The legend of Leon Fleisher only grows with time. A once-in-a-generation musical talent who burst onto the scene in the 1950s, Fleisher had a brilliant career as a pianist, which was cut short in 1965 at the age of 37, when a mysterious ailment robbed him of the use of his right hand.
He turned to teaching, conducting and a career as a left-handed soloist, all the while desperately seeking answers for his undiagnosed condition. After decades of unsuccessful treatment, a proper diagnosis (a neurological disorder called focal dystonia) and experimental Botox injections finally enabled a triumphant return to two-handed playing in the 1990s. Now, at the age of 90, Fleisher continues to enjoy this miraculous rebirth of his concert career.
To celebrate his milestone birthday, Fleisher appeared with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at a near-sold-out concert at Strathmore on Saturday night. Fleisher graced the audience with a delightfully limpid account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12, K. 414, a genial work that has become one of his late-career calling cards.
Inevitably, some allowances needed to be made — for Fleisher’s use of the score, some stiff passagework in the right hand and an occasional tendency to drag. Yet it was a performance that was suffused with a remarkable buoyancy of spirit and bore many of the hallmarks of Fleisher’s iconic recordings: clarity of line, a lean but gleaming tone and musical sensitivity in spades.
Fleisher was nimbly supported by guest conductor Peter Oundjian. After the concerto, the orchestra feted Fleisher with a charming mash-up of “Happy Birthday” and Mozart, arranged by bassist Jonathan Jensen, a sign of genuine affection from his adopted hometown orchestra.
Oundjian was a fitting conductor for the occasion as, like Fleisher, the Canadian musician had a successful instrumental career (as a violinist) curtailed by injury and discovered a fruitful second life as a conductor.
In Brahms’s Second Symphony, Oundjian led an unusually driven and turbulent performance that accentuated the shadows that darken this sunniest of symphonies. It wasn’t the most elegant reading, but it pulsed with a rough-hewed intensity that was often gripping, particularly in its autumnal shadings. After all, as Oundjian and Fleisher know, the darkness makes the light all the more beautiful.