Leon Fleisher grew up in San Francisco in the 1930s. He was quickly identified as a piano prodigy.
“Well, I started playing when I was five, and gave my first recital when I was eight, and came to the attention of Schnabel, that was when I was nine, and went to Europe.”
Artur Schnabel was one of the leading piano teachers of that era, an older man steeped in the classical tradition, who had a profound effect on Fleisher’s development.
“He was extraordinary. His voice just rolled out, and he articulated every syllable, it was just beautiful. Yeah, I thought he was the cat’s pajamas.”
Studies with Schnabel helped Fleisher become the one of the first American pianists to make it big in Europe, preceding Van Cliburn by several years. At age 30, Fleisher was an international star. He recorded this Mozart concerto in 1959 with the Cleveland Orchestra.
But then, while he was in his late 30s, Fleisher’s career came to a screeching halt.
“Well, this is back in ’64. I had actually injured my hand. I cut my right hand thumb moving some garden furniture and it needed stitches.”
The thumb healed, but when the pianist resumed an overly ambitious schedule, an even more serious problem ensued.
“I suddenly became aware that the two end fingers, five and fourm, wanted to curl under a little bit. And, in about ten months, those two fingers just curled under, unretractably.”
Fleisher’s right hand was disabled. He couldn’t even hold a toothbrush, much less play the piano. Understandably, he became depressed.
“I grew a beard, I grew a pony tail. I didn’t have enough courage to buy a motorcycle, so I bought a Vespa. Yeah, it took about two years for me to discover that my connection to music was more than as a two-handed piano player.”
Gradually, Fleisher returned to the concert stage, playing piano with his left hand only. He became more active as a conductor, and a teacher. But he never stopped looking for something that might restore use of his right hand.
Finally, after decades, Fleisher found a treatment that helped. In 2004, he released his first left-right recording in over 40 years, a remarkable comeback appropriately titled “Two Hands.”
This is Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major, from that disk. It’s the last piano piece Schubert wrote, and the music Fleisher will close with in Davis.
As he nears his 80th birthday, Leon Fleisher continues to tour and teach, and much like his mentor Artur Schnabel, Fleisher likes working with the kids.
“Oh, very much. You know, young people are stimulating, they’re invigorating, and they keep you on your toes.”
After all, Fleisher wants to pass along his passion for music. Now, he’s doing just that, with both hands.
Leon fleisher performs a recital at the Mondavi Center on Friday, February 29th. On Saturday March 1st he will coach the UC Davis Symphony in a free, open rehearsal.