Aug 6th 2020

The honor and privilege of meeting Leon Fleisher

by Kenneth Freed

Kenneth Freed has been a reporter, editor and university professor for over 50 years. He has been an informed music enthusiast even longer.

American pianist Leon Fleisher died recently at 93, ending an era of keyboard giants.

For me, a child and grandchild of serious and accomplished pianists, Leon Fleisher was one of the fixtures of my life in the 1940s and 50s. He was barely older than I, Jewish and American, and an acclaimed piano master. He explained to me on scratchy and well-used 78s and LPs and on Sunday evening radio broadcasts not only what Beethoven and Brahms can sound like, but how they could open you to your feelings and illuminate a world of creative and ineffable beauty.

When Fleisher suffered from focal dystonia, it ripped not only a hand from the keyboard but left a void in me, the listener. But he reformed himself, and turned me into a fanatic follower of left handed music. He also became a conductor.

After decades of painful physical therapy and experimental drugs, Fleisher restored his right hand and took his place in the first row of the front rank of the classical music world.

When I moved to Baltimore, Maryland, I simply walked into his studio at the Peabody School and introduced myself. He was curious and then gracious, and we drank coffee and talked for any hour, mostly about my son -- a strong piano talent -- who also suffered from focal dystonia and how it forced him to lower expectations and look elsewhere in music to explore his artistry.

I have attended a dozen Fleisher concerts in the decade since, sensing each could be the last. He was 92 when I sat in a small Peabody recital hall and he played Bach, Beethoven and a Jerome Kern song, “The Way You Look Tonight". It was the last time I sat within his sound.

For 60 minutes, my mind was clear, the air was clean and the sound heavenly. It was my honor and privilege to have been there.

 

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