Leon Fleisher, pianist who reinvented himself after losing use of right hand, dies at 92

Mr. Fleisher said his physical limitations forced him to think more profoundly about music, to put into words the technique and nuance that before had been instinctive.
Mr. Fleisher said his physical limitations forced him to think more profoundly about music, to put into words the technique and nuance that before had been instinctive.Stephanie Kuykendal/NYT

Washington Post

Leon Fleisher, the brilliant American pianist who was in his 30s when fingers in his right hand suddenly stopped working, prompting him to reinvent himself as a conductor and teacher, died Aug. 2 at a hospice care center in Baltimore. He was 92.

The cause was cancer, said his son Julian Fleisher, a singer-songwriter and producer.

Mr. Fleisher’s mysterious hand malady — eventually diagnosed as a neurological disorder called focal dystonia — was a dramatic and harrowing turn of events for a onetime child prodigy who had spent his 20s on the post-World War II vanguard of young American pianists.


At 24, he became the first American to win the piano competition established by Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, one of the world’s premier musical contests. That victory launched a major phase of his career. He performed in leading concert halls and became the preferred soloist of George Szell, the formidable conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. His recordings with Szell remain benchmarks for their clarity, precision, and sheer expressive musicality; Brahms’s first piano concerto was a touchstone.

It was also the work with which he made his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut, appearing under the baton of Pierre Monteux in 1954. He subsequently performed with the orchestra dozens of times over the year and served as artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center from 1986 to 1997.

“Leon Fleisher’s devotion to the highest form of excellence in his musicianship and as an educator to the next generation of classical musicians has been deeply felt among all of those he crossed paths with in the Boston Symphony Orchestra family,” said Mark Volpe, the BSO’s chief executive. “Leon’s perseverance in the face of a dire diagnosis and valiant return to the concert stage will forever serve as an inspiration to so many of us so lucky to have known him and worked with him.”


At the early pinnacle of his career, Mr. Fleisher began noticing trouble that led to a cramping in the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand. Redoubling his practicing only worsened the problem. On the eve of a historic tour of the Soviet Union with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1965, Mr. Fleisher realized that he wasn’t able to play at the required level. He canceled the tour and his other upcoming concerts.

The abrupt loss of movement sent him reeling, triggering a depression and a desperate quest to identify and cure what ailed him. “I tried everything from acupuncture to Zen Buddhism,” he later said.

He only gradually surmounted his malaise through a career metamorphosis. He learned the surprisingly large repertory for left-hand piano — and he staged the first of his halting comebacks in 1982 after regaining some use of his right hand.

He remained, in critical estimation, a pianist of sublime musical intelligence whether playing with one hand or two. But he also gained renown off the stage as a conductor and an influential teacher.

His work with the baton led him to explore musical pathways he never would have followed as a pianist. For example, as cofounder in 1968 of the Theater Chamber Players in Washington, D.C., long the resident chamber ensemble at the Kennedy Center, he performed contemporary chamber music.

His group master classes at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, coupled with a stint at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, produced several generations of leading pianists, including André Watts, Yefim Bronfman, and Jonathan Biss.


Mr. Fleisher said his physical limitations forced him to think more profoundly about music, to put into words the technique and nuance that before had been instinctive. “Prior to my problems,” he said, “I would sit down and play to show my students what to do.”

In the classical-music world, he became regarded as a guru, known for his ability to untangle pianistic problems, for his inspiration, and for a series of adages including “Practice less, think more.”

“One of the problems with young musicians today is that they come in with such a sense of high seriousness,” he said in his 2010 memoir, “My Nine Lives.” “The idea of how great this music is tends to fill them with awe. But so much of what we do is about these guys just having fun. That earthiness is a very important part of life.”

Leon Fleisher was born in San Francisco on July 23, 1928, the second son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father, Isidor, was a milliner. His mother, Bertha Mittelman, had great ambitions for her children and insisted on piano lessons for her oldest son, Raymond.

Leon listened in, sat down, then played them more skillfully than his brother. His first teachers soon recognized him as a major talent.

An early mentor, former San Francisco Symphony music director Alfred Hertz, decided Leon should study with the eminent pianist Artur Schnabel. Schnabel didn’t work with children — he did not want to waste time on basics — but 9-year-old Leon was slipped into a dinner party at the Hertzes’ home and presented for a de facto audition. On the spot, Schnabel made an exception to his policy and admitted him to his class at Lake Como in Italy.


Mr. Fleisher’s mother accompanied her son across the Atlantic, then found them a place to live in Manhattan when Schnabel decided to leave for New York amid the approaching world war in Europe. In 1944, 16-year-old Leon made a rousing solo debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, and Monteux, the guest conductor, dubbed him the “pianistic find of the century.”

In 1951, Mr. Fleisher married Dorothy Druzinsky, known as Dot, who came from a noted family of harpists. The next year, still living in Paris, Mr. Fleisher was encouraged to take part in the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Music Competition, and he impressed a lineup of judges that included pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

Despite his flourishing career, Mr. Fleisher learned that he was technically unemployed when he was turned down for a credit card at a major department store. He addressed this failing by taking up his job at Peabody in 1959. Three years later, he and Dot divorced and he married Risselle Rosenthal.

Mr. Fleisher was at the height of his career when he began noticing difficulties with his right hand. “It began as a sense of laziness in my right index finger, a slight sluggishness in its response when I wanted to play a trill,” he wrote in “Nine Lives.” “It continued as a growing sense of clumsiness and a feeling that my fingers weren’t doing what I wanted them to do.”


Mr. Fleisher, performing a left-hand piece at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1995.
Mr. Fleisher, performing a left-hand piece at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1995. STEVE J. GOLDSTEIN/NYT

As he struggled to find direction, he threw himself into teaching and conducting as well as learning the repertory for left-hand piano — most famously Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. But he always blamed the stress surrounding his hand problems for the end of his second marriage.

Several new chapters in his life seemed to be opening by the early 1980s. He met and married Katherine Jacobson, who had been one of his Peabody students, and his hand seemed to improve through surgery for carpal-tunnel syndrome and other regimens. He decided he was ready for a full-fledged comeback, which he scheduled with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when it opened its new Meyerhoff Hall in 1982.

The event was televised live and made news across the country. But as he prepared for the event, Mr. Fleisher was forced to realize that his hand wasn’t where it needed to be. He managed to get through the evening, but his dream of a true rebound seemed over. He later quipped that it was “an evening of pretense.”

In the 1980s, he became the artistic director at Tanglewood, and resigned more than a decade later amid a rift between BSO music director Seiji Ozawa and a number of the center’s administrators.

The conflict centered on Tanglewood’s mission and Mr. Fleisher’s perception that Ozawa’s efforts to bring change to the center’s leadership, and some of its activities, were motivated by the pressures of commercialism. In an angry letter to BSO leadership, Mr. Fleisher blasted Ozawa and others, accusing them of “unprofessional, unprincipled, duplicitous, and totally self-serving” behavior. He also issued a warning for the future, writing: “please, Seiji, beware; you have already put one foot on the dangerous slope. The criteria of the marketplace are inapplicable to Tanglewood.”

In 1991, Mr. Fleisher had his first Botox shot in another attempt to cure his hand. He saw some improvement from this and from a massage technique called Rolfing that is designed to release stress from connective tissues.

His 2004 recording “Two Hands,” which moves gradually into pieces of extraordinary complexity, was enthusiastically received, and he continued to play concerts all over the world. He would return as a soloist to the BSO seven more times.

Mr. Fleisher was the subject of Nathaniel Kahn’s Oscar-nominated documentary short “Two Hands” (2006). His awards and honors included the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007.

In addition to his wife and son, he leaves three children from his first marriage, Deborah, Richard, and Leah; a daughter, Paula, from from his second marriage; and two grandchildren.

Jeremy Eichler of the Globe staff contributed to this report.