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After Leon Fleisher released his wonderful recording Two Hands in 2004, I wrote: “His two hands play together like a couple reunited after a long and unwanted separation, unwilling to rush even a moment together. The joyously unhurried tempos allow him to explore familiar repertoire with astounding profundity and probing musicality.” I’ve been listening to that recording since hearing of his death on Sunday, and remembering my interview with Fleisher for Newsday.

Playing Fast and Loose, by Vivien Schweitzer 

Newsday, October 24, 2004

It has been 40 years since Leon Fleisher, one of his generation’s most formidable pianists, was forced to curtail his career after a mysterious ailment caused the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand to curl up involuntarily.

“When the gods want to hurt you, they know exactly where to strike,” Fleisher, 76, said recently. He endured decades of misdiagnoses before dystonia – the third-most-common neurological condition after Parkinsons and Essential Tremor – was identified as the cause.

Thanks to advances in physical therapy and pharmaceutical treatments, Fleisher is finally enjoying a full-fledged comeback after decades of performing only the scant piano repertory for the left hand. Following the release in August of “Two Hands,” (Vanguard Classics), his first solo recording since 1964, he is on a concert tour that entailed appearances earlier this month at Symphony Space and will bring him to the 92nd Street Y this week with an all-star string quartet.

Flexibility lost and regained

Fleisher still suffers from focal-hand dystonia, a disorder that causes muscles to pull or spasm, inhibiting the ability to perform specific tasks. which is generally task-specific and often strikes musicians. (French horn players get it in their mouths, for example.) The muscles in Fleisher’s forearm had “contracted into a state of petrified wood,” he said. In the mid-1990s, he regained some flexibility through Rolfing, a physical therapy that stretches tissue fibers. As a result, he was able to take advantage of revolutionary Botox treatments at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., that allowed his fingers to extend fully again.

Though Fleisher can again perform the two-handed repertoire, his disability was initially devastating. The debilitating condition struck the former child prodigy, who had a major recording career and a reputation for astonishing speed, when he was on the verge of a tour to the Soviet Union.

It destroyed my second marriage,” he said quietly. (His first marriage also ended in divorce.) “My inability to cope led to my second wife’s inability to cope. I grew a beard and a ponytail. I was too chicken to buy a Harley, so I bought a Vespa. I was kind of a lost soul.” It is hard to imagine the professorial, dignified Fleisher sullenly scooting around Baltimore on a beaten-up Vespa, ponytail flapping in the wind. After a “rough period” of about two years, however, he realized that his connection to music “was more than just as a two-handed piano player.”

According to his son Julian, 37, the change in perspective “was very slow, as most significant transformations are. There was no cinematic moment; he just basically survived by teaching and making music any way he possibly could. He taught, he conducted, he played left-handed repertoire. If he hadn’t had those things to do, I think he might not have survived.”

The younger Fleisher, a nightclub singer who lives in New York, remembers spending “oddly boring” weekends spent with his father after his parents divorced. “But looking back as an adult you realize he was depressed, unable to function, and barely able to take us to dinner, although he made an effort.” He also remembers his father’s diligence at the keyboard, his unfaltering quest to understand his illness and find a cure. Father and son even went to Scotland “to visit some healer in the mountains who did I don’t even remember what,” Julian said.

A different bench

The senior Fleisher, a student of Artur Schnabel, began teaching extensively at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he lives, and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, as well as at many festivals. Of his students, he said, “Since I couldn’t push them off the chair to show them what I wanted [by demonstrating it], I had to develop a language that would deal with memorable areas with words.”

Two of his former pupils recently fought back tears as they described his teaching. “He had an extraordinary grasp of musical imagery and was able to synthesize the innermost essence of music in a verbal way,” said Peter Takács, who studied with Fleisher for three years starting in 1969. “Music is about the deepest human emotions and attitudes, and Leon could really capture that.”

Laura Spitzer, who studied with Fleisher in 1979, said, “He seemed to light a fire under people and bring them to pure music, and he had a knack for doing it with unusual metaphors. The first time I played for him, I was somewhat nervous, but as he stood behind me, I had this sense of this huge tranquil force standing there.”

His new CD, “Two Hands,” has had a similar effect on critics, eliciting unanimous raves. His two hands play together like a couple reunited after a long and unwanted separation, unwilling to rush even a moment together. The joyously unhurried tempos allow him to explore familiar repertoire with astounding profundity and probing musicality.” It doesn’t necessarily matter how many notes you can hit, but why you are hitting them, and how,” Julian Fleisher said.

That assertion is beautifully demonstrated by the unaffected simplicity of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “Sheep May Safely Graze,” which Fleisher chose to “set up a spiritual framework” for the recording. His renditions of Scarlatti’s E-major sonata, Chopin’s C-sharp minor Mazurka and D-flat major Nocturne, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Schubert’s B-flat major Sonata are equally spellbinding.

The disk was the brainchild of Smash Arts, which develops and markets entertainment projects, including individual careers, according to Lisa Altman, its energetic co-founder. “These were recording sessions that brought goosebumps down your spine,” said Altman, who served as the CD’s senior producer. “I heard him make sounds I have never heard come out of any piano.”

Glen Estrin, a former professional French horn player who suffers from dystonia, cautions that Fleisher’s triumph over the condition is a rare case. “Leon Fleisher eats and breathes music,” said Estrin, who co-founded Musicians with Dystonia in 2000. “He is a superhuman talent and he used the help that the botox could provide it to its maximum.”

Even Fleisher wasn’t particularly hopeful about the new treatments, he admitted. “I had been looking for 35 years and had tried everything, so I had a certain amount of skepticism. Not a day went by when I didn’t try to hold my arm this way or that way. But it must be emphasized that while botox treats the symptoms, I am not cured. I am a dystonic for life. There are certain things I can’t do anymore, like scales.”

Fleisher spreads awareness about dystonia through the Freedom to Play campaign of the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. “We are athletes of the small muscle,” he likes to say. Yet musicians often blame themselves, as Fleisher initially did. Neither optimism nor faith spurred Fleisher to persist for so many years. “I’m just a very stupid person,” he said, laughing, “or an obsessive-compulsive.”

His sense of humor is frequently in evidence. When asked if any friends or colleagues were particularly supportive, he said, “I felt vindicated whenever another colleague came down with dystonia.” When asked where he placed his right hand when he was playing piano with his left, he said, “I thought about learning to juggle grapefruits with the right hand.”

But the good-natured banter masks a steely determination. “I don’t know if he is an optimist per se,” Julian said. “I just know he had to keep making music, and so I think his optimism really was a result of his love of music, music’s love of him, and incredibly hard work.”

Copyright Newsday, 2004

And in case you missed these two excellent obits: here’s Anne Midgette in WAPO and Allan Kozinn in the NYT.