An Interview with Leon Fleisher
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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 [End Page 417] 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 in her teens that prevented her from performing.] Anyway I remember very clearly that he was always very nattily dressed. He wore spats. He had a cane, he had no reason for the cane, but it was something that he could swing. He [End Page 418] was bald except for two little wisps on the sides of his head, and he wore a pince-nez. And he drilled me—in finger qua hammer—on the keyboard. And I think in his book it was not really a good lesson until he made me cry. But then whenever that happened, he would always take me out to lunch after the lesson and feed me lamb chops. And to this day lamb chops are my very favorite food—it's always a sign of a job well done. [Laughter]
Weiss: Rib or loin?
Weiss: Rib or loin?
Fleisher: Loin! Loin! Uh, when I worked with Lev, his name was Lev Shorr, I came to the attention of two people, both of whom were conductors. One was the past conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, one Alfred Hertz, bearded, a victim in his young years of polio, so he had a real limp à la [Eugene] Ormandy, also bald, spectacles, wire spectacles, really somebody from the time of Mahler. Mr. Hertz conducted one of the first performances of Tristan at the Met. Anyway he was the past conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, married to a mezzo-soprano Lili Hertz. She had a head of white ringlets and used to sing "Traum durch die Dämmerung" of [Richard] Strauss [laughs]. And they had a protégé, a young Australian, Leslie Hodge. Anyhow, Hertz, having left the San Francisco orchestra, immediately founded, with the blessing of the Roosevelt administration, the WPA orchestra, the Works Progress Administration. It was the time of the Depression, and it gave a lot of musicians work and part of their directive was to go out and give school concerts for kids. And what could be more timely than to have a kid as a soloist. So I remember I gave about a half-dozen school concerts under the baton of Leslie Hodge, their protégé. I played the B-flat Beethoven Concerto, sometimes the first movement, sometimes the last movement, never the slow movement for some reason.
Anyhow, that's when I started to play with the orchestra a bit, and I was also, through friends, brought to the attention of [Pierre] Monteux, who was the then conductor of the San Francisco Symphony [End Page 419] Orchestra. And Monteux and Hertz knew that both of them had an interest in me, and they both agreed that the person I should study with was Schnabel [Artur Schnabel (1882–1951) was born in Silesia, studied with Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna, composed, performed and taught. He was renowned for focusing on the German masters, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms]. And I almost forgot, while Shorr was my teacher, I gave my first recital, when I was eight. Then it was recommended that I needed more training in German repertoire, and they found a teacher for me who was the organist at the Temple Emanuel, a very mild, a very sweet gentleman called Ludwig Altman. He had good Germanic training and took a certain amount of vinegar out of my playing that I had developed with Shorr. I had a few lessons with another (I don't know why I kept changing teachers). There was one, a Dane who lived in Berkeley across the Bay, Gunnar Johansson, who actually ended up, I think, at University of Wisconsin. He was a Busoni advocate, that was it. [Johansson lived in Canada and was a student, along with Victor Borge, of the famous pianist and Busoni pupil, Egon Petri, who was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1881 and died in Berkeley in 1962; Fleisher didn't mention Petri in this account.]
Anyhow, these two gentlemen, Hertz and Monteux, both recommended Schnabel. And Schnabel was contacted and told the story, and he was very sweet. He gently declined, saying that he wouldn't accept anybody, never accepted anybody, under sixteen, because he found they didn't really understand what he was talking about. Schnabel, whenever he came out west to California, would always dine with the Hertzes, and then play bridge afterwards. Bridge was a very social game at that time. There are pictures of the Schnabels and the Szells bunched up together, rather awkwardly holding hands of cards and posing for the camera, big grins on their faces, very funny. So Lili Hertz devised a ruse. Next time Schnabel (in the late winter of '38) came out to San Francisco to play, he was invited to dinner with [End Page 420] the Hertzes. They lived way out Pacific Heights or Broadway (what is called Delmar) with a lovely view of the Golden Gate Bridge, which had just been finished, I think. And, you know, the dining room was enclosed by French doors, and while they were having dinner, Lili had me snuck in through the garage downstairs up the back stairs, quietly into the living room, and I was seated at the piano when they finally, after dinner, opened the French doors to the living room, and there I was. And Schnabel being a gentleman did not refuse to hear me. He gave in. And I played for him. I played "Sonetto del Petrarca" no. 123 of Liszt, and the cadenza to the B-flat Beethoven concerto, which was, you know, written so much later, totally late Beethoven. And afterwards Schnabel was very sweet. He invited me to come study with him starting that summer in Tremezzo, Lago di Como. And that's the way it started.
Weiss: [Turning the conversation toward his cronies, I asked] Is that when you met Piero Weiss? [Piero Weiss, a musicologist, is our colleague at the Peabody Conservatory, a friend and contemporary of Leon's.]
Fleisher: No. I didn't meet Piero until we came back after that summer. We came back to New York. The war clouds had been gathering, and there was an order of Mussolini that the Jews be expelled. He made exceptions for Schnabel, and, well, Toscanini wasn't included, but he included himself. So Schnabel moved from Tremezzo to New York in '39 to the Peter Stuyvesant Hotel, which is on Eighty-sixth Street and Central Park West, a lovely view of the park, apartment 9C. And then I made my debut, I think, when I was sixteen. It was in around there . . .
Weiss: At Town Hall?
Fleisher: No, it was the New York Philharmonic with Monteux. He had asked me the year before when I was fifteen. Actually when I was fourteen, he asked me to play the Liszt A major concerto with his San Francisco Orchestra, and the next year the D minor Brahms concerto [End Page 421] when I was fifteen. He liked that so much that when he guest conducted in 1944, he brought me along as a soloist in the D minor. And I think it was during one of the visits to the Steinway basement, where we would choose our concert instruments . . . you know, I still do that to this day. And you'd go down there, and they'd let you practice on the pianos. And that's when I met Gary [Graffman, born in 1928, was a child prodigy, student of Isabelle Vengerova and Rudolph Serkin, winner of the prestigious Levintritt award and former president of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia; like Fleisher, Graffman had to give up playing due to a condition diagnosed as focal dystonia] and I met Eugene Istomin [Istomin (1925–2003), was another prodigy, Levintritt winner, and student at Curtis], Jacob Lateiner [born 1928 in Havana, Cuba, was a student of Vengerova at Curtis, and later of Arnold Schoenberg; he currently teaches at Juilliard and at the Mannes School of Music] and Piero [Weiss]. Piero was a little peripheral in the sense that he didn't somehow seem to be aiming towards the same performance career as we were, but boy! he could say "Uncle" to Toscanini, and he spoke multiple languages, and he was smart as a whip, and very funny, a very dry sense of humor. And we were all kind of in awe of the next one up our ladder, who was truly wonderful, and gifted, and probably the biggest gift this country had ever produced, and that was William Kapell. Willi was Eugene's senior by some four or five years. [William Kapell (1922–1953) was born in New York and died at the age of 31 in an airplane crash near San Francisco on route back from concertizing in Australia. He studied at the Juilliard School of Music with Olga Samaroff (1880–1948), who was a teacher, pianist, and music critic, born in San Antonio, Texas, with the given name Lucy Mary Agnes Hickenlooper. She was married to the conductor Leopold Stokowski. Kappell was considered by many critics to be the most outstanding pianist of the World-War-II generation. On a personal note, Kappell was introduced to his wife by my father-in-law, Edward H. Weiss, a Chicago artist and advertising executive.] Eugene [End Page 422] was the oldest one in our group. Gary and I are virtually the same age. His birthday is October, mine is July. Lateiner was a knuckle buster from Havana. It was a fun group, but I was always a little bit the black sheep, because I was a student of Schnabel's—and Schnabel was an intellectual. He wouldn't play "Feux follets" [Liszt Transcendental Etude no. 5 in B-flat], Carmen fantasies, or Hungarian rhapsodies. He played Beethoven sonatas. And on his recordings he would rush. And the prevailing description of Schnabel was contained, I don't know if this is apocryphal or not, in a story about Moritz Rosenthal [1862–1946, a Polish–born American pianist, known for his virtuosity] whom I heard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when I was a kid. Rosenthal was giving a class, and in the middle of the class—this was around World War I time—a student rushed in all excited exclaiming, "Maestro, Maestro, did you hear? Schnabel was turned down by the draft." And very icily Rosenthal said, "Of course! No fingers!" [Laughter] And I was the only Schnabel student there. Everyone there knew that Schnabel was revered, but he wasn't popular or glamorous. So I was always a little bit outside.
Weiss: Who were they [Kappell, Istomin, Lateiner, Graffman] studying with? Lhevinne?
Fleisher: No, Kappell studied with Olga Samaroff. Eugene studied with Rudy Serkin. Gary studied with, oh, what's her name, Vengerova. [Isabelle Vengerova, 1877–1956]. Lateiner studied with Vengerova. She was the [Theodor] Leschetizky of her time. [She studied with Leschetizky in St. Petersburg and helped found the Curtis Institute in 1924, joining the faculty at Mannes College of Music in New York in 1933.]
Weiss: Piero too, I think.
Weiss: How old was Schnabel when you studied with him?
Fleisher: He died in 1951. I came to him when I was nine in 1938 Leon turned ten while at Lake Como]. I think he was born in 1897. [End Page 423] [He was actually born in 1882, so Schnabel would have been in his late fifties when Fleisher studied with him. In a subsequent conversation Leon told me he confused the date because that was his father's birth date, and Schnabel was certainly a father figure, and he added, a grandfather figure because he never knew his own grandfather.] I was with him for ten years, until I was nineteen, from nine to nineteen [1938–48]. And the thing about Schnabel's teaching was that, inexorably and inevitably, every lesson he managed somehow to blow our minds! You know, we all would sit in on everybody else's lessons. That's where I got that. It was so wise, because you would hear three to four times as much repertoire. So when you started to learn that piece, you had three or four legs up, and Schnabel never heard the same piece twice successively but maybe a year or two apart, simply because at each lesson, he would tell you everything that he knew about it, everything that he had learned in his whole lifetime. The opening of "Les Adieux" [Beethoven sonata, no. 26, op. 81a], I remember, it's what, fifteen bars? He spent three and a half hours on it, and he never repeated himself. And we didn't have tape recorders so, you know, we would be scribbling furiously and trying to remember, and listen, and he always laughed at us for writing everything down because, he said, "You know, if you were to play this piece for me, I might tell you something totally different." Yeah, I mean one person's mistakes might not be everybody's mistakes. Anyhow, we would reel out of there like inebriates just trying to hang onto every word, and soon after starting to work with him, it got to the point that you could scarcely distinguish between Mozart and Schnabel, or Beethoven and Schnabel, or Brahms and Schnabel. Everything that he did was not only so inspired and so convincing to the utmost, but was also based infallibly in the text.
You know, the nineteenth century was a terrible time for composers, in the sense that in mid-century the species of performer as opposed to performer/composer began to emerge, and these people didn't have [End Page 424] either the taste, the learning, or the gifts that the composers did, and they were becoming more and more numerous and had to consider all the things that would draw the public to their concerts rather than to the others' concerts. So if the composer marked the end of a phrase piano and the performer thought it could have bigger success playing it forte, he'd play it forte because his livelihood was at stake.
And then came, in my opinion, two gentleman who—I like this phrase, I thought of it years ago—really cleaned out the Augean stables of that period. And in their own personal way, but with the same goal in mind and to my sense infinitely more consistently, more inspired. The two men, to my taste, were Schnabel and Toscanini. And the great bugaboo of the nineteenth century, the great musical Chewbacca, was Wagner. He began to give this distended importance [here Fleisher produces a boisterous Buh Buh Buh Bo, as in the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth], and orchestras loved it and conductors loved it, because it gave them time, and it allowed the full richness of the instrumentation to take over, and one was really kind of inundated sensually, which certainly ain't a bad thing. And there are composers for that, like Ravel, Debussy, and certain parts of Brahms, although Brahms really is a Classical composer.
Weiss: Elgar too?
Fleisher: Yes, he also succumbs to the siren's song. But it was Toscanini and Schnabel (being a pianist) who emphasized the importance of ur-text [a printed version intended to reproduce the composer's original intentions as exactly as possible] and that we had a real responsibility as performers, an obligation to try at least to integrate the instructions from the composer and not to go for the easy bluster. And it's really quite astounding, I think, the historical effect of Schnabel. I think everybody who is performing in public today, whether they're aware of it or not, is reacting, to one degree or more, to what Schnabel did and taught.
Weiss: Avoiding the showy? [End Page 425]
Fleisher: Yes, the idea being that the performer is in a very difficult situation, because until we as public can walk into the hall and, instead of a program, be given a score, go to our seats, and read the score with the same joy as if we were hearing it, we as performers are indispensable! We are the only truly indispensable middlemen in this world today. I mean you don't really have to insult peoples' intelligences by having a billion dollar industry called Madison Avenue tell us that Buick is better than Oldsmobile or Biz washes better than Duz. But to bring those black dots on a piece of paper to life, we are needed as performers. We're not the stars, the music is the star. As [Roger] Sessions once said, there's this triadic relationship between composer/performer/listener, and to a certain degree we really have to be almost anonymous. We are the vessel through which the music that comes from the composer reaches the listener, and we can't be a distraction. You go to see an enormously gifted person, enormously gifted like Lang Lang (although he is getting better—a little bit), and he emotes all over the place, and you wind up sitting there saying, "Isn't it impressive how much he feels that music? Isn't that nice?" And you don't hear the music. So it's a very thin line that we tread.
Weiss: Going back to Chewbacca and the Star Wars theme, someone has called you the Obi-Wan Kenobi of piano teachers. Julian, your son [himself a jazz musician], has been quoted as saying, "Teaching is where you found real happiness." You yourself have said, "It's not playing with two hands, it's the music." What is it you love so much about teaching?
Fleisher: Well, I remember the delight that Schnabel took in teaching. Historically that's very interesting in and of itself. There seem to be at least two periods in his life. There are two people that I know who studied with him in Berlin. One was Leonard Shure [1910–1995, an American pianist and teacher who studied with Schnabel in Berlin], who was a phenomenal pianist and if you ever get a chance to hear his recordings . . . [End Page 426]
Weiss: I knew Leonard in Aspen.
Fleisher: A truly phenomenal gift was Leonard. And then also from Aspen, Aube. Did you know Aube Tzerko? [1907–1995, a Canadian pianist and teacher who not only studied with Schnabel, but also married his daughter].
Weiss: No, I didn't.
Fleisher: It was after your time when he came. He was Canadian and ceased to play. I think Aube must have developed dystonia before they even had any idea of what dystonia was, and he never played again. But he taught with great ferocity, and his students just adored him. He was a great guy too. And I had some lessons with him. Of a summer Schnabel would go away for a vacation, and he wouldn't want us to be without any instruction. So one summer he sent me to his daughter-in-law, he sent me to his son many times. My early studies with Schnabel were interspersed to a great degree with studying with his son, Karl Ulrich, who was also an inspiration and who, unfortunately, was his father's son, because in order to develop his own uniqueness, his own oneness, he would bend over backwards to avoid things that his father did, and he became a little idiosyncratic. But one of those summers I studied with Aube also, a couple of those summers. They were great because he lived in the Bronx, and I would go up for a lesson, and after the lesson he would take me down by the elevated tracks to the public tennis courts, and he would teach me how to play tennis. That was wonderful.
Weiss: He [Tzerko] was Eastern European?
Fleisher: Yes, but Canadian. Anyhow those two people studied with Schnabel in Berlin.
And the stories that Leonard would recount of how destructive Schnabel was when he couldn't get something, the disdain in his voice and, you know, Leonard was somehow, at some level, really ruined by Schnabel psychologically. And the same thing with Tzerko, who in his teaching would yell, he would scream, he would cajole. But always he [End Page 427] was such a beautiful personality. And then when I came to Schnabel in '38—these people all worked with him in the '20s in Berlin when he was at the Hochschule—when I came to Schnabel, he had this shortcut silvery hair that shone like a halo around his head and he would smile, he had tobacco-stained teeth because he loved cigars. And his eyes twinkled and never a single tone of voice of abuse. He would become disappointed and impatient when we couldn't respond to what he was asking us to do, but never anything like what those two [Shure and Tzerko] must have gone through, so I find that fascinating.
Weiss: So you never cried, you never went out for lamb chops?
Fleisher: No. With Schnabel? Didn't have to. I was drowned in great sounds and images.
Weiss: We talked about something the other day, but now I want to ask how would you say a musical career in the twenty-first century should be shaped and, in that, think of some of these prodigies who are being exploited today, like the six-year old child who visits the late-night talk shows.
Fleisher: Well, I think the media don't contribute. They are only, I think, potentially harmful because they give rise to totally unreal expectations. It's in the wrong venue. It emphasizes the wrong aspects. Most people today—also because that's what their teachers teach them—concentrate on playing impeccably without a mistake, and some of the things that these young people can do are truly extraordinary, but with the emphasis that they are giving to what they do, they belong more in the circus than the concert stage. They do amazing things at the keyboard. They have more agility than sound.
Weiss: Do you see any positive effect in that it encourages other parents to offer music lessons to their kids? A few years back the so-called "Mozart Effect" boosted record sales and increased the numbers of children enrolling in music lessons. Can that be a bad thing?
Fleisher: No, it can't, but again, you know things like late-night television or daytime exposure give rise to false goals. Just like— [End Page 428] though it's terribly ungrateful of me to say, having won a big competition myself—I do not recommend competitions to my students.
Fleisher: Well, first of all, it prevents you from learning new repertoire. You're honing one program, whatever it is you have to play, and also a competition really depends almost exclusively on the quality of its jury. And these days, in their desire to get juries as catholic and eclectic as possible, you get a juror from Germany, you get a juror from France, one from Bangladesh, one from Kuala Lumpur, and one from the U.S. You're never going to get people who agree on what a piece is about. So what you wind up with is a first-prize winner who has least offended the greatest number of jurors. And juries never like to be embarrassed, so they pick the one who plays the cleanest. So, if you want to view it as a kind of test—it's such a horserace and depends on luck. If you do it just as a way to see where you stand in the world or to see who else is out there and how they sound and how you react under pressure, then maybe it's acceptable, if you like that kind of thing. But I also think if you are going to enter a competition, enter it to win. In other words, don't learn new pieces for the competition and don't play pieces that you've never played before. Go play pieces you know inside out and have played many times. There is a process of growth, of maturation: after having learned a piece, drop it for a year, come back to it a second time, relearn it, and then drop it for another year. By the third time you can begin to think in terms of performing it because it really grows in your subconscious. It evolves, it changes.
Weiss: What kind of decisions do you make in interpreting a muscal work?
Fleisher: That's interesting because I think that's what teaching is really all about. You know, you don't teach a student by saying, "Do this this way and do that that way." You teach a student, or your purpose in teaching a student, is to teach them how to learn. What are the elements that you look for in making your choice, in making your [End Page 429] decisions? What do you take into consideration? Very often you might feel, "Gee, I really think it should go this way, and I think this should be forte." And then you look at the text, and oh my, the composer wrote piano. "What am I going to do?" I think that you have to do piano over and over until that point is arrived at when you begin to understand why the composer put piano there. See, I think these people who wrote the stuff are so infinitely more gifted, and on a totally different level, from most of us performers, that you have to really try to incorporate in a very organic way what they wanted from it.
Weiss: Aren't there times when you might suspect that there is an editorial mistake and feel that another interpretation is warranted?
Fleisher: Sure. Sometimes, you know, if you are learning from a less than authentic edition, you say, "That can't really be. I think it should be this." And that's happened to me a few times. And then I go to an ur-text, and I see then that I was right. The music dictates what the emotion is. You have to be smart enough to be able to discover that. Form, structure, rhythm, all of those things I think are undervalued, underestimated by most teachers. "Let's play flawlessly and emote." And that's very superficial. For example, three or four weeks ago I conducted Beethoven's Fifth Symphony up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the second movement—the lovely cello theme:
Though they were trying to play it beautifully and expressively, if that had been what Beethoven wanted, he would probably have written a different tune, a tune that was lyrical. But he puts this little rhythmic corner on it [Fleisher hums a more detached version of the theme]. So he can't be going for "I love you," you know, it has another edge to it, [End Page 430] slightly jaunty because of the rhythm, and the fact, for example, that the tune in the last movement, which is primal, was his twenty-first attempt on the sketch page. There are twenty other versions before he found that. So that changes the dimension of what he wrote.
Weiss: And that takes someone who will go further than just playing the notes.
Fleisher: And put all your feelings into it. What you have to do is find out what feelings are expressed by the material and then use all your feelings to support that. It's not, you know, Apollonian or Dionysian. The greatest thing about Schnabel was his passion, and everybody called him an intellectual. The implication was that he played with his brain. No, he played with his brain and his heart.
Weiss: Finally, we are getting to personalities, relationships with your collaborators, a conductor, a composer, and a performer.
Fleisher: Ah, dish, dish!
Weiss: Yes. We've talked about the conductor Georg Szell. He has the reputation for having been an SOB. I have heard you talk about and perform the works of Lukas Foss. And finally can you say something about your collaboration with Kathy? [Katherine Jacobson Fleisher] Fleisher: Yes, well, Szell, I think, was a difficult man simply because his own standards were so incredibly high, and his attitude was such that if you agreed to work with him, in whatever capacity—as an orchestra player, as a soloist, whatever it was—you automatically took on the same standards. You would be satisfied with nothing less than what he would be satisfied with. So he always demanded the very utmost. He wasn't sometimes the most diplomatic guy, but he had a warmth at the core of his heart that was, to most of the world, too well-insulated. He did things, he helped people, players in the orchestra, other people in very discreet and quiet ways that others wouldn't know about it. But he was, could be a very good person, and at other times he was horridly difficult. [End Page 431]
Weiss: What about Lukas Foss?
Fleisher: Foss? Wonderful, and such a natural gift and so oblivious in his way. I don't know if I ever told you the story. It was at Tanglewood. He's also a July birthday, I think, earlier, I think around the seventeenth. [Leon's is the twenty-third.] He celebrated his birthday while he was there, one of the summers that I was there. And Kathy and I just racked our brains. We couldn't think of anything to get him for his birthday. So it was the last day, and I just had no idea, so we ran down to a tee-shirt shop and got one of these white tee-shirts and had imprinted on it "To LF from LF." Have I told you this?
Weiss: No, but when you performed the concerto he wrote for you [April 24, 2004, for the Grand Celebration marking the completion of an enormous construction project at the Peabody Conservatory], the birthday greeting pops up.
Fleisher: He couldn't decipher the tee-shirt inscription. He had no idea what it meant. I had to explain it to him. I literally had to explain it. But don't say he has no sense of humor because he wrote a "Happy Birthday" to me that was all Richard Strauss, it was all Don Juan [hums], I'll play it for you sometime.
Weiss: I would love that.
Fleisher: But when I explained it to him, he was so delighted, like a child. He thought it was absolutely génial. So he used that to end the concerto, the Boston Symphony commission.
Weiss: And now you are playing with Kathy.
Fleisher: Yes. It's like life, it's wonderful, and at times, a great source of dispute. You know, it can best be described as when you play four hands at one piano, one person has to pedal, right? Usually it's the one on the bottom, that's why I play bottom. I like the bottom. Sometimes I have difficulty satisfying her needs for pedal, so we've invented a new tort law for divorce, a new category. It's called "irreconcilable pedaling."
Weiss: That's great. I thought you were going to say that you would get Steinway to consider . . . [End Page 432]
Fleisher: A double pedal. [Laughs] It won't work. But things we have considered are switching off. You do eight bars. I do eight bars.
Weiss: Did I ever tell you that at one of my musicology meetings, during a conversation about whether we needed PhDs to teach our discipline, a well-known professor described being inspired and having learned more about music from someone who had no such degree. That person was you! Can you just say a word about music's interaction with other arts and the future of music learning?
Fleisher: Well, yes. Whoever decided that a music education should conform to a liberal arts education in time—that is, in the number of years of undergraduate and then post-graduate education—has nothing to do with reality. And unfortunately, it becomes one of the round holes that people try to stick square pegs into.
One of the things you have to explain to young people is that what you communicate in a performance in playing the piece is your awareness of what's happening in that piece. Anything in life that you can do, that can sharpen or sensitize your awareness, will only contribute. First of all as a human being, in our interactions one with another, it's all awareness. So if you go to a performance of Henry V and are confronted with concepts about courage and nobility, both quiet courage and quiet nobility, and the pre-attack Howard Dean, that's what it's all about. As for Classical Music, it will prevail.
Weiss: And last, but not least, can you mention some of your happiest recordings?
Fleisher: [without skipping a beat] Mozart K. 503, Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme from Paganini, the Schubert B-flat sonata, and "Sheep May Safely Graze."
[There is a download available in mp3 format of these last two, plus Chopin, Debussy and Scarlatti at: http://www.emusic.com/album/Leon-Fleisher-Two-Hands-MP3-Download/10842350.html [End Page 433]
Susan Weiss has a joint appointment at the Peabody Conservatory and in the Department of German and Romance Languages at the Johns Hopkins University. She is presently at work on two books, one a textbook of Renaissance music and the other a collection of essays on musical learning in the early modern era.