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Leon Fleisher talks about his many musical careers. The promising pianist made his Carnegie Hall debut at 16, but was struck down in his prime. He describes how his love of music rescued him after he lost the use of his right hand.
- Leon Fleisher Pianist, conductor, composer, and teacher
- Anne Midgette Chief classical music critic of the Washington Post.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. The piece you're about to hear defined renowned pianist Leon Fleisher's first carrier in music.
MS. DIANE REHMHe began playing that piece at age 12. At the height of his career, he was considered one of the greatest classical pianists of the 20th century. But after a mysterious ailment forced him to give up playing with both hands, Leon Fleisher discovered there was more than one way to sustain a life in music. He's written a memoir of his ongoing career as pianist, teacher and conductor with music critic Anne Midgette. It's titled "My Nine Lives." And Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette join me in the studio. It's so wonderful to see you both. Good morning to you, Leon.
MR. LEON FLEISHERGood morning to you, Diane, it's so wonderful to be with you again.
REHMAnd good morning to you, Anne.
MS. ANNE MIDGETTEGood morning.
REHMI'm so glad you both are here and as I look into our engineer studio, I see your beautiful daughter, Leah, who is my marvelous Pilates instructor. And of course, throughout the hour, we will take your calls. Join us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, you can join us on Facebook or send us a tweet.
REHMThat "Brahms D Minor Concerto" just seems so extraordinarily difficult to me for a 12-year-old to have been playing.
FLEISHERWell, difficult maybe in the meditative, contemplative what -- that business of -- eventually what you come to with music is not so much the notes or even, as many people say, the space between the notes, but eventually, you start listening for the implications of the notes. And I'm not so sure a young kid -- no matter how gifted physically for the instrument, I'm not sure those implications are immediately accessible. However, I just remember that that piece, when I first heard it, made my hair stand on end and it hasn't changed since (laugh).
REHMDoes it still make your hair stand on end?
FLEISHEROh, yeah, but this -- the bittersweet quality of this is just I find irresistible.
REHMIt's gorgeous. It's gorgeous. Anne Midgette, how did you and Leon Fleisher come together on this book?
MIDGETTEWe were kind of an arranged marriage (laugh). The publisher had met Leon and thought it would be a great idea for a book and thought that we should work together on it and so we had, in effect, the blind date in Baltimore one night (laugh).
MIDGETTEIt was right at the time I was beginning at the Washington Post, it was the same week I began at the Washington Post and I came up to Baltimore to hear the symphony for my first ever Post review and to have dinner with Leon beforehand.
MIDGETTEAnd I remember him telling me about George Szell at that dinner and thinking, oh, we really would have a book here (laugh).
REHMFirst dates aren't always that successful.
FLEISHERNo. This -- we hit it off. I was most impressed by Anne's awareness and sensitivity and it seemed just made to order. I was able to speak of memories and feelings, thoughts and I felt totally comfortable, so thank you again.
MIDGETTEWell, for me, the pleasure was all mine. It was such an opportunity for me to be able to work with somebody like Leon and as people asked me yesterday at an event that I was at, did I really get to sit in a room and ask him anything I wanted (laugh) ?
REHMAnd I'm sure you did.
REHMI'm sure you did. Leon, you talk in this book a great deal about not only your early years, your love for music, your father, your mother, the fact that your father, I gather, was not terribly interested in music, but your mother was.
FLEISHERThis -- yes. I don't really understand where it all comes from. My mother, towards the end, she died of breast cancer at the age of 53, a young woman. And her education was incomplete, I think, to a large degree, but she found an enormous solace and comfort in the writings of Emerson. And she would sit, when she had nothing else -- or when she had a few moments free, I should say, and just read Ralph Waldo Emerson. I don't know where this need or this connection with music came from. She was not musical herself --or I mean, she didn't play an instrument, as you say, nor did my father. It's a...
REHMBut she wanted you to.
FLEISHERYes. She actually -- I think she might've wanted for my brother, he was five and a half years older and he was the one that got the piano lessons.
REHMHe played first?
FLEISHERYes. He played first and was not particularly interested and I (laugh) remember in those days, not only did your piano teacher, but your doctor came to the house.
FLEISHERYes. I don't think you remember those days, but I do. And the teacher, Ray's teacher, came to the house and I would kind of hide in the corner. I would curl up and listen to his lessons. And when his lessons were over, he'd go out and play ball in the schoolyard and I went to the piano and reproduced the lessons.
REHMYou were able to do that?
FLEISHERWell, yeah, it didn't seem like much of a problem then and I enjoyed it and it was soon noticed that I had this strange little habit of being able to do this and so they gave the lessons to me and my brother very happily spent the rest of that free time playing ball, right.
REHMPlaying ball. And that would have been the first of what you call your nine lives in music.
FLEISHERYes, yes, that's my introduction to music and my first lessons and learning about all the cookies that were available (laugh) to a little kid, you know.
REHMAnd yet that must have been an interesting beginning for you to delve into as you worked with Leon.
FLEISHERWell, absolutely. You know, when you're working on the book together, the stories don't come out chronologically, so you find bits and pieces as you go. And I remember sitting at my desk and putting together those first stories and discovering, or really delving, into the history of San Francisco, musically, which is fascinating and Leon was an eyewitness to a lot of the great conductors who shaped San Francisco's musical life before he met Arthur Schnabel. Theodore Harris was a big influence and then playing with the WPA orchestras and it was a wonderful chapter in history that I hadn't known about and then could -- we could go back and elaborate on it together.
REHMCourse the first concert, the first public concert, you gave, you were, what, eight years old?
FLEISHERYes. I think my mother strategically said I was seven (laugh). But that was a...
MIDGETTENo, I didn't know that.
FLEISHERWell, I can't tell you everything all the time (laugh). And what I do remember about that is that I had to be quite the – quite perfect in a way. I was already wearing glasses and I remember walking from backstage, through the curtain, onto the brightly lit stage and as I approached that point where I left backstage and became visible to the public, walking towards the piano, my mother, who was standing there, snaked out her arm and snatched my glasses off my face because, of course, you know, the glasses were a sign of imperfection and I had to be perfect. So I -- you know, the piano's a pretty big instrument, I could see and generally speaking, where it was and the keyboard.
REHMBecause you were playing from memory, you did not have to read music and therefore, did not need your glasses, thank heavens.
FLEISHEROh, yeah. Gee, you really know about that (laugh).
REHMWith a son and daughter, both of whom play the piano, I do know about that. We are going to take a short break, here. Leon Fleisher is here along with Anne Midgette. Together they've written "My Nine Lives." We'll take a short break. Right back.
REHMAnd we're back with Leon Fleisher, the absolutely outstanding and glorious musician who's got a new book. It's a look back at what he calls "My Nine Lives." The book was written with Washington Post Music critic Anne Midgette. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Leon Fleisher, one of our early callers wants you to talk about Arthur Schnabel.
FLEISHERThat's -- it's both one in the same time an extraordinary joy and yet not too easy. He was -- the thing that I remember most about Schnabel and his teaching, his music making was the level -- the consistent level -- high level of inspiration. Everything that he did, when he put his hands on the keyboard and depressed those keys, had nothing to do -- or very little to do with actual piano playing, but it was music making at its highest level. It really took one out of one's body. It was an out of body kind of experience.
REHMHow old were you when you first met him?
FLEISHERWell, he had been contacted by the two conductors in San Francisco when I was nine, both conductors being Harris and Pierre Monteux, who was then the current conductor of the San Francisco Orchestra. And he was contacted because they both thought that he should become my teacher. And he wrote a very nice letter back saying he didn't accept students under the age of 16 because of -- I think the phrase he used was language problems. Not so much that I couldn't speak German or he couldn't speak English. His English was extraordinary, but that conceptually, I wouldn't understand the abstractions in which he dealt. Oh, that's the other thing. His voice was -- he sounded like Richard Burton with a German accent.
FLEISHERAnd he just relished each syllable. It rolled over in his mouth. It was a joy to listen to him, really.
REHMSo after he initially said, I do not take students under the age of 16, then what happened?
FLEISHEROh, he -- well, he came to San Francisco. Every time he came, he had dinner with the Harris' and played Bridge after dinner. And I always snuck into the house through the garage basement so that when they threw open the doors from the dining room to the living room where the piano stood, I was sitting at the piano.
REHMAnd how old were you?
FLEISHERI was nine.
FLEISHERAnd he being a gentleman he -- I imagine -- I don't remember, but I imagine he sighed a sigh and agreed to listen to me. And after I played for him, he asked if I would be willing or able -- and or able -- and/or able to come to Lake Como in Italy that very summer and this was, you know, long before George Clooney discovered Lake Como (laugh).
REHM(laugh) Wow, what a story, what a story.
FLEISHERYeah, it was quite something. And then all the clouds gathering in Europe -- 1938 this was and that turned out to be Schnabel's last summer in Italy.
FLEISHERYeah, he came to New York, made his home in the Peter Stivisend Hotel, 86th Street in Central Park West, Apartment 9C (laugh). I remember it very clearly.
REHM(laugh) Because you went there...
REHM...for your lessons.
FLEISHER..right. And also rather than returning to San Francisco, my mother and I made home in New York. And eventually, I think the following year, my brother and father joined us in New York, so...
REHMNow, the story of your hand beginning to cramp begins in what year?
FLEISHERThat I became really aware was '64 -- 1964. It took almost 10 months for it to completely resist me to curl -- the fourth and fifth fingers curl under into my palm and being able to straighten out the hand only with the most enormous of efforts.
REHMAnd you were, at the time, playing concert after concert?
FLEISHEROh, yeah, I was sailing high. I was playing with the world's great orchestras, with the world's great conductors. I had made a whole series of recordings with George Szell. The Beethoven Concerti, the two Brahms, Mozart, Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody, all that good stuff.
REHMAnd you watched as your hand curled and would not -- no matter what you tried, you could not get that hand to respond?
FLEISHERThere was that, but even more frustrating was that the medical profession didn't know what to make of this and that's really despair provoking.
REHMThey kept telling you, as they told me, it's all in your head.
FLEISHERWell, there was that question. And I tried everything, as I say, from aroma therapy to Zen Buddhism and went and had any number of sessions with psychologists and analysts and they assured me they couldn't find any discernable reason. They thought it was physical.
REHMAnne Midgette, I was surprised and interested to read in the book about this period because in it, Leon acknowledged to you and to the world that he became so despairing that he'd contemplated suicide.
MIDGETTEIt was a black period and I think it must've been an incredibly difficult period for Leon to talk about and certainly to write about because describing in words how horrible it feels to go through something like that is a hard thing to do. But yes. And on the surface, it appears that life did continue, that he continued teaching and that he was still active at the same time as trying to deal with the unimaginable. I think when it first happened, you don't realize it's gonna last for as long as it ends up lasting and you just think it's going to end each and every day.
REHMAnd for the next three decades, it did in fact last. And you, Leon, began to not only teach and conduct, but to play with the left hand. And certainly one of the pieces you chose to play was the Ravel Piano Concerto.
REHMIt must have given you great satisfaction to be able to play again, but great frustration to play with one hand.
FLEISHERWell, once I decided -- it took about two years from the onset of this focal dystonia until I decided, enough of this self-pity, that there were other ways that I could satisfy that need of continuing a productive life in music, which as you've said, I did through expanded teaching. Although I've been teaching since 1959 at the Peabody in Baltimore, conducting and finally admitting that if I wanted to play, there was a literature for left hand.
FLEISHERA rather extensive literature in terms of concerto pieces for left hand in orchestra, thanks to one Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his arm in World War I. And being a very wealthy man, decided to commission work for left hand. And, yeah, that was very satisfying. This work that you just played, the Ravel, is one of the great, great masterpieces of music, be it for one hand or 17 hands. It's just one of the -- it's not long, it's 18 minutes, but it traverses human experience.
REHMLeon Fleisher playing "Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to ask now about what it was that finally led you to be bold enough to experiment with the injection of the deadliest poison known to man and woman...
REHM...into your right arm.
FLEISHERWell, I had tried everything else -- just about everything else, so these wonderful people down at NIH and Dan Trackman in Baltimore, neurologist at Hopkins. When they said it's a new program, would I be interested in becoming a part of it? Yeah, I was -- I somehow thought and felt that the same way the problem appeared, like out of the blue and unannounced as it were, should or could possibly disappear in the same way. I'm a great one, I guess, for denial (laugh).
REHMDo you remember that first injection?
FLEISHERWell, I have had -- at the very beginning, they -- one of the great hand doctors in the world, Ray Curtis, after whom the Curtis Clinic is founded in Baltimore Union Memorial Hospital, he gave me an injection into the wrist of some kind of anesthetic and it worked. I was able to play again. It was like magic. That was at the very beginning in '64 when this happened. He was never again able to duplicate that. When the effects of that injection wore off, the focal dystonia had returned, so I had this as a kind of example teasing, tantalizing, it happened once, buster, why couldn't it happen again, you know.
REHMBut rather than anesthetic, now what was proposed was poison.
FLEISHERYeah, well, you know, if you stop to look at what our modern medicine is based on...
REHMLots of poisons.
FLEISHER...that's not so unusual.
REHMLots of poisons.
FLEISHERLots of poisons.
REHMSo botulinum toxin...
REHM...went into your forearm and affected those two last fingers.
FLEISHERYeah, well, actually, as I understand it, it's a minute amount that they inject.
FLEISHERAnd it -- the effect of it is to somewhat paralyze those flexing muscles, those curling under muscles. And if they are paralyzed a little bit, they don't clinch as strongly and they allow the opposing muscles to do their work, the extensors. And that's the way I can keep my fingers extended a little bit. They do move up and down, so everything I do is a question of adjustment. It's quite a tightrope to walk. It's quite a balancing act.
REHMIt's quite a balancing act for a man who is now, forgive me, 82...
REHM...conducting a full schedule of performances, not only here in the United States, but around the world.
FLEISHERIt's what I do I guess (laugh).
REHMIt's what you do.
REHMI understand that very well.
FLEISHERThank you, dear.
REHMAnd I'm so glad you continue to do it, as is the world, and I'm sure, Anne Midgette. We're going to take a short break here. When we come back, we'll open the phones for your questions, your comments for Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette. The new book a memoir is titled "My Nine Lives." Stay with us.
REHMAnd if you will go to the drshow website, you will link to clips of Leon Fleisher's music which are spoken of in the book "My Nine Lives," which Leon Fleisher, together with Anne Midgette, the Washington Post music critic, have written together. It's time to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Durham, N.C. Good morning, George, you're on the air.
GEORGEThank you very much, Diane. I do enjoy your show so much.
GEORGEAnd it's a special pleasure today to have Leon Fleisher there. And I have a few comments and a question for him. I had the extreme pleasure of sitting a few meters away in a Armandy concert hall when he was a stand-in for another pianist and he played us a Mozart piano concerto. I don't remember the exact number, but I do remember it's the most beautiful rendering of Mozart I've heard in a live performance. I rushed out to get his disk of "Two Hands." In the Schubert B-Flat Major rendition, there is such a knockout. It's something I give to my friends and they're equally amazed.
GEORGEI was curious, what was it like working with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra? When did this relationship of Leon Fleisher with Szell begin? And can he tell us something about anecdotes and what he experienced and the musicianship behind that?
FLEISHERWhat a wonderful question, George. Thank you. George adored Schnabel, my teacher. They were close friends. They actually had recorded this "D Minor Brahms Concerto" together. In fact, that was the present that my parents -- my folks got for me when I was about 12. And when I first heard it, that was the occasion of my first hearing of the piece. So George, I think, found out about me from Schnabel and my -- you know, my greatest fantasies after hearing this recording when I was 12 was my -- you know, maybe someday I'd be able to play this with the great Szell. And that actually came to pass in summertime of 1946 with Chicago Orchestra at Ravinia.
FLEISHERAnd my next fantasy was, well, gee, maybe wouldn't that be unbelievable if I could record this with George Szell? And that came true in the late '50s. What was it like to work with him? It was a combination of intimidation, fear. He had these pale blue eyes that would pierce you. They were not hidden. They were magnified by the coke bottle glasses that he wore. He had the most extraordinary and demanding standards as a musician. He felt very strongly that it was not important to be loved, a condition that was espoused by, let's say, somebody like Lenny Bernstein, but it was important to be respected.
FLEISHERAnd he built out of the Cleveland Orchestra a group that was among the best -- four or five best orchestras in the world. So anybody that agreed to work with him, in effect, subscribed to similar, if not the same standards. So it was really tough in a way, but his music making was extraordinary and he was supportive and he was like an uncle in a way.
REHMYou had so many of your fantasies fulfilled. (laugh) It's almost as though you have to be careful what you wish for.
FLEISHEROh, yes, yes, yes, on all levels, musical, personal, whatever (laugh) you decide.
REHMExactly. Thank you for your call, George. That was lovely. Let's go to Salt Lake City, Utah. Good morning, Patrick.
PATRICKGood morning, Diane. I called this morning. I'm the retired -- a retired bass player and librarian at the Utah Symphony. And I had the thrill of playing with Leon in Stuttgart, Germany in 2005. He did the "Prokofiev Fourth," the concerto for the left hand. And my memory was that as an encore, he played "Sheep May Safely Graze," which is on the "Two Hands" recording that he did and it was so thrilling to hear him play a concerto from the left hand than him to play the Bach with both hands.
PATRICKAnd I remember the people in Stuttgart coming up as I was picking up the music and they wanted to know what he had played. And I told him it was just one of these -- it was just transfiguring. He played it with such artistry, such beauty and he was one of the most wonderful human beings -- is one of the most wonderful human beings I ever had the pleasure to meet in my career.
FLEISHERPatrick, my goodness, thank you, thank you. Yes, "Sheep May Safely Graze" is what I now call the environmentalist's anthem. I'm happy (laugh) to play that most anywhere.
REHMYou know, there is another favorite of yours, but first, I want to ask whether you remembered that performance that Patrick talked about.
FLEISHERYes, I've actually done several tours with different orchestras of Germany. Curiously enough, playing that "Prokovfiev Fourth," it's...
FLEISHER...it's not a well known piece. It's a piece of extraordinary imagination and class as it were amongst the whole output of Prokovfiev.
REHMI want to ask you about a piece that is quite well known and one which you tend to regard as one of your favorites.
REHMTell me why that is such a favorite.
FLEISHERWell, it's self-evident in a way, but what it somehow for me represents is, without sounding like a cliche, it's kind of the way existence is. It's kind of the way life is. It flows, it flows inevitably, inexorably, peacefully at times. Not this piece, violently, but other music. Music does that. Music takes us out of ourselves and makes us somehow better.
REHMI think I could listen to that forever. Now we'll go back to the phones. To Jonathan in Chester, Vt. Good morning, you're on the air.
JONATHANGood morning. It's an honor to speak to you and an honor to speak to Mr. Fleisher as well.
JONATHANI am a grand student of Mr. Fleisher. I studied with a student of his. And when I was young and ignorant and thought I knew everything, I was studying the "Beethoven C Major Concerto." And my teacher was trying to get me to do it a certain way and I didn't like that. And he said, you know, when I studied this with Leon Fleisher. And up until that point, I hadn't known that he'd studied with Leon and when he said that, I thought, oh, I guess I'd better listen to him.
JONATHANAnd I did.
REHMWell, Jonathan, it makes sense that you did, considering that your teacher had had that experience. How did it ultimately turn out for you?
JONATHANWell, it turned out the way that I think every teacher hopes his student will learn, a combination of their own ideas and those of their teacher, but it was an important moment in my musical career, learning to, you know, not think that you know everything and listen to your teacher.
FLEISHERWell, I think -- Jonathan, thank you, first of all. And secondly, it's a not ignoble line of succession that you follow here. You know, my teacher, Schnabel, who is therefore your great -- musical great-grandfather, he studied with Leschetizky. Leschetizky studied with Czerny and Czerny studied with Beethoven, so you're following in a kind of nice lineage there. I must bring us back, though, to reality. There's a weak link in that chain and that weak link is Mr. Leschetizky, who taught everybody in the world who played piano (laugh).
MIDGETTEIncluding Paul Wittgenstein.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And you, we must say, taught Andre Watts.
FLEISHERYes, I had the great pleasure of sharing learning experiences with Andre. He was very young. What a brilliant talent.
REHMThe person who is with you at the piano for this last piece, we're going to hear an excerpt from, is your wife, Katherine...
REHM...with whom you have performed...
REHM...in places around the world. This is the Mozart "Concerto No. 7 in F Major." Why did you choose to perform this piece?
FLEISHERWell, Mozart wrote a famous concerto for two pianos. This concerto that Katherine and I are playing is the concerto for three pianos reduced by Mozart for two pianos because the third piano was not that difficult.
REHMWhat's it like performing with your wife?
FLEISHEROh, you know, it ranges from wondrous to having our problems. Katherine has professed to having discovered new tort law. There is, you know, one of the big challenges in playing four hands, one piano is who pedals and for whom do they pedal, for whom the bell tolls. Anyway, the tort law that she is proposing is called irreconcilable pedaling (laugh) as a reason for divorce. But as you listen to this music, it is such extraordinary joy and spirited and you can't help but feel better after listening to it.
REHMYou'd never know that there were problems (laugh) beneath the piano.
FLEISHERNo, they're the wonderful problems.
REHMI want to read to you, as we listen to this glorious music, a final e-mail from Phillip here in Washington who says, "Every year, I celebrate Beethoven's birthday on December 16 by listening to most of his symphonies, all of his concertos. When it comes to listening to the piano concertos, I listen exclusively to the Leon Fleisher, George Szell Cleveland Orchestra recordings for all five concertos. I hope you continue to perform and continue to enjoy performing for many, many years to come, Leon. What a wonderful pleasure to have you here."
FLEISHERThank you, Diane. And may I extend the same wishes to you.
REHMThank you. And Anne Midgette, thank you so much for being here.
MIDGETTEThank you for having me.
REHMMy pleasure. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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