Anne Midgette
Leon Fleisher was 36 years old and an accomplished classical pianist when he lost the use of two fingers on his right hand. For 30 years he worked to regain mobility, practicing every day in hopes that his fingers would heal. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that doctors diagnosed the problem as focal dystonia and began a successful treatment of Botox injections.

But those 30 years weren’t a waste, as Fleisher’s new memoir attests. “My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music,” co-written with Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette, recounts not only his tragedy and triumph, but everything in between: Fleisher became a renowned teacher and conductor, and he mastered a wide — albeit fairly obscure — repertory of left-handed compositions.

Express spoke to Midgette about her literary duet with the renowned pianist.

Were you aware of his story when you first heard his music?
I knew his story, but I can’t remember how. I think it was by osmosis, just being in the classical music world. I wasn’t aware of his conducting until I was working the book actually, but I knew him as one of the great teachers — the Obi-Wan Kenobi of piano, as he’s often called.

My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in MusicWhat makes Fleisher’s style different?
As a musician, there’s a tremendous … purity is one of the words that comes to me. He has a keen understanding of how to delve into the music and get right to the heart of the matter. If you listen to his Bach “Sheep May Safely Graze,” which is on his CD “Two Hands” — the first two-handed CD he made in 30 years — you can hear that wonderful simplicity, like cool water flowing.

How did teaching and conducting change his approach?
As a solo pianist, you’re supposed to sit in a room with your instrument for hours every day and try to make yourself the best you can be. He says not being able to play with two hands forced him to find new words to express himself and made him a better teacher and conductor.

How did it change his repertory, aside from the many left-handed compositions he performed?
Certainly the repertory he dealt with as a conductor took him way outside what he did as a pianist. He gave a concert at the 92nd Y in New York City a couple of weeks ago. He finished with two pieces by Gyorgy Ligeti, which is very avant garde from the 1950s and 1960s, with three singers who are making burbling sounds and a percussionist who has to break a tray of kitchenware at one point. It was for me a very heartening concert to see the depth and dimensionality in his musicmaking that I think came directly as a result of not being able to play the standard repertory for so many years.

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Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner