- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

Cleveland, Ohio, the Rust Belt epicenter of the recently concluded 2004 presidential election campaign, was once a thriving industrial city rivaling Chicago in wealth and prestige.

After World War II, however, Cleveland began its precipitous decline, and for the last several decades it has been losing most of its power and prestige. But there have been bright spots — most notably in the arts, where the Cleveland Orchestra continues to shine as perhaps one of the premiere instrumental ensembles in the world.

This reviewer grew up in the Cleveland area during the orchestra’s golden age under the disciplined baton of George Szell.

During the early 1960s, like clockwork, concertgoers could plan on hearing at least one excruciating modernist world premiere piece by resident Cleveland Institute of Music composer and professor Donald Erb.

But they could also look forward to frequent appearances by Leon Fleisher, a young American lion of the piano, whose collaboration with Mr. Szell in performing and recording Beethoven’s five piano concertos has become the stuff of legend.

Both the music of Donald Erb and the artistry of Leon Fleisher were on display at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Thursday evening when the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Leonard Slatkin opened a three-concert series that also included Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on the bill.

Donald Erb is by all accounts an engaging teacher and composer, much beloved by students and colleagues. But his music is an anachronism, the kind of noisy hideousness that has driven audiences away from modern classical music for decades.

His 1993 work, “Evensong,” received its Washington unveiling on Thursday. Sounding like Fallujah must currently look, it is, sadly, the same kind of noisy mess the composer was churning out in the 1960s.

Far more riveting was Mr. Fleisher’s dramatic reappearance as a two-handed pianist. At the height of fame in the mid-1960s, he was forced to retire from actively performing due to a crippling and apparently permanent disability he developed in his right hand. Initially thought to be carpal tunnel syndrome, the malady was later diagnosed as focal dystonia.

Mr. Fleisher adapted, evolving into a distinguished conductor as well as a frequent performer of the surprisingly extensive left-hand-alone piano repertoire. He has also served for years on the piano faculty at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute.

In the mid-1990s, however, Mr. Fleisher finally received successful treatment for his condition and gradually began to return to the concert circuit performing two-handed works. He recently released a brilliant recording of solo piano music entitled “Two Hands,” his first such recording in over 40 years. On Thursday, he performed his old standby, the 5th Beethoven piano concerto (“Emperor”), with the NSO.

Were we hearing the Leon Fleisher of old?

Not quite. Both outer movements were taken at a slower pace than is customary, perhaps allowing Mr. Fleisher to avoid undue fatigue due to the taxing right-handed part, which features plenty of runs and extended trills. The steely assuredness of the younger pianist was not always there.

But the quiet, central “Adagio un poco mosso” was perfection. Here, Mr. Fleisher demonstrated what always was his strongest suit as a pianist. He remains a true lyric poet of the keyboard, and rarely has this jewel-like movement been performed with more emotional delicacy.

Pianists are often celebrated for their flashiness, but it is in quiet moments like this movement that a true artist can really perform a mind-meld with an audience. And here, Mr. Fleisher demonstrated convincingly that the magic can still happen. It is, frankly, a thrill to have him back.

The concert concluded with a wild and woolly performance of the 1947 revision of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” With the addition of just a few instrumental effects to the original version, the composer’s revision does not ultimately differ greatly from the original.

Maestro Slatkin and the NSO attacked the work with a brilliant, controlled abandon. It was a poignant performance in a way, as Mr. Slatkin has just announced his intention to depart the ensemble’s helm. He will leave the city with one of the finest orchestras in the world, loaded with superb first-chair soloists and with a substantially augmented repertoire. Of this, any musician can be rightly proud.

***1/2

WHO: The National Symphony Orchestra

WHAT: Works of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Erb

WHEN: Saturday, 8 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

TICKETS: $20 to 77

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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