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.
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.”
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.
Teaching became a cornerstone of his life. Hundreds of students have come under his tutelage at festivals and schools, including the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Fleisher is known as a demanding but lovable sage (his nickname is Obi-Wan Kenobi), albeit one prone to outlandish metaphors.
“The use of imagery comes from Schnabel,” he says. “I remember him telling me to play a piece of Brahms as if it were liquid gold -- that’s something you can really see and feel.”
His illness made him a better teacher, he explains, “because I could no longer push a student off his chair and say, ‘This is the way it should sound.’ ” He had to become more creative yet more precise in describing the intangibles that help someone learn to play music from the inside out.
“Mr. Fleisher can express his ideas in a way that is very clear and very moving at the same time,” says the 26-year-old concert pianist Jonathan Biss, who studied with Fleisher for four years. “One thing I learned from him is his tremendous respect for the score, which he believes doesn’t have to translate to something dry.... The score is a living, breathing thing.”
Fleisher also began to perform the intriguing if limited repertoire written for the left hand. The best-known works had been commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost an arm in World War I but was wealthy and well-connected enough to engage the likes of Britten, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Ravel and Richard Strauss. Soon pieces were written for Fleisher as well, by composers including Lukas Foss and William Bolcom. The latter devised a double concerto for Fleisher and his friend Gary Graffman, whose career also had been sidetracked by an impaired hand.
Whether he was optimistic, compulsive, bullheaded -- or all of the above -- Fleisher sat at the piano and tested his fingers every day for three decades. Meanwhile, he tried every possible remedy, including surgery and aromatherapy. In the early ‘90s, he gained some relief through Rolfing, a form of deep-tissue manipulation. He also learned about research into focal dystonia, a condition in which the brain misfires and tells muscles to contract when they shouldn’t. Fleisher entered a clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health, where doctors told him that an injection of botulinum toxin, better known as Botox, might loosen his muscles.
A day after his shot, Fleisher recalls, “I knew it had worked.... There was no ‘aha’ moment, but there was enormous relief and the feeling of ‘Finally!’ ” The first piece he played with two hands was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. The first concert he gave was in 1995 with the Cleveland Orchestra, the group with which he had planned to tour when he retired.
On a fast track
FLEISHER has been making up for lost time. In recent months, he’s been to Japan and France and zigzagged across the United States. He plans to release his third post-illness album this spring and is about to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary with Katherine Jacobson-Fleisher, a former student. And, of course, he will attend his first Oscars ceremony the day after his UCLA Live concert.
As far as he has come, Fleisher knows things will never be the same.
“I am a dystonic,” he says. “There ain’t no cure for that.” He requires Botox injections every four months to ease symptoms that can affect routine skills such as writing or combing his hair. At the keyboard, he must think about what he can and cannot do. He and Laredo will perform Schubert sonatas because they love them, he says, and because “I have to temper my enthusiasm with knowledge of what is within my physical capacity.”
Whatever Fleisher has lost in dexterity he has gained in insight.
“As musicians we always search for what’s behind the notes,” he says. “I can look behind them now and see other layers, other possibilities.”
Where: Schoenberg Hall, UCLA
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Price: $28 to $50
Contact: (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org