Pianist / Conductor / Teacher  Leon  Fleisher

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Leon Fleisher

Andrew W. Mellon Chair in Piano

As a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007, pianist Leon Fleisher was recognized as a "consummate musician whose career is a testament to the life-affirming power of art."

The child prodigy [born July 23, 1928] began to study the piano at the age of 4 and by the age of 9, the legendary Artur Schnabel invited him to be his student, first in Lake Como, Italy, and then in New York, where Mr. Schnabel nurtured and inspired the young Fleisher for the next 10 years as he evolved into one of the great music masters of our time. Leon Fleisher made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Pierre Monteux, when he was 16 years old. Maître Monteux called him "the pianistic find of the century."

Mr. Fleisher went on to international renown, becoming the first American to win the prestigious Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition in Brussels in 1952. He subsequently enjoyed a prolific recording career, most notably with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, recordings recognized as among the great collaborations in the concerto repertoire.


In 1965, before a scheduled tour of Russia with the Cleveland Orchestra, Leon Fleisher began to suffer symptoms of a debilitating condition of his right hand, later diagnosed as focal dystonia, a neurological condition that causes the fingers to curl into the palm of the hand.

After a period of great despair, Mr. Fleisher channeled his creativity in new directions, mastering the piano repertoire for left hand and initiating a career in conducting. He renewed his dedication to teaching at Peabody, where he has been the inspiration to hundreds of students since 1959. Leon Fleisher holds the Andrew W. Mellon Chair at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. As a teacher, he has carried on a tradition that descends directly from Beethoven himself, handed down generationally through Carl Czerny, Theodor Leschititsky, Artur Schnabel, and Leon Fleisher himself.

In the mid-'90s, with the combined therapies of Botox injections and Rolfing, he regained sufficient use of his right hand, leading to an extraordinary career renaissance. In 2003, Mr. Fleisher joined forces with his wife, pianist Katherine Jacobson, to form the Fleisher-Jacobson Duo, giving concerts world-wide and recording for Sony Classical. Leon Fleisher released the album Two Hands in 2004, which went on to hold a Top 5 Billboard Chart position and was hailed by critics as one of the best recordings of the year. Two Hands is also the title of the Oscar nominated documentary film about his amazing life story.


In 2013, Sony Classical issued a 23-CD box set of his entire recorded output, and in 2014, Fleisher released his first solo CD in a decade, the Grammy nominated All The Things You Are.

In 2006, in Paris, Leon Fleisher received the honor of Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters by the Minister of Culture of the French government. 

At age 86, in addition to his teaching at Peabody, Mr. Fleisher continues with an international schedule of master classes, performances, and orchestral guest conducting.

--  Yury Shadrin, assistant to Leon Fleisher [Text only - birth date and photos added] 
[Posted on the website of the Peobody Institute of Johns Hopkins University] 

In March of 1995, Fleisher was in Chicago and I had the chance to spend a few minutes with him.  At that time he was still concentrating on the left-hand repertoire, and as I was setting up the tape recorder he bemoaned the fact that he was right handed . . . . . . . . . 

Bruce Duffie:    Is it really terrible to be right-handed?

Leon Fleisher:    Sure, certainly.  But you learn to live with it.  You learn to find other ways of relating to music, and thank heavens there’s a rather sizable left-hand literature, certainly even in terms of concerti.

BD:    Aside from the very obvious, what is the difference between playing a two-hand concerto and playing a single-hand concerto?

LF:    Really scarcely anything, except you probably have to place yourself in front of the keyboard a little differently, a little higher along the keyboard.  Depending on the work, you might have to kind of hang on to the upper part of the piano with your right hand.  It’s a question of balance, also.  You sit differently, a little bit.  Instead of being square on both buttocks, your right buttock begins to be a kind of fulcrum.  You sometimes have to extend your left leg to counterbalance yourself.  You get into weird positions.

fleisherBD:    Are you going to wind up looking like Rigoletto, with a little hunch on the back?

LF:    I only wish I could sing like Leonard Warren.  I’d be happy!  I wouldn’t mind!  [Laughs]

BD:    In these left-hand pieces, do they make the left hand work the same amount as two hands, or does it have to work much, much more?

LF:    Oh, basically much more.  I give a number of left-hand recitals.  There are a lot of solo pieces, but I’d say 80 or 90 percent of them are really not worth playing.  So of the more than a thousand solo pieces that exist, I daresay more than two different recital programs would be difficult to come by.  But that is an exhausting experience because there’s no let up.  When you play with two hands, you can ease up on the left hand when the right hand is important, or ease up on the right hand when the left hand is important.  You’ve got five fingers on the left hand, and that’s it.

BD:    Are there ever times when you wish you could just maybe take an index finger of the right hand and do the added punch or something?

LF:    Not really.  You need more.  You really want to use the other five, as it were, the mirror image.

BD:    Have the composers who have written left-hand literature understood writing for just the left hand?

LF:    For the most part, yes.  It’s one of those limitations that seems to create a certain extra juice of creativity in the composer.  [Names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.Lukas Foss just wrote me a piece, a concerto commissioned by Boston Symphony Orchestra, and he quotes Goethe as saying, “Limitations are the food of the creator.”  He explains that the forms we use
sonata form, fugue form — are all limitations.  They’re external structures that we impose upon ourselves to create within them.

BD:    The sonata form and the fugue form can be stretched a little bit, but now you have just the five fingers.

LF:    Oh, sure.  Certainly, but it still is a limitation.  But there are different styles.  For example, in the Ravel concerto, Ravel himself said that he wished that the listener, when listening with eyes closed, would perceive that nothing was amiss
in other words, that it would sound like two hands.  So he wrote in the most extraordinary way, producing a kind of vertical impression that is possible when you use two hands with ten fingers.  Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten adopt a kind of horizontal line, particularly Britten.  The left hand becomes like an instrument in the orchestra, so even though he uses full orchestra, it’s almost like chamber music, in a sense.

BD:    Because the left hand gravitates toward the lower end of the piano, what if someone was missing the left hand and was playing only with the right hand?  Would that require different compositional techniques and different kinds of melodic uses?

LF:    It’s quite interesting.  There is virtually nothing written for right hand alone.  There might be the occasional study, the occasional etude, but it is just further proof that of the three main elements in music
— rhythm, harmony and melodymost people think the tune, the melody’s the most important, and it is the least important!  Rhythm is the most important, and harmony comes next, and the left hand is admirably suited to make rhythm and harmony fundamental down in the bass of the instrument.  You can just tap out the tune with the thumb.  The right hand is malformed to be able to play alone, so that’s why nothing is written for it.

BD:    So it would be completely impossible to play one of the left-hand pieces with the right hand?

LF:    Virtually, yes, because the thumb is placed incorrectly.


BD:    Do you encourage composers to write music for left hand alone?

LF:    Oh, I’ve been very lucky.  Yes, I’ve been the source of a certain number of additions to the repertoire, and I’m very proud, because they will last far longer than I will.  As I mentioned, Lukas Foss, and Gunther Schuller wrote a wonderful piece for three hands
two pianos, three hands, so it’s like an extended piano.  It’s truly astounding, a wonderful piece.

BD:    Wasn’t there a couple where the man had just one hand, and the woman had two hands?

LF:    That was Cyril Smith and his wife, Phyllis Sellick, that’s right.  His injured hand was the left hand, so it was written for right hand, but then her two hands. 
[Smith and Sellick performed together and made many international tours and recordings as a duo. Composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams (Introduction and Fugue 'For Phyllis and Cyril') and Lennox Berkeley (Concerto for Two Pianos) wrote music specially for them.  Their career continued even after Smith lost the use of his left hand following two strokes.  The couple would play specially devised material for three hands, including a concerto written for them in 1969 by Malcolm Arnold (Concerto for Piano 3 Hands and Orchestra, Op. 104, sometimes known as Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril).]  Curtis Smith wrote me a wonderful concerto which I’m playing in New York soon.  It is a wonderful piece, a Gilmore commission.  Bill Bolcom is in process of writing for me.  He’s been commissioned by Baltimore Symphony, Saint Louis, and I think two or three other groups to write a concerto for Gary Graffman and myself.  It will be a concerto for two left hands and two pianos.  Bolcom studied with Darius Milhaud who wrote two string quartets that can be played as separate quartets, but then can be combined into an octet, the same piece.  That’s what Bill Bolcom is doing.  He’s writing a chamber concerto for Gary, a chamber concerto for me, separate pieces but that can be combined into a double concerto.  It’s going to be a gas, as they say!  [Laughs]

BD:    That sounds wonderful, like forming a puzzle.

LF:    Yes.  Absolutely, yes.  That’s for a year from now, April, ’96.  [See portion of review below.]

MUSIC REVIEW;Left-Handed Concertos Are a Match
Published: April 30, 1996 in The New York Times

While showing welcome interest in new music, the classical music business seems to be trying to eliminate the composer from the process. We've had operas by rock stars, oratorios by committee, even an opera ostensibly composed by a librettist. So it is good to report that when the Baltimore Symphony played three works by William Bolcom at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, the composer took center stage. Thanks to a highly irregular commissioning request, Mr. Bolcom was able to show off the true virtuosity of the art of composition, and received a virtuoso's applause.

The premise for "Gaea," a sequence of three piano concertos, might easily have devolved into a gimmick. David Zinman, the director of the Baltimore Symphony, wished to increase the repertory for Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, two pianists beset by hand problems. (Mr. Fleisher has since resumed two-handed playing.) Remembering Milhaud's two quartets that overlap to form a single octet, the conductor commissioned two left-handed concertos that can also be played simultaneously as a two-piano super-concerto.

Mr. Bolcom hesitated before undertaking this deliriously difficult task, as he testified in a program note. The two concertos had to sound full-bodied on their own, then fuse together without creating a noisy jumble.

He further limited himself by avoiding the extravagant polyphonic effects of his earlier, more radical pieces. "Gaea" is set in a trim, refined Neo-Classical idiom, reminiscent of Milhaud and Hindemith, also with a touch of Messiaen in the sumptuous piano writing.

I wonder if any composer could have managed it with complete conviction. Mr. Bolcom came very close. He created a distinctive chamber orchestra for each concerto: flutes, clarinets, trumpets, trombones and violas for the first, oboes, bassoons, horns and other strings for the second. The opening movement is scherzolike in Concerto No. 1, more solemn and expansive in No. 2. The second movement is, by turns, lugubrious and songful. The finale in both pieces is a set of quicksilver fugal variations on the notes G-A-E-A.   (. . . )

BD:    Are all of these pieces being written for you, or are they being written for Joe Left-Handed Pianist?

LF:    No, they’re being written for me, I must admit.  Leon Kirchner just finished a solo piece for me.

BD:    You played his concerto many years ago!

LF:    Yes, the Second Piano Concerto which I commissioned.

BD:    Should the two-handed pianists adapt, or just simply perform some of the one-hand piano literature?

LF:    They do.  The Ravel is often played by two-handed pianists.

BD:    [Sighs]  But not much else.

LF:    No.  There’s a large literature for two hands, and that is sufficient unless you’re in the mood for a kind of amusement.

BD:    Have a drink in the right hand?

LF:    Yeah!  I’ve seriously contemplated learning how to juggle with one hand.  [Both laugh]  A lot of these pieces I play and conduct them at the same time, which is great fun.  I’ve done that often with these three that have just come out on disk, the Ravel, the Britten Diversions, and Prokofiev Fourth.


BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about music in general.  You’re both a performer and an administrator and a teacher and a conductor.  How do you divide your time amongst all of this activity?

LF:    It’s not difficult.  It’s really not difficult, because it’s all involved with music, just different aspects of music.  It’s because of this that I haven’t had a vacation in I don’t know how many years, but I don’t need a vacation because going from one activity in music to another is a rest from the previous activity.  Yet it’s always invigorating and stimulating and exciting.  So I live an extraordinarily satisfying, gratifying life!

BD:    Do you get enough time to practice, especially the new pieces?

LF:    That can be a problem.  I’m beginning to get nervous because Bill Bolcom hasn’t sent me a note yet, nor has he sent Gary a note.  I think these concertos have subtitles.  Mine is called Hell, and Gary’s is called Heaven, and I think Gary is complaining!  I don’t think he wants heaven!

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Will it be his problem, then, to make it sound like heaven, and your problem to make it sound like hell?

LF:    Like hell?  I really don’t know.  Eventually we will probably interchange.

fleisherBD:    And then the conductor gets purgatory?

LF:    Yes, yes.  Well, that goes without saying.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Do conductors understand the limitations of the single-hand concerto?

LF:    There’s no limitation.  Music is music, whether you play it on the kazoo, or one-handed instrument, or whatever.  The musical demands and considerations are first and foremost on the top.

BD:    Let me ask the big question, then.  What is the purpose of music?

LF:    I’m not sure what the purpose of music is.  [Pauses a moment]  Music is an activity that is ennobling, enriching, empowering.  It exercises the finest aspects and instincts of human nature.  I’m quite convinced that it makes us better people.  It’s a manifestation of the fact that we are human and not animals.  Unfortunately, the political scene today doesn’t seem to take that into consideration.

BD:    But music will survive, won’t it?

LF:    Oh, without doubt.  No question.  These political things are cyclical.

BD:    Should they even be taken into account, or just simply ignored?

LF:    To the extent that they represent some kind of official point of view, I think yes they have to be combated.  They have to be at least coaxed into the open, and discussed.  Lay the issues open for all to hear and decide.

BD:    Staying with the political just for a moment, and then we’ll get off it... Is this kind of new political climate where they’re almost setting the arts adrift completely different than, say, the Nazis, who were trying to stamp out some music, or all music?

LF:    Yes, I think you’re right.  We are really the only civilized nation in the world that is taking this approach.  France, for example, which is a much smaller country than we are, have until recently devoted one percent of their GNP to the arts — theater, ballet, symphony, opera, the whole shebang.  It’s now diminished to .93 percent, but the total of that .93 percent is a little over two billion dollars per annum!  This from France, a little country in comparison to ours.  That’s rather interesting.  Are they all weird people?  Are they all strange?  Are they all wimps?  What’s the matter with those people, devoting all that money to art???  Well, of course, they know.  They’re a little bit older than we are in terms of history.  In spite of all that has happened in the last 50 years, we are a very insulated country.  These two oceans really act as barriers, in a sense, and make it difficult for us to realize that there are other points of view, other histories, other cultures that are far richer and far wiser.  We are on a track.  We love highways.  We love superhighways, and we love information superhighways, and we forget that information is not knowledge and knowledge is certainly not wisdom.  We seem to have little need for wisdom, and it’s a very dangerous thing.  We want facts.  We want simple facts so that we can make quick judgments.  We don’t want to have to mull over things and weigh this aspect against that aspect.

BD:    Is the music that you play for everyone?

LF:    Not necessarily, no, and that doesn’t mean that it’s elite.  Baseball isn’t for everyone.  It’s not to everybody’s taste.  All things are not for everyone, but there are aspects to the arts that are very, very vital, and it’s important to realize that.  I think it was Senator Fulbright who said that the unrestrained pursuit of profit is going to have to stop at some point, and that’s what we seem to be involved in with this bank crisis, money, the slumping dollar, the rising mark, the rising yen.

BD:    Obviously, you’re not chasing dollars.  What are you chasing?

LF:    I don’t know.  I’m chasing notes.  [Laughs]  I love the beauty, these evanescent and ephemeral beauties of spirit and soul and joy.  Maybe I’m just an obsessive-compulsive.

BD:    Maybe that makes a more brilliant pianist.

LF:    I’m not so particularly concerned about brilliant pianism.  I’m concerned about the beauties of music, and exposing them to younger generations.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You do a lot of teaching of the younger generations.

LF:    A lot.

BD:    Is this piano technique or literature or history or what?

LF:    Piano technique is merely the ability to do what you want.  Any technique is the ability to achieve what you want.  As I say, I’m interested in the communication of music.  I studied with one of the great, great teachers of the twentieth century, and a man who loved to teach
Schnabel.  I’ve come by my love and enthusiasm for teaching therefore very legitimately.  He was an extraordinary role model.


BD:    Can we really understand his genius through the faded recordings that we have of him?

LF:    Oh, yes!  Even today, these
faded recordings have a kind of beauty about them, a beauty of sound, even, that is not achieved by your latest CDs with all this technical expertise.  Schnabel can play a tone, a single note, and it can just float, float, float endlessly in the air.  It’s beautiful.  It’s very special.

BD:    Do you try to reproduce that in your own playing?

LF:    When I feel it’s called for, yes.  Sure.

BD:    Are you able to pass this to the next generation, so they can float, float, float the tone?

LF:    Yes, I think so.  Curiously enough, without trying to be Pollyanna, that’s the one great advantage of this repetitive stress syndrome that has struck my right hand and prevented me from following a two-handed career.  Since I’ve not been able to demonstrate for my students, I have had to learn to verbalize and articulate my thoughts and feelings in a much more irresistible, if you will, or a much more unmistakable manner.  As a result I’ve become a far better teacher than I was before.  It’s forced me to really think about what it is that I’m doing, and what I think has to be done, and what one works for.  Instead of saying, “Get off the chair.  Let me sit down and let me show you,” one begins to really get to the heart of the matter with words
as far as words can take you, and they can take you pretty far.

BD:    Without mentioning names, are you pleased with the progress that your students are making?

LF:    Yes.  I have some very gifted students, and I’m very proud of them.

fleisherBD:    Let me ask about recordings.  Do you play the same for the microphone that you do for an audience?

LF:    One tries, but it doesn’t quite work out that way, somehow.  There is a give and take with a live audience that I find very useful, and there’s a kind of concentration that they can provide which is very helpful.  This dead and inanimate object of a microphone doesn’t give very much, I find.

BD:    Does it give at all?

LF:    It doesn’t give anything.  The performer has to supply it all, and I find that a live audience can be very helpful.

BD:    You’re embarking on more and more conducting.  Does this please you?

LF:    Yes, yes.  Very satisfying.

BD:    Does it make you a better conductor, having been a first-rate performer all these years?

LF:    I think so, without a doubt.  Those conductors who have not gone through the crucible of professional instrumental performance are lacking something.  If you go up and down the list, all the great conductors have had an instrument, and many of them are pianists.  Many of them not, but they’ve been through that crucible.

BD:    Does it make you an especially comforting accompanist for a pianist?

LF:    I think so, yes.  In fact, I enjoy fulfilling that role, being a kind of assistant to other younger pianists.  The last time I had anything to do with the Cliburn Competition in Texas, I had been a juror a number of times, and then I was invited yet again, but I just couldn’t take it anymore.  So I told them, “I’d love to help, so let me conduct the orchestra.  Let me conduct the finals, because I certainly know the literature, and maybe I can be of help to the young five or so finalists.”  That was great fun.

BD:    Do you have some advice to conductors coming along?

LF:    Yes.  It ain’t your moves that are important; it’s how much you know about the music.  At Tanglewood we’re very much involved with the propagation of young gifted conductorial talent.  The history of conductors at Tanglewood is an extraordinary one; it’s a noble one.  The list really goes from Abbado to Zinman, with a lot of incredible names in between.  So as director, it’s incumbent upon me to search out and look for new conducting talent, and it’s getting tougher and tougher all the time.  The young conductors today seem to feel that their gyrations and their moves, as it were, like young Michael Jackson’s, are more important than their knowledge and understanding of the material, and their experiencing of the material.  They seem to feel that through these kind of extraordinary mime-like gestures, they can unmistakably and irresistibly convince an orchestra of 90 or 100 professional musicians, and in a sense seduce them into following this interpretation, this point of view, of the piece.  It is not easy to come by.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of conductorial talent?

LF:    There are moments when I’m rather depressed about it, but the great ones are few... [sighs] ‘twas always thus, you know?  [Both laugh]  One of my favorite phrases is, “The level of mediocrity is constantly rising.”  In spite of that fact, the great ones are still few.  One just has to find them and support them.

BD:    What advice do you have for audiences who want to come to more classical concerts?

LF:    Very easy to do.  No problem, just come.  [Laughs]  But go to great music, and go to new music.  That can be very, very stimulating, and angering, and infuriating.  It makes you react.  Reactions are the most important things.

BD:    What advice do you have, then, for composers?

LF:    I wouldn’t deign to advise composers.  They are special people.  It’s very interesting that Tanglewood was created, was formed, by Serge Koussevitzky, who was music director of the Boston Symphony, as an endroit, as a place where composers could come and associate with gifted young performers, and help teach them about the music of the day.  Young performers are really in a difficult spot.  First of all, it takes them a considerable amount of time, from a young age, to master the instrument.  There has to be a neuromuscular adaptation to the instrument.  The instrument, in a sense, has to become an extension of themselves, and that takes time.  Then in order to understand today’s music, they have to be very familiar with and understand the music that has come before, because what is written today is the direct continuation, reaction to, revolt against, what has come before.  So they must understand and be familiar with what has come before.  That also takes time, and the complexities of what is being written today also takes time.  All of these things grow and mature and ripen in the subconscious.  That takes time.  Our society today seems to afford us less and less time, unfortunately.

BD:    Speaking about time, you have spent literally half a century performing and giving concerts and sharing music.  Are you pleased with what you have seen and what you have done and what you have accomplished?

LF:    I think so, yes.  I wish I might have done more, perhaps, but I’ve always done my best under all kinds of circumstances.  I am not displeased.

*     *     *     *     *

fleisherBD:    You travel all over the world, and each time you go someplace you encounter a new, or at least a different, piano.  How long does it take before that instrument is your own?

LF:    It takes sometimes a good hour to discover the personality, the nature of a new instrument.  Sometimes it happens much faster, depending on the instrument, of course, but people don’t really quite realize the different personalities of different pianos.  They really are like people, and it takes a certain amount of time and experimentation to discover the nature of it, how much you can push it, to what point you can’t go beyond, things like that.  That’s why other instrumentalists who carry their own instruments with them are so lucky.  They’re home with their instruments.

BD:    Do you wish you could be like Horowitz, and travel with your own instrument?

LF:    That might have been nice, but
them days are gone forever!

BD:    Should we place more value on the piano technician?

LF:    I place great value on the piano technician.  He’s one of our saviors.  It also is a race that is declining.  [See my Interview with Franz Mohr, Chief Concert Technician for Steinway & Sons 1968-1992]

BD:    Should pianists today learn electric pianos, or new kinds of instruments?

LF:    No, but I think pianists today should learn about pianos.  They should learn about their instruments, so that if something is malfunctioning they have a general idea of what it might be.  To a certain extent, some of these things are correctable just by somebody who knows the instrument.  You don’t have to be a technician, necessarily.  On the piano I played yesterday afternoon, suddenly the right-hand pedal was squeaking.  I got down on the floor on my back and looked at it, and lo and behold, there was a screw with a handle that had been turned in such a way that it was scraping against the rod of the pedal that was moving up and down.  I just turned it around, and that was fine.  I didn’t have to call the technician.

BD:    I hope that was during rehearsal and not performance!

LF:    Yes, it was during rehearsal.  [Both laugh]

BD:    That’s good.  Thank you for all of the music that you have given us, and for all the music yet to come.

LF:    Mr. Duffie, you are very, very welcome.  It’s been a pleasure talking with you.


© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 6, 1995.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1998 and 2000; on WNUR in 2009, 2010 and 2016; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2009.  This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.