Leon Fleisher, pianist and conductor
Photo Credit: Koichi Miura
“Mr. Fleisher managed to communicate something essential about each composer without trying to mimic a period sound: the orchestra shaded, his own playing clear as water.” -- THE NEW YORK TIMES
“Both the sustained loveliness of the strings and Fleisher’s ability to make the piano follow suit provoked an awed silence throughout the hall. It was as if the music were saying, ‘Now, this is important. Pay attention’." -- SAN FRANCISCO CLASSICAL VOICE
"You can't see music as it passes through the air. You can't grasp it and hold on to it. You can't smell it. You can't taste it. But it has a most powerful effect on most people. And that is a wondrous thing to contemplate.”
Legendary pianist Leon Fleisher represents the gold standard of musicianship and, at 86 years young, he continues to impart his life-affirming artistry throughout the world, thriving in a sustained career as conductor and soloist, recitalist, chamber music artist, and master class mentor. Mr. Fleisher’s musical pedigree alone is remarkable: he was the youngest-ever student of the great Artur Schnabel, who studied with keyboard giant and pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky, a pupil of Carl Czerny, who in turn studied with Ludwig van Beethoven.
Bridge Records issued his first new solo recording in almost a decade, "All the Things You Are," in July 2014 featuring works for left hand, many written for Mr. Fleisher. The title track is a well-known Jerome Kern tune arranged by pianist and former student Stephen Prutsman. The record also features Earl Wild's arrangement of Gershwin's "The Man I Love." Other Fleisher originals include works by Leon Kirchner, Dina Koston and George Perle, as well as the pianist's acclaimed interpretation of Brahms’ arrangement of the Bach Chaconne. Musical America described it as being "rendered here with nuance, suppleness, and exquisite shaping of the composition’s large-scale architecture" and hailed Fleisher "as compelling a musician as ever."
An inspiring conductor, Mr. Fleisher closed the Marlboro Music Festival 2014 season leading performances of Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy featuring Mitsuko Uchida as soloist. It was a performance of the latter work at Marlboro in 2012 that led to an engagement conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in December 2013. This performance brought Fleisher back to the orchestra with which he made so many historic recordings with George Szell, recordings that remain the benchmark for much of that repertoire. Other recent conducting engagements include appearances with the Bamberg Symphony, Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, the Orquestra Filarmônica de Minas Gerais in Brazil and orchestras in China and Japan. As a conductor/soloist, he was heard with the Naples Philharmonic where he conducted the world premiere of Nicholas Jacobson-Larson's Fantasia for Four Harps and Orchestra, commissioned by the orchestra, with three of his children and a daughter-in-law as harp soloists. In addition, he performed Mozart’s Double Concerto, K. 242 and conducted works by Beethoven. His residencies at music schools and conservatories around the world have been hailed as unforgettable experiences.
In performance, Mr. Fleisher's 2014-2015 season includes recital appearances of left hand and four hand programs with his wife, the noted pianist Katherine Jacobson, at the Schleswig Holstein and Menuhin Festivals, a performance of the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos in F Major, K. 242 with A Far Cry at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach and recitals and chamber music engagements around the country, including the Brahms Piano Quintet with the Juilliard String Quartet in Philadelphia. Recent concerto appearances include Mozart with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival, the Prokofiev Concerto No. 4 at Carnegie Hall with the New York String Orchestra conducted by Jaime Laredo, and performances with the Dover Quartet in New York and the Ying Quartet as part of a residency at the Eastman School of Music.
Mr. Fleisher’s dedication to sharing his insights and mentoring the next generation is evidenced by his memorable annual master classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, the Steans Institute at Ravinia, and others. After many acclaimed Carnegie Hall Workshops in New York (excerpts may be seen at www.franksalomon.com), Mr. Fleisher recently led the first Carnegie Hall Workshop at Suntory Hall in Japan. He regularly conducts master classes around the world including such venues as the Royal Academy of Music in London, the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Hannover, Germany, and the Dublin Conservatory of Music, Ireland. Mr. Fleisher currently holds positions at the Peabody Conservatory, Curtis Institute, and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, earning him the reputation among students as the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ of the piano.
First-generation American, Mr. Fleisher was born in San Francisco in 1928, and began playing piano at the age of four. To his delight, he was withdrawn from kindergarten and set up with a succession of private tutors, which constituted his formal education for the rest of his childhood. (Mr. Fleisher jokes, “I’ve long thought of entitling my autobiography I Was a Kindergarten Dropout.”) He gave his first public recital at age eight, and was thrust into the relatively new classical music scene in San Francisco and those who influenced it, including Alfred Hertz, the second-ever director of the San Francisco Symphony, and the great French conductor, Pierre Monteux. It was there that he first met Arthur Schnabel – an event that was undoubtedly the most consequential in Mr. Fleisher’s musical life – which set in motion a lifelong connection to music, beyond simply the piano. Mr. Fleisher made his formal public debut in 1944 with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Pierre Monteux, who famously recognized him as “the pianistic find of the century.”
In 1952, Mr. Fleisher became the first American to win the prestigious Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels, placing him among the world's premier classical pianists. He concertized with every major orchestra and made numerous touchstone recordings for Columbia/Epic (now Sony) under the direction of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. At the height of his success in 1965, he was suddenly struck silent at age 36 with a neurological affliction later identified as focal dystonia, rendering two fingers on his right hand immobile. Rather than end his career, Mr. Fleisher set off on an epic journey in search of a renewed life in music. He began focusing on repertoire for the left hand only, forging a new path as a soloist, conductor and teacher. In 1985 he was named Artistic Director of Tanglewood; he launched a conducting career as co-founder of the Theater Chamber Players in Baltimore, then with the Annapolis and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras. He also re-established himself as a left-handed soloist and recording artist, enabling him to achieve a standard equal to his early glory.
In the new millennium, experimental treatments using a regimen of Rolfing and 'botulinum toxin' (Botox) injections finally restored the mobility in Mr. Fleisher’s right hand. The extraordinary renaissance of Mr. Fleisher’s career has been documented extensively, particularly around the 2004 release of his critically acclaimed album Two Hands, which went on to hold a top 5 Billboard Chart position. The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Billboard, Gramophone and many others hailed it as one of the top recordings of its year, in any genre. He has since made several recordings including The Journey (Vanguard Classics, 2006); as soloist on the Emerson String Quartet’s Brahms, featuring the Piano Quintet in f minor (Deutsche Grammophon, 2007); a world premiere recording of Hindemith’s Klaviermusik mit Orchester (Ondine, 2009), and his first two-handed concerto recording in 40 years, Mozart Piano Concertos (Sony, 2009). In 2008, Sony re-issued Mr. Fleisher’s deep catalog, making virtually all of his recordings available on CD or digital downloads. Mr. Fleisher’s Brahms piano concerto recordings are still considered definitive today and his recordings of the five Beethoven concertos on Columbia were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. In the summer of 2013, SONY issued a 23-CD box paying tribute to this legendary artist and including his performances with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra that remain the gold standard of much of the repertoire they recorded together.
Award-winning music and arts documentary filmmaker Mark Kidel directed two feature films on Mr. Fleisher for ARTE (Franco-German Television) – Lessons of A Master (winner, Grand Prix Classiques en Image Paris 2003 and UNESCO Prize for Best Music Film 2003) and Recital for Two Hands (2008). Mr. Fleisher's story is also the subject of the 2006 Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary film Two Hands, written and directed by Nathaniel Kahn (My Architect).
Mr. Fleisher holds numerous honors including the Johns Hopkins University President's Medal and honorary doctorates from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Amherst College, Boston Conservatory, Cleveland Institute of Music, Juilliard School of Music, Peabody Institute and Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. In 2005, the French government named him Commander in the French Order of Arts and Letters, the highest rank of its kind. He was Musical America’s 1994 “Instrumentalist of the Year,” and this year was named the Royal Philharmonic Society’s “Instrumentalist of the Year.” Mr. Fleisher received the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors for his contribution to U.S. culture. His memoir, My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music, co-written with Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette, is available on Doubleday. He and his wife, Katherine Jacobson, a noted pianist with whom he frequently tours, live in Baltimore, MD.