Leon Fleisher

Photo by Sarah Shatz

Photo by Sarah Shatz

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Born in San Francisco in 1928, Leon Fleisher's influence and achievements have few comparables in the world of pianism. His story is even more compelling. Winner of the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium competition in 1952, "the pianistic find of the century" and student of Artur Schnabel was dealt a crippling blow at the age of 36. His autobiography, My Nine Lives, was published in 2010, and a documentary of his struggles, Two Hands, was nominated for an Oscar in 2007. Fifty years since the beginnings of focal dystonia, his latest album, All The Things You Are, has climbed to the top of classical sales charts in the United States. He is an indispensable link to our musical past. Below is the transcript of our September 19, 2014 conversation with the legendary pianist Leon Fleisher.

EH: You were born and raised in San Francisco. I would love to hear about your earlier years in the city. What role did San Francisco play in your musical path ?

Fleisher: I remember very well that I lived in a series of apartments around the Fillmore-Golden Gate area. I remember living on Fulton Street opposite the park, and how, much to my mother’s dismay – she worked, and I had a governess - I walked on the concrete walls of the park. This gave everybody much angst, as I might slip off and fall, and hurt my hands (laughs). I also lived on Pierce Street and a couple of other places as well.

What was going on then ? There was a WPA orchestra, and I don’t know to this day how I came to their attention, but it was led by a former conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, Alfred Hertz. One of Hertz main claims to fame, aside from his most striking of looks - this billiard ball head, wire glasses, and this really full, long beard – was that he was the first to conduct Parsifal at the MET, which thereby earned him excommunication from Bayreuth. They had this rule that Parsifal should never be conducted outside of Bayreuth. I remember Hertz had a protégé named Leslie Hodge, an Australian. So part of the responsibility of this WPA orchestra was to give concerts in schools for the benefit of the children. I somehow came to their notice, and they invited me as their soloist. What better example than an eight or nine year old being soloist in a concerto for other school kids ? (laughs) I remember I did both the first movement of the B-flat Beethoven concerto, and other times the third movement, depending on somebody’s judgment of just how much Beethoven these kids could take. The more positive impressions would result in the first movement, being longer than the third, with that wonderful cadenza from a much later period. Anyway, Hertz was the one who introduced me to Schnabel.

EH: Upon listening to the records of a musician like Artur Schnabel, one feels the essence and presence of Beethoven much more intensely. In your experiences with him, was Schnabel uniquely talented, or did he work for an incredibly refined and correct approach to music, one that through the years many have failed to copy or realize ? Schnabel’s music-making seems to go beyond style, inspiring and satisfying listeners of every generation.

Fleisher: There are two things about Schnabel. I think he was certainly one of the most important influences of the twentieth century, pretty much on all music. But what was most striking was the level of inspiration every time his fingers touched the keyboard. It was a highly moving, almost kind of life-transformative experience. And one of the reasons was there was little caprice in his approach to music. ‘Because I feel it that way’ was never a sufficient reason to do something; that is arbitrary and it had no place in his lessons either. Everything that he did, he could point to the text, and the text - an urtext, an original text - was terribly important to him. His edition of the Beethoven sonatas is so instructive because his ideas and suggestions are in a different print than what Beethoven wrote; you can always distinguish between Beethoven and Schnabel. But that kind of dedication, that kind of musical integrity to the desires and instructions from the composer, gave it an authenticity that was irresistible, and that was combined with his level of inspiration. Very quickly, it became impossible to distinguish between Mozart and Schnabel, Beethoven and Schnabel, or Schubert and Schnabel; he became the musical personification of the composer, which is why it was so irresistible what he did.

EH: In your book, My Nine Lives, you recount that Schnabel made it clear that he did not enjoy the music of Rachmaninoff, which still seems to suffer a reputation of being too sweet, too emotional, perhaps not revolutionary enough, etc. Is there any truth to the idea that the works of composers like Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Liszt, etc. - are less profound, less metaphysical, than those of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Schubert ? The Germans and the Austrians, for many, appear to be the summit of serious music-making, some fusion of metaphysics and philosophy. Schnabel appears to have concentrated most of his time studying them.

Fleisher: That, I think is a very perceptive question, and one that involves a distinction that isn’t sufficiently made today. Just as there are sets of brain waves that describe various states of awareness in the human being, there are dimensions of meaningfulness – if you want to use such a clumsy phrase – in music. I’ve come to feel that the three main musics that we make today - Eurocentric music: meaning French, German, and Russian – resonate with different levels of awareness, different dimensions of awareness in the human spirit.

French music is really very sensory, and appeals to sense of smell, taste, touch. It can be languorous, and almost erotic. Russian music is very subjective, sometimes whiny, breast-beating ‘Look how I suffer, look how I suffer!’. German music is, to use your word, metaphysical. It really asks those existential questions of ‘How do I relate to the Universe ?’, ‘Is there a heaven ?’, ‘How am I like a brook, or a leaf on a tree ?’. I know this was the music that most challenged Schnabel. He said Mozart was the most inaccessible of the great masters, because with the fewest number of notes, he accesses the deepest levels of human awareness and experience.

I think that differentiation should be made to young musicians. That’s why all these different composers have a different sound, why they have a different specific gravity. Some composers’ music flows like water, others like maple syrup, or honey, more viscous or resistant. These are differences that aren’t sufficiently enunciated to young musicians.

EH: One musician who suffered from criticism over his alleged inability to connect with German, or more ‘heavy’ music, was Vladimir Horowitz. In your book, you say that his Schubert B-flat Sonata was an embarrassment, a misapprehension of what the piece is about. How does a musician of such high ability and understanding miss the point completely ? We’ve heard criticisms of Horowitz like this, about his Chopin Ballades, his recording of Liszt’s St François de Paule marchant sur les flots, the Beethoven Sonatas, etc.

Fleisher: I don’t believe that about his Chopin, actually. I think his Chopin was extraordinarily perceptive and terribly personal. But the problem there is that his devotion, his great connection was to Romantic music. There are certain devices that one uses in Romantic music that are appropriate only for Romantic or subsequent music. If you take those devices and apply them to earlier music, then it’s totally inappropriate, and it makes the Classical music sound silly. However, if you were to use what you might call ‘Classical devices’ on Romantic music, historically, that would be correct! It very often benefits Romantic music, which is sometimes rather disjunctive, rather shapeless in comparison with Classical symphonic or sonata form. Romantic music very often benefits from that tighter organization that you get from Classical music. On the criticism of Horowitz’ Chopin, I haven’t heard that myself, but I think that comes down to taste.

EH: On the subject of taste, some audiences have noted a uniformity of sound amongst artists of this generation. Can you comment on the sort of intensity and devotion to tonal beauty of your generation and those before you ? Did the music students of your generation care more for beauty, or is what we’re hearing at competitions simply where the sound of the piano must go, how it must evolve ?

Fleisher: That’s an interesting theory. There was a great Hungarian violinist, Sándor Végh, who became a conductor after he left the Végh Quartet. He said, “It’s not too difficult to find a string player who really sings on his instrument, but it’s very rare to find a string player who speaks on his instrument,” and I think that’s a profound distinction. Speaking involves inflection, it involves an understanding of the language. Too many young people today play their instruments most wonderfully – they have such command of their instrument – but it’s as though they’re speaking a foreign language, phonetically. They pronounce all the words, but they have no idea of what they’re saying. And I think that’s one of the big differences between the great artists of the time and this level of expertise that is constantly expanding and rising. As I’ve said for a long time, the level of mediocrity is constantly rising.

I think there are probably multiple reasons for that, amongst which might be the fact that you’re not considered a successful conductor, for example, unless you have three orchestras - one in the States, one in Europe, and one in Asia. This has a tendency, this general push for globalization, to homogenize everything. The wonderful characteristics of different orchestras are gradually decreasing, and more and more the dozens or three-quarters of a dozen orchestras in the world are less individual than they were fifty years ago. I think the same has happened with instrumental playing.

EH: On the subject of arts institutions and the lack of funding in the United States, Gary Graffman, says that when he was young, “most orchestras played only 20-24 weeks or so - there was not one orchestra in America that played and was paid 52 weeks a year…and most players were not paid very much,”. In your opinion, are music schools admitting too many students for the number of employment opportunities available ?

Fleisher: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, and charging outrageously. First of all, whoever decided that a musical career or a life in music - whereby you would earn your living, your room and board by music-making – could be achieved with a liberal arts agenda: four years of college or conservatory, if you’re gifted, another two for masters, another year or two for your doctorate -- well, that plus $1.50 will get you a latte at Starbucks. That has nothing to do with music.

First of all, when you enter a conservatory, it’s already too late. The kind of connection that has to be made with an instrument, be it a piano, strings, a wind instrument, it really has to start much younger – five, six, seven - eight years-old is already getting late. The instrument must really become an extension of yourself. That neuromuscular connection between intention and realization is something that really has to be started very young. And the years between nine or ten and twenty, that’s when one should learn the whole repertoire.

Kids go to conservatory and learn a program, maybe two, then they want to start a career; they have maybe three or four concertos. For pianists, you have to go through the Hammerklavier, the Brahms Second, the Rachmaninoff Third, you have to go through all these things in your early to middle-teens before you know they’re difficult, because you can never play a piece after having just learned it. You have to learn it, drop it for a year or so, and come back to it. The piece will then have grown and matured in your subconscious. You will attack it differently, you will see new things, and you will need to go through this three, maybe four times, before legitimately playing it in front of people. But that’s not how young people work today (laughs).

EH: Earlier in the year, we had the pleasure of interviewing organist Paul Jacobs, and we talked about the role of the music critic in today’s culture. Mr. Jacobs says, The decline of the role of music critics is indicative of a general cultural trend: the ability, or desire, to listen critically. Everything has been reduced to a matter of personal opinion, where all positions are equally valid, without any critical thinking, crucial listening, drawing distinctions, etc.” With the decline of newspapers and the rise of music blogs, has the role of the critic changed as well ?

Fleisher: I think so. There might be a couple of throwbacks, but in daily newspapers, the role of today’s critic, somebody once said, is like ‘one who describes an accident to an eyewitness’. This day-after-the-event kind of reporting is no longer relevant. I mean, the event is gone, it’s one person’s subjective impression. I think critics back in Schumann’s day were leaders and teachers of their field. Today, you sometimes get a sports reporter who’s recruited because the music critic can’t make it, or the music critic will report on a program that was not played, stuff like that (laughs).

EH: You’ve now lived with focal dystonia for half a century. For your many devoted listeners, I must ask, how is your hand today ? Has there been any progress in our understanding and treatment of what you’ve had to go through ?

Fleisher: I am not aware of any real progress that has been made in the treatment of focal dystonia. There are some experts in the field who claim that you have to totally retrain your brain. It is a neurological movement disorder, much in the nature of Parkinson’s. I think Parkinson’s is the most prevalent neurological movement disorder, then comes a category called essential tremors, and then comes dystonias, of which focal dystonia is only a part. There’s a kind called general dystonia, which results in very painful muscular contractions all over the body. Focal dystonia does not involve pain, as it only involves one or two sets of muscles. I don’t know anybody who really has focal dystonia who has truly conquered it.

EH: I must ask, is there a composer who you are rediscovering today, someone who continues to inspire through their works ? And is there a little known composer whose works you believe students should explore more ?

Fleisher: Oh, yes, there are always people I’m learning about that I wish I had the time to explore more. Schnabel himself was an extraordinary composer, and actually thought of himself more as a composer than as a pianist. He wrote absolutely rhapsodic music, and endless pieces. All of his pieces, I think, are 45 minutes long! (laughs) Nothing of the little tidbit variety for him…

There are some musicians that I wish I had time to examine more. Leon Kirschner, I think, is an extraordinary composer. Absolutely beautiful, beautiful music. I haven’t had the time to investigate Carter, after a certain point. These are all great minds, great souls, and great personalities.

EH: It is the responsibility of the performer to be as faithful to the score as possible. Is it possible for great performers to surpass or go beyond the vision of the composer ? Samuel Barber was astonished by what Horowitz could do with form and structure, and I’m also thinking of someone like Glenn Gould.

Fleisher: Glenn brought an extraordinary awareness and imagination – he had a very plastic mind - and he was capable of growing, of changing too. Bach offers a very rich field for differentiation of approaches because he was so unspecific about what he did, in terms of performance. But every time one plays a piece, it’s an opportunity not so much to go where the composer didn’t, but to come closer to what one conceives of as being the experience of the composer or the intention of the composer.

If you take a piece like Op. 110 of Beethoven, that whole introduction to the slow movement, in the space of something like six measures, are some 22 or 23 different instructions by Beethoven on how to play those six bars. And each time you play, it is an opportunity to get closer to what you think is the combined intention of that. I don’t think of that as surpassing Beethoven. These people are some of the most singular in the history of mankind. These are giants of human expression, of human awareness, and I think it would be a little arrogant to think of going beyond them.

EH: Mr. Fleisher, it’s been a pleasure and an honour. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Fleisher: Thank you, Elijah. It was my pleasure. And best of luck to you!