By Carolyn Conte
Pianist Leon Fleisher, who in his 60s returned to music after a neurological condition cost him the use of his right hand and ended his performing career, died on Aug. 2 at the age of 92 in a Baltimore hospice surrounded by family. The cause was cancer. Fleisher spent his last days teaching and conducting master classes, his son Julian told The New York Times.
Fleisher was born July 23, 1928, in San Francisco. When he was 4, according to 2019 profile in Washington Jewish Week, his immigrant parents purchased a piano so his older brother could learn to play the instrument.
“I remember hiding in a corner of the living room,” Fleisher told WJW. “The piano teacher came and my brother’s performance was desultory. When the lesson was over and he could go back to the schoolyard and play stickball, he ran out of the house.
“I would then go to the piano myself and replicate his lessons in a way that made the piano teacher very happy. Eventually, my parents caught on and switched the lessons from my brother to me.”
He performed in public at age 8, and within two years was studying in Italy under Austrian composer Artur Schnabel. Fleisher debuted with the New York Philharmonic at 16. In 1959, he moved to Baltimore to teach at the Peabody Institute where he would work for more than 60 years. However, a neurological condition known as focal dystonia soon cost him the use of his right hand.
WJW wrote that Fleisher became somewhat rebellious after that. He grew a beard and a ponytail and took up driving a Vespa. “I tooled around Baltimore in a most reckless manner,” he said.
But Fleisher couldn’t quite give up the piano. Well into his 60s, he finally was able to play piano with only his left hand. He even formed a duo with his wife in 2003. Together they performed worldwide and recorded celebrated albums.
In 2006, France’s minister of culture gave Fleisher the honor Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters. That same year, a documentary about his focal dystonia was nominated for an Academy Award.
Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Institute, told the Baltimore Sun that “Leon’s remarkable gifts as a musician, pianist and teacher, were matched only by his charm, wit, intelligence and warmth as a human being.”
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s guest pianist Lura Johnson told the Sun: “Leon was just an angel. As he progressed, his musicianship did nothing but grow deeper. … He liked the German composers and his music did not seek to impress or merely entertain. He sought the deep stuff and he sought to speak the truth.”
In 2007, critic Harvey Steiman wrote “If Bach had a modern piano, this is how he’d play it.”
Fleisher is survived by his wife, Katherine Jacobson; his children, Deborah, Leah, Richard, Paula and Julian; and two grandchildren.
Carolyn Conte is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week.