- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2011

By Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette
Doubleday, $26, 325 pages, illustrated

Classical music has dominated the life of master pianist Leon Fleisher, now 82 years old, since he was 4, when he took over his older brother’s piano lessons. This amazingly informative book tells how it

felt to be a musical prodigy, to study with the most accomplished teachers of his day, to win one of the greatest international piano competitions and to play with the best conductors and best orchestras at the top of his profession.

It also tells how it felt to be afflicted with a painful, mysterious hand disorder (eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia) that prevented Mr. Fleisher from using his right hand in performance for 30 years. Mr. Fleisher’s search for a cure dominates the middle section of this book, but the text never bogs down despite the understandable periods of despair. Moreover, throughout the text, Mr. Fleisher’s musicality jumps off the page. This is a very human story, beautifully told, for which Mr. Fleisher’s co-author, Anne Midgette, chief classical music reviewer for The Washington Post, doubtless deserves considerable credit.

Mr. Fleisher’s East European immigrant family made extraordinary sacrifices to further his studies. Tutors provided all his education, and he gave his first public performance with an orchestra when he was 9. His mother soon finagled an audition with the great Artur Schnabel, who taught him for the next 10 years through group lessons in Italy and New York City, which were financed by a benefactor who recognized Leon’s exceptional musical gifts.

Mr. Fleisher’s and Ms. Midgette’s description of those group lessons is, for pianists or, indeed, any music lover, like a compact course of study. Each student would bring one piece of music to play, and Schnabel might spend three hours discussing three lines of music. Mr. Fleisher says he has passed along those lessons to his own students, and they are reflected in his book’s “master class” essays on individual works by his favorite composers: Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart and Ravel.

Disaster struck Mr. Fleisher when he was 36 years old, preparing to accompany George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra on a tour of the Soviet Union in 1962. Szell had anointed Fleisher as his “musical son,” and they were in the process of recording all the major works for piano and orchestra. The New York Times had hailed Mr. Fleisher as “the most remarkably gifted of his generation” - a generation that included his friends Eugene Istomin, Gary Graffman, Jacob Lateiner and Claude Frank.

Alas, Mr. Fleisher had ceased to heed Schnabel’s caution against overpracticing and was working six or seven hours a day at the keyboard. When disaster strikes (and in pianists it always strikes the fourth and fifth fingers of the right hand, the authors say, because “those happen to be the weakest fingers with the least independent motion. And they’re trying to make the loudest possible sound on the highest notes of the piano”) the music world offers some alternatives.

Some pianists turn to performing compositions for left hand alone, some become conductors, some become conservatory administrators, some concentrate on teaching, and some turn to composing. Mr. Fleisher tried all these avenues except composing, but he never gave up hope of making a full return to two-handed playing. He recounts several occasions on which he tried and failed to meet his own standards for performing his beloved two-handed repertoire in public. But after three decades of trying innumerable treatments, from surgery to intense therapy, “Rolfing exercises” and Botox shots, he has regained use of his right hand for at least substantial periods of time. He also has become a crusader against “mindless practicing.”

Wherever you open this book, you can find wisdom on a music-related subject: “One of the most popular misconceptions is that you’re supposed to put all your feelings into the music. New students arrive in the studio burdened with the enormous responsibility of expressing themselves. They think they have to demonstrate constantly how much the music means to them. … I believe that a performer’s highest goal is to discover what the music is about. You find that in the score.”

On Mozart: “Schnabel used to say that Mozart was the most inaccessible of the great masters. He sounds simple, but he’s elusive. He gives you the least to work with. You have to bring out what’s in the notes, and what’s behind the notes, and what’s in front of the notes. … With Mozart there are no shortcuts. There are no fireworks. There’s nothing to hide behind. It takes a certain amount of living into it to bring it off.”

On competitions: “…[W]hat’s depressing today is that you find the panels made up of people from all different schools of thought and walks of life, and the competitor who winds up winning is the one who least offends the greatest number of jurors.”

In my nomination for the best story in the book, Mr. Fleisher writes, “I often tell the story about Szell, in his hotel room in London, wanting me to run though with him one of the Beethoven concertos we were in the process of recording. The problem was that there was no piano in the room. Szell suggested that I simply play the piece on the coffee table; he knew the concerto so well, he said, that he would be able to tell if I slipped up. So I drummed out the notes soundlessly on the tabletop until the maestro stopped me. ‘You made a mistake, he said.” ‘Well, what do you expect?’ I said. ‘I’ve never played this coffee table before.’ “

On non-music-related subjects, Mr. Fleisher is less equipped to provide useful advice. He confesses that he has always been susceptible to pretty women - and he proved it by deserting each of his first two wives (and their five young children) when younger, prettier women, of which there were many, caught his eye.

Mr. Fleisher acknowledges that the day he received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007 was one of the happiest of his life, but he felt compelled to publish an “open letter” describing his anguish over being honored by an administration for which he had no respect. He rationalizes: “But the honor wasn’t from my president. It was from my country. … After days of deliberation, I made my decision. My political feelings were important, but my country was more important. I was proud to accept the Kennedy Center Honors.”

The space used for this so-called manifesto would have been better employed for an index, which is an egregious omission.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.

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