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CLASSICAL MUSIC

A hand fate dealt him

Leon Fleisher was a child prodigy destined for greatness. But the story of his ensuing struggle is so good, Hollywood came knocking.

February 18, 2007|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

IT'S about time Leon Fleisher came to Hollywood. His, after all, is a perfect movie story: a combination of epic tragedy and personal triumph, complete with an odds-defying ending. For more than 30 years, Fleisher dedicated himself to becoming one of America's greatest pianists -- until a mystery ailment rendered his right hand useless. Stranded, seemingly without a future, he battled his way back from despair and spent another 30 years rebuilding his life while never giving up his quest to find answers, if not an antidote.

His relentlessness paid off. Fleisher is playing with both hands again. In the decade since his recovery, he has returned to the international concert circuit, recorded two albums and won a slew of honors. Most recently, he has become a film star of sorts thanks to a documentary short in contention for an Academy Award.

"It's amazing," says Fleisher, who will perform Schubert sonatas with violinist Jaime Laredo at UCLA on Saturday. "My variegated 78 years of life condensed into 16 minutes. It gives one a sense of perspective, if not proportion."

Director Nathaniel Kahn's "Two Hands" actually offers perspective through proportion, its understated approach mirroring the less-is-more philosophy of its subject, a musician famous for his thoughtful lyricism and depth of feeling.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Leon Fleisher: An article about pianist Leon Fleisher in Sunday's Arts & Music section incorrectly said that when his career was beginning to flourish, he and his first wife were raising two of their three children in Baltimore. In fact, Fleisher and his second wife were raising their two children in Baltimore then.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 25, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Leon Fleisher: An article about pianist Leon Fleisher last Sunday incorrectly said that when his career was beginning to flourish, he and his first wife were raising two of their three children in Baltimore. In fact, Fleisher and his second wife were raising their two children in Baltimore then.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Leon Fleisher: An article about pianist Leon Fleisher in the Feb. 18 Arts & Music section said that when his career was beginning to flourish, he and his first wife were rearing two of their three children in Baltimore. In fact, Fleisher and his second wife were rearing their two children in Baltimore then.

In the filmmaker's best-known work, the 2003 "My Architect," he chased an elusive ghost -- his late father, Louis I. Kahn. This time, says Kahn, "I was digging into the soul of a guy who's very game and very much alive." Fleisher, he adds, has a name that suits him: "Leon's a lion. He's got a kind of regalness, a pretty good growl and a helluva mane of hair. Beneath all that, he projects a lot of emotions. There's a great deal of love but also sadness, sorrow, loss, an acceptance of fate and something else which is very important -- Leon has found personal and domestic peace."

Fleisher agrees. "It may sound kind of mawkish," he says, "but were I given the chance, I'm not sure I would change anything that happened to me."

Really?

He laughs the soft, wise laugh of a man who has lived through a lot.

"The opening up of possibilities, new avenues, sources of joy that had not been available to me as a piano player are all very real," he says. "There's nothing mealy-mouthed about that."

An early influence

FLEISHER was born in San Francisco to a Russian father who made hats and a Polish mother who hoped to make her son into a concert pianist. He took his first lesson when he was 4, but his education truly began when he met the pianist Artur Schnabel, who had refused to accept children as pupils, at least until he heard the precocious 9-year-old play.

"Everything I do in music pretty much stems from him," says Fleisher, referring to their shared love of the Austro-Germanic repertoire, passion for teaching and belief that exposing the essence of a piece trumps achieving technical perfection.

Even though he made his New York Philharmonic debut when he was 16, the young Fleisher felt like an outsider compared with his conservatory-trained contemporaries: "They were the AFL and the NFL, and I was almost like Canadian football." He proved a few things to himself and others when he became the first American to win Belgium's Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in 1952. "That made me very serious," he says, which meant that he started practicing as much as eight hours a day.

For a dozen years, Fleisher's career flourished. While he and his wife raised two children in Baltimore (he has three children from that marriage, his first), he pursued an impressive concert schedule and was anointed one of the most gifted of a gifted generation of young pianists, especially after he made landmark recordings of Brahms and Beethoven concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

In the early 1960s, however, Fleisher began to have problems controlling his right hand and eventually could not keep his ring finger and pinkie from curling under. He canceled appearances while vainly trying to practice his way back to health. Dozens of doctors could offer no clues.

Fleisher was forced to retire at age 37. He felt lost and confused. Why had this happened? How would he support his family? What would he do? Only one thing appeared clear: His performing days were over.

Fleisher's marriage ended, and he alternated, as he told Newsweek magazine, between "wandering in the valley of depression" and being "the ogre of the Andes."

After two years of what he calls "despair and self-pity," he realized that his love of music was more important than how that music was made -- an idea inspired, perhaps, by his old master Schnabel. He took up conducting. Later, he co-founded a chamber group in Washington and assumed leadership posts with the Annapolis (Md.) Symphony and the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts.

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