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Arts News Leon Fleisher Interview

Pianist, conductor and educator Leon Fleisher is said to have the "most famous right hand in classical music--famous for not working." After studying with the legendary Artur Schnabel, Fleisher established himself in the 1950s and early '60s as one of the world's great pianists. But his career was sidelined for some 35 years by a crippling ailment that affected his right hand. Recently he has found relief--and has begun playing and recording two-hand piano music again. KSMU's Randy Stewart conducted this phone interview with Leon Fleisher in September (it originally aired on "KSMU Arts News" October 1, 2004)


(various musical excerpts from Leon Fleisher's recordings are played in the background throughout the feature)

RANDY: The career of American pianist, conductor and educator Leon Fleisher was burgeoning in the 1950s and '60s, with critically-acclaimed recordings as well as concerts and solo recitals in all the great musical centers of the world. Then, in the mid-1960s, it came to a screeching halt when his right hand--so vital to the work of a concert pianist!--suddenly, and for no apparent reason, crippled up on him. He struggled with that condition for the next 35 years until a proper diagnosis, the neurological disorder "dystonia," and an unusual treatment, Botox, became available. Now 76 years old, Leon Fleisher has resumed playing the piano--with both hands--and has a new CD on the Vanguard label, with a portion of the proceeds going toward research on the neurological condition that derailed his career in his mid-30s. Fleisher's musical pedigree is about as impressive as one can get: he studied piano with the 20th century's foremost authority on Beethoven, Artur Schnabel, who could trace his own musical training in a straight line all the way back to Beethoven himself! Recently I spoke to Leon Fleisher on the phone from his office in Baltimore. He described for me how he came to be a student of the great Schnabel when he was only nine years old.

FLEISHER: I actually was the youngest one he ever accepted. Until I came along he had a rule about not accepting anybody under 16. When he was told about me he said, "Isn't that nice? But I don't accept anybody under 16!" "I was NINE. And it was arranged with great subterfuge that I played for him. He came out to my hometown, San Francisco, dining with mutual friends. During dinner I was snuck--if that's the right word!--I was snuck into the house through the basement garage, and I was sitting at the piano when the dining room doors were opened at the end of dinner. And being a gentleman, you know, he didn't kick me off the chair or anything! (chuckles) So he allowed me to play for him, and when I finished he invited me to come study with him. And I worked with him for ten years.

RANDY: Although, of course, for reasons we'll get into, your discography isn't huge, there are certainly titles that have probably never been out of the catalog since they came out in the late '50s. And I'm thinking specifically of the Beethoven and Brahms concerto cycles with (conductor George) Szell.


RANDY: Of course, they were of concerto literature. You didn't get around to recording all that much solo literature, did you?

FLEISHER: Well, I had about a half-dozen to eight albums solo...

RANDY: I mean, it would've been fascinating, for instance, to have a Leon Fleisher cycle of the Beethoven Sonatas.

FLEISHER: Wouldn't that have been nice? (laughs)

RANDY: And this new Vanguard CD, is this your first recording of a Schubert sonata?

FLEISHER: Actually, this posthumous B-flat Sonata (D.960), I recorded 50 years ago for Columbia Records. But I was particularly glad to have this chance to re-do it, simply because the editions that were available then were somewhat lacking. I remember the edition that I played from turned out to have an enormous klinker in the second movement--an enormous printed wrong note! This gave me an opportunity to correct that, and I'm very grateful for that! (chuckles)

RANDY: And, we should say, a portion of the proceeds from this CD are going to the Dystonia (Medical Research) Foundation. And we, of course, have to get to that subject. Your recorded catalog would have been much larger had it not been for the problem with your right hand. Now, it's interesting: most of the older biographies of you that are floating around on the Web still attribute it to "Repetitive Stress Syndrome." Now, that's pretty much a MIS-diagnosis, isn't it?

FLEISHER: You're absolutely right. And part of my happy responsibilities today, on behalf of DMRS, Dystonia Medical Research Foundation--I go around addressing medical conventions, as well as (keyboard) teachers and students, making them aware of the existence of this syndrome called dystonia.

RANDY: Dystonia is listed as the third most common neurological movement disorder after Parkinson's Disease and Essential Tremor. But even though it's the third most common disorder, it's pretty much unknown to the general public.

FLEISHER: Exactly, exactly, and that's part of my responsibility, is to help alleviate that ignorance,, even from the medical community!

RANDY: So what happens with this disorder exactly?

FLEISHER: It is a neurological movement disorder wherein the brain sends an unwanted--and uncontrollable--message to the muscles in any part of the body, to contract. It can be a foot, it can be a hand, it can be an eye, a mouth, a neck-- any part of the body is susceptible to dystonia.

RANDY: So it's hard to see how it would have any connection with Repetitive Stress, certainly.

FLEISHER: Well, it happens that, for example, there are 10,000 musicians worldwide who suffer from dystonia. And where they suffer is where they work, you know? Most of them have dystonia of the hand or the fingers. And that's why doctors have been led towards the solution of Repetitive Stress, because musicians are athletes of the small muscle. It just must be defined that way, you know? You've got your baseball players and your football players with their quadriceps and their hamstrings and all that good stuff. And they've grown up--as did I, for that matter--with the idea of "playing through pain." Well, that might be okay for the big muscles, but for the small, intrinsic muscles in the hand, if you feel pain, STOP! That's a signal that something is wrong. That's one of the messages that I'm taking out into the world.

RANDY: You're often quoted as saying that, in adjusting to your condition, you realized that music per se, music period, was what was most important in your life--not the idea of specifically playing it with two hands. How did you adapt?

FLEISHER: Oh, that's very nice of you to have remembered that and to have brought that up. Yes, that's what literally saved my life! It's what has allowed me to come through this whole period of some 35 years, and it freed me up psychologically to be able to investigate the left-hand literature.

RANDY: Fleisher began a conducting career in 1967 with the Baltimore Symphony among other major orchestras, and has become a fixture at music conservatories like Curtis, Peabody and Tanglewood. He even resumed a solo career, playing music written specifically for the left hand.

Aside from what I call the "Paul Wittgenstein" repertoire, what is there, really? There were works written for you, too.

FLEISHER: Yes, I'm very proud to have been what you might call the "source material" for composers like Lukas Foss, Gunther Schuller and Bill Bolcom. There are some 20 to 30 concertos; there is chamber music; and about two recital-programs' worth of good music.

RANDY: That's kind of surprising. I didn't realize there was that much.

FLEISHER: Yeah, oh yeah.

RANDY: During the next 30-plus years Leon Fleisher tried a bewildering variety of treatments and therapies. And by the mid-1990s some of them had begun to work... after a fashion: he attempted, successfully, a few two-hand piano recitals. But in 2000 Fleisher finally received the help he needed at the National Institutes of Health. How and when did the Botox breakthrough come about?

FLEISHER: That came about through the intervention of a neurologist friend of mine here in Baltimore, who told me about a program that had just begun in which they had discovered that Botox was useful in dealing--you see, they don't know what causes dystonia, and they don't know how to cure it. But they did discover a way of dealing with some of the worst of the symptoms, which is the uncontrolled contraction, curling of the fingers, in my case. The way that works is, a small injection--in fact, a minute injection, because that's a powerful poison, botulinum toxin Type A--into that spot in the forearm where the nerve informs the muscles to contract. That injection erects a kind of barrier so the message doesn't get through from the nerves to the muscle. And that allowed my fingers to remain extended, and lo and behold, allowed me to play a certain considerable two-hand literature again.

RANDY: Do you really feel free now to tackle pretty much any and all conventional two-hand music?

FLEISHER: No, there are certain things I can't do. And it's not too clear to me yet whether it's just a question of age--I'm not a spring chicken any more! But certain kinds of piano writing favor my hand. Brahms works well. I've been doing a lot of the chamber music of Brahms, and the concertos. I play the Beethoven Emperor (Concerto), I play a couple of Mozart, and selected works for solo piano, as on this disc: Schubert B-flat, and a couple of lovely Bach pieces, Chopin, other stuff.

RANDY: In addition to an increasingly busy performance schedule, Leon Fleisher is being honored in October 2004 at a "Leoniade," a concert organized by friends and former students, that will consist of a marathon 12-hour concert of all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas, played by onetime students of Fleisher.

FLEISHER: That's very nice. I'm very honored that A), they thought of it, and B), that these former "kids" of mine, I guess I should call them, are coming from literally all parts of the globe to join in this one-day marathon of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas. You spoke before of Paul Wittgenstein. There had for decades been rumors of a Hindemith Concerto (for the left hand, written for Wittgenstein), but nobody could find hide nor hair of it. Well, his widow passed away two years ago, and in opening up all the locked closets, lo and behold, there was the Hindemith Left-Hand Concerto! And the publishers go hold of me and asked if I would give the world premiere, which I'm doing in December (2004) in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle. And--oh my heavens! Out in Seattle in October, and some recitals in Massachusetts, Buffalo. I'm busy!

RANDY: It sounds like it! And you sound like--well, for 30-some years you made lemonade out of lemons (Fleisher laughs), and now things are really looking up for you.

FLEISHER: Isn't that nice? I can put in the Splenda now, the sweetener! (laughs)

RANDY: Leon Fleisher--pianist, conductor, educator, and now champion of the neurological disorder dystonia. His new CD is called Two Hands, and includes music of Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy, and the massive Schubert Sonata in B-flat, D.960. A portion of the proceeds form the new recording will be donated to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. To read more about Leon Fleisher's Freedom to Play campaign, visit