The Washington Post

In a top-floor studio, conductor and teacher Leon Fleisher aims for the musical heights

Conductor and teacher Leon Fleisher in his studio at the Peabody Conservatory, on June, 24, 2014 in Baltimore, MD. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

You get to Leon Fleisher’s studio on the top floor of the Peabody Institute in an elevator big enough to transport bulky musical instruments, and the doors open onto a south-facing window overlooking a skyscape of copper roofs toward Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

That view isn’t visible from the legendary pianist and conductor’s rectangular studio, with its three small windows (“You can’t have everything,” he jokes), but the elevation is symbolically important. Fleisher, who’s been here so long that he considers himself one of the institute’s “concrete pillars,” says he has been “aspiring to the rooftop” ever since he joined the Peabody in 1959 and was assigned space on the second floor.

The man, his music and his approach to teaching, it turns out, are at once solidly grounded while apparently defying some of the basic laws of nature.

Many people talk about a connection between music and math, Fleisher explains, but music is about movement. To play an instrument is to toy with the forces of physics, which govern movement: momentum, centrifugal forces and, of course, gravity.

Most striking among the artwork on the walls (an ornate mirror picked out by his wife, a few posters commemorating concerts, two masks decorated by fellow musicians and sold at a fundraiser) are images of a soaring bird and several multicolored shots of distant nebulae taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. A collection of these is placed strategically opposite the two grand pianos.

Items on and above the desk of conductor Leon Fleisher in his studio at the Peabody Conservatory, on June, 24, 2014 in Baltimore, MD. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“They represent a sense of what we aspire to,” says Fleisher. “A sense of space, the sublime, the transcendent.”

The room is designed to inspire, then, as well as to accommodate the “specific way” Fleisher teaches.

Rather than meeting one-on-one with students, he explains, “I have a comparatively small class of seven or eight,” and he asks all the students to be present for each one’s lessons. That way, they hear seven to eight times the amount of repertoire, and they see how similar their challenges are, and how solutions in one piece of music might suggest a path to a solution in another.

It is a grounded, pragmatic approach that the 85-year-old maes­tro has proved can have otherworldly results.

Frances Stead Sellers is a senior writer at The Washington Post, currently covering the 2016 campaign. She was editor of the Style section from 2011-2014 and prior to that ran the newsroom’s health, science and environmental coverage.
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