It has been almost 50 years since pianist Leon Fleisher started losing the use of his right hand. This candid memoir takes us through all the ways his world fell apart while he struggled to find a cure for what was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia. He kept performing by playing works written for the left hand alone, many newly commissioned by him. He taught, and took up conducting. But the emotional impact was devastating. Yet, after untold experimental procedures and false hopes, Fleisher, finally found a treatment that worked. Now 83, he has been performing with two hands for a number of years.
Fleisher offers colourful portraits of some of the remarkable “individuals of strong character” he has worked with over the years, like Leonard Bernstein and George Szell, who conducted Fleisher’s legendary recordings of the Beethoven concertos. The most memorable figure to emerge here is his beloved teacher, the great pianist Artur Schnabel. But it’s a shame there’s no index to be able to track down references to all these musicians, among other things.
Over the years, Fleisher has been regularly giving masterclasses in Toronto at the Royal Conservatory of Music. In five separate chapters he describes how he teaches specific works that have meant most to him, including Brahms’ Concerto in D Minor and Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major. He offers insights on what the music is about, and how to communicate that without sounding “as if feeling were being injected into the music, as through a syringe. You hear that kind of thing a lot, and it’s ghastly.”
There are plenty of funny moments here. But the issues Fleisher is dealing with are serious — physically, emotionally and musically. “At my lowest point,” he confides, “I seriously considered killing myself. But I didn’t kill myself. I stayed alive. And, just as I was stuck with being alive, I was stuck with my love of music.” This memoir is inspiring and brave, though at times I found the breezy tone Fleisher and his co-author, journalist Anne Midgette, invariably assume at odds with the gravity of what’s going on.
Concert Notes: January 11 and 12 at 8pm in Roy Thomson Hall, Leon Fleisher conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and performs Mozart’s Concerto for Three Pianos K242 with his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and former student, Stewart Goodyear.
Fleisher also conducts the Royal Conservatory Orchestra and performs Prokofiev’s Concerto No.4 with Uri Mayer conducting, at 8pm February 17, 2012, at Koerner Hall.