim Bronfman and Louis Lortie, as well as such promising young musicians as Kevin Kenner, who has just won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, and Brian Ganz, who recently won the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in Paris.
This conductor, teacher and chamber musician still finds the piano the greatest challenge in music. When he studied with Artur Schnabel, he recalls, he was told to study the work of great singers as well as the technique of the piano and to try to echo, through the keyboard, the impact of the human singing voice. "This is one of the great challenges of the piano," he muses. "How can you approximate the intensity of words and music delivered from the human gut when you are using 88 levers that move six-sixteenths of an inch? It is much harder than with instruments that you play with a bow or with your breath. You know, the piano is the only instrument that one does not embrace while playing it. The flute, oboe, bassoon, violin or cello is embraced and caressed; a tuba player not only embraces his instrument, he is encircled by it like Laocoon."
It is even harder when you can only use one hand to tame the beast with 88 teeth. But Leon Fleisher intends to show how it can be done.