It may be safe to say that no classical musician alive today has been interviewed more times than Leon Fleisher, the first American to win the coveted Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition at the age of 24 in 1952. His decades of struggle with a medical condition (focal dystonia) that prevented the use of his right hand and the inspiring story of his road to recovery have even been the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary Two Hands by Nathaniel Kahn, son of the architect Louis Kahn. Fleisher's indomitable spirit has been compared to that of Lance Armstrong. On December 2, 2007, he was one of the recipients of the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors. On the day of our interview (May 25, 2007) I announced that I wouldn't be asking him any more medical questions. In fact, what I really hoped he would talk about was his early years and his thoughts on the state of music.
Weiss: Would you talk about the early influences on your career?
Fleisher: That's good. Nobody asks that. I came from a poor Jewish family. I have an older brother Raymond, four and half years older. My father [Isidor, born in Odessa in what is now Ukraine] was a milliner—Anatole of Paris—made ladies' hats, in San Francisco on Geary Street in a little store. One of his first customers—he came home very proud—he said he had a young actress who came into the store and bought a little pill box hat. He was very happy. He thought for a moment: "I think her name was Lucille Ball."
And I don't quite know how or why, but there was an upright piano in our apartment. We lived in apartments and moved around a lot, but mostly in the Fillmore/McAllister area. And Ray, my brother, took piano lessons. He was not too interested, and not very gifted, and in those days, like with doctors, piano teachers came to the house. At the age of five I remember Ray's lessons. I would kind of curl up in a little discreet corner and observe his lessons, and I thought they were really fun. And when the teacher left and Ray would also leave because he'd go out and play ball in the schoolyard, I would go to the piano and apparently do everything that he was supposed to do at the lesson and also the preparation for the next lesson. So eventually Ray got caught up in his school work, and my mom put the lessons on my shoulders and, as I've said frequently before, I had two choices, to become the first Jewish president of the United States or a great pianist.
My mother [Bertha, born in Poland] really was a most extraordinary woman because she was quite uneducated in the formal sense, but she had a real awareness of the artistic and spiritual potential and the possibilities of human existence. She was born in 1900 and died of breast cancer in 1953. In the last ten years of her life she found great solace in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, of all people. She had no formal education, but she would sit and read those words with such an understanding. I think she was part Tartar. If you'd seen pictures of her, the dark skin was a clue. She found a piano teacher for me who taught me how to read music and where the clefs were on the piano, and apparently I learned quickly and outstripped that teacher who said I should go on to somebody more knowledgeable with young people.
So they took me to a Russian—a prodigy maker who had had as his students Yalta and Hepzibah Menuhin also [the sisters of violinist Yehudi Menuhin] and a well-known San Francisco prodigy, Laura Dubman was her name. I think he also gave lessons for a while to Ruth Slenczynska. That was a big thing. [The American pianist Ruth Slenczynska was a child prodigy who made her debut at age six in Berlin and had an emotional breakdown...