Pianist Leon Fleisher, 1928-2020

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Leon Fleisher in 1963.

Leon Fleisher, one of the last century’s most celebrated concert pianists, who nurtured hundreds of the world’s most promising piano students in 60 years of teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore — as well as at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and elsewhere — died of cancer on Aug. 2 at a Baltimore hospice, aged 92.

In 1952, when he was 24, Fleisher became the first American to win first prize at the Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels. His later accolades included the title of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, awarded by the French government in 2006, and the Kennedy Center Honors, which he shared in 2007 with Steve Martin, Diana Ross, Martin Scorsese and Brian Wilson.

Fleisher nearly opted out of the pre-Honors reception with George and Laura Bush. In an open letter, “My White House Dilemma,” published early the following year in the Washington Post, he wrote: “while I profoundly respect the presidency, I am horrified by many of President Bush’s policies.” He ended up attending the reception wearing a peace symbol and a purple ribbon.

Born on July 23, 1928, to Eastern European Jewish immigrants who ran a San Francisco hat shop, Fleisher was not only a Leon but a Leo, which fit. From a young age, he was a celebrity in the world of classical music, which loomed larger in mid-20th-century American culture than it does today. Somewhat intimidating, with a powerful intellect and a gruff sense of humor, he was a lion onstage and on Peabody’s historic campus, seeming to grow handsomer with age. But he shared his hard-won knowledge and self-knowledge generously.

“The name of Leon Fleisher has been synonymous with the Peabody Institute,” said the school’s dean, Fred Bronstein. “It seems simplistic to say that there was no one else like Leon. But that is the essence of it. We were extremely fortunate to have had this man in our midst for so many years.” Preceded by Yo-Yo Ma and followed by Tori Amos, Fleisher was awarded the George Peabody Medal for exceptional contributions to music in America in 2018. Perhaps the best known of his former Peabody students is André Watts.

Until Peabody, a division of Johns Hopkins University, shut down in-person instruction in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Fleisher, who held the Andrew W. Mellon Chair in Piano since 1959, continued to give monthly two-hour master classes. At these public diagnostic events, he would listen to performances by other faculty members’ students, engage them in Socratic dialogue and often, in the remaining time, pull up a chair to play along in the keyboard’s upper extremities.

Considered by some a Zen master or guru (or, in recent decades, likened to Yoda), Fleisher, though a deep thinker about music and an authoritative guide to stylistic nuance, also had a down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts side. He spoke about the need to be an illusionist, given the piano’s inability to sustain sound the way other instruments and the voice can, and gave precise instructions as to the use — and nonuse — of the pedal and the body, from spine to fingertips.

His demonstrations were mostly one-handed, for Fleisher’s youthful stardom as a soloist — beginning with teenage appearances with the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux — was cut short in 1965 by a cramping and semi-paralysis of the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand, eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia.

Though Fleisher returned to two-handed performing on a limited basis, finding relief first through surgery and later from a combination of Rolfing massages and Botox injections, he became known as a supreme interpreter of works for left-hand piano, notably pieces by Ravel, Prokofiev and Britten. He also performed pieces for four hands with Katherine Jacobson, a former student who became his third wife in 1982.

Tormented by his hand’s impairment, as recounted in “My Nine Lives,” the 2010 memoir he wrote with Anne Midgette, Fleisher redirected parts of his musical identity into teaching and conducting — though, rather than a conductor, he called himself a “musician who leads.”

In 1967, with the late composer Dina Koston, he co-founded the Theater Chamber Players, which became the first resident chamber music ensemble at the Smithsonian and later the Kennedy Center. In the 1970s, Fleisher served as music director of the Annapolis Symphony and as associate, then resident, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony under Sergiu Comissiona. He conducted at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont as recently as 2018 and continued to conduct one concert a year by the Peabody Symphony.

For the high-profile opening of Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in 1982, Fleisher made a dramatic two-handed reappearance at the keyboard. A recording, “Two Hands,” and a documentary film by Nathaniel Kahn with the same title, were released in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

Though his dozen-year tenure as artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center ended in 1997 in a dispute with Seiji Ozawa, he returned with Jacobson in 2015 to perform works for two and four hands to help mark the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony’s summer music academy in the Berkshires.

Fleisher was particularly renowned for his insight into the time-honored German and Austrian repertoire, having studied, starting at age 9, with the great Beethoven and Schubert exponent Artur Schnabel, whose 1935 recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas remains a landmark. Through Schnabel, Fleisher could trace a lineage of mentorship back to Beethoven himself (whose 250th birthday is being celebrated, mostly remotely, this year).

Among Fleisher’s own musical landmarks are his early 1960s recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms piano concertos with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell. In the fall of 1946, the 18-year-old Fleisher was the first soloist to appear with the orchestra under Szell, playing the Schumann piano concerto. Sixty-seven years later, he returned to Cleveland at age 85 to guest-conduct a performance of two Beethoven concertos by Jonathan Biss, a former Fleisher student at Curtis, where Biss had joined the faculty.

“Visiting artist with the longest relationship with the orchestra!” Fleisher mock-exclaimed in a phone interview for the Cleveland Classical blog at the time. “Good heavens. Really? What does that entitle me to?”

Every few years, Fleisher would determine there was sufficient student talent in his Peabody studio for the cohort to present an all-day Beethoven marathon, playing the 32 Beethoven sonatas in order, with lunch and dinner breaks. This writer was present when Fleisher’s seven students did so in the spring of 2010; as audience members came and went, their teacher, at age 81, remained planted in Peabody’s Griswold Hall the entire time.

Fleisher and Jacobson were committed Baltimore residents, though they made appearances throughout the U.S. and abroad. The pair gave benefit concerts for BARCS, the Baltimore Animal Rescue Care Shelter, among other causes.

In addition to Jacobson, Fleisher is survived by three children from his first marriage, to Dorothy Druzinsky; two from his second marriage, to Risselle (Rikki) Rosenthal; and two grandchildren.

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