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Leon Fleisher

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Leon Fleisher
Fleisher in 1963
Born(1928-07-23)July 23, 1928
San Francisco, California, U.S.
DiedAugust 2, 2020(2020-08-02) (aged 92)
Baltimore, Maryland], U.S.
  • Classical pianist
  • Conductor
  • Pedagogue
Websitewww.leonfleisher.com Edit this at Wikidata

Leon Fleisher (July 23, 1928 – August 2, 2020) was an American classical pianist, conductor and pedagogue. He was one of the most renowned pianists and pedagogues in the world. Music correspondent Elijah Ho called him "one of the most refined and transcendent musicians the United States has ever produced".[1]

Born in San Francisco, Fleisher began playing piano at the age of four, and began studying with Artur Schnabel at age nine. He was particularly well known for his interpretations of the two piano concertos of Brahms and the five concertos of Beethoven, which he recorded with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. With Szell, he also recorded concertos by Mozart, Grieg, Schumann, Franck, and Rachmaninoff.

In 1964, he lost the use of his right hand due to a neurological condition eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia, forcing him to focus on the repertoire for the left hand, such as Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and many compositions written for him. In 2004, he played the world premiere of Paul Hindemith's Klaviermusik, a piano concerto for the left hand completed in 1923, with the Berlin Philharmonic. He regained some control of his right hand then, and played and recorded two-hand repertoire.

He was also notable as a conductor, and especially as a teacher for over 60 years at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, the Curtis Institute of Music and others. He was a Kennedy Center Honors awardee in 2007, among many distinctions.

Early life and studies


Fleisher was born on July 23, 1928, in San Francisco, the son of poor Jewish immigrants Bertha and Isidor Fleisher. His father was from Odessa and his mother from Poland.[1][2][3] His father's business was hat-making, while his mother's goal was to make her son a great concert pianist.[1] Fleisher started studying the piano at age four, and made his public debut at eight. At age nine, he became one of the few child prodigies to be accepted for study with the renowned Austrian teacher Artur Schnabel, who taught him in a tradition that descended directly from Beethoven through Carl Czerny and Theodor Leschetizky.[1] He also studied with Maria Curcio and Karl Ulrich Schnabel.[4][5][6] Fleisher played at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux at age 16, and Monteux called him "the pianistic find of the century."[1]

Performer and recording artist


In the 1950s, Fleisher signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Masterworks. He was particularly well known for his interpretations of the piano concerti of Brahms and Beethoven, which he recorded with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.[7] They also recorded Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25, the Grieg and Schumann piano concertos, Franck's Symphonic Variations, and Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.[8]

When he was 24, Fleisher became the first American to win a prestigious piano competition established by Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, which helped to catapult his career.[9] In 1964, at the age of 36, Fleisher lost the use of his right hand, due to a neurological condition that was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia.[1] In 1967, Fleisher commenced performing and recording the left-handed repertoire while searching for a cure for his condition. His first choice was Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.[1] In addition, he undertook conducting beginning in 1968, and became associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1973,[1] and music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. In the 1990s, Fleisher was able to ameliorate his focal dystonia symptoms after experimental botox injections to the point where he could play with both hands again.[10]

In 2004, Vanguard Classics released Fleisher's first "two-handed" recording since the 1960s,[1] titled Two Hands, to critical acclaim. Two Hands is also the title of a short documentary on Fleisher by Nathaniel Kahn, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best short subject on January 23, 2007. Fleisher received the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors. Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman described him as "a consummate musician whose career is a moving testament to the life-affirming power of art."[11]

Fleisher's musical interests extended beyond the central German Classic-Romantic repertoire. The American composer William Bolcom composed his Concerto for Two Pianos, Left Hand for Fleisher and his close friend Gary Graffman, who has also suffered from debilitating problems with his right hand. It received its first performance in Baltimore in April 1996. The concerto is so constructed that it can be performed in one of three ways, with either piano part alone with reduced orchestra, or with both piano parts and the two reduced orchestras combined into a full orchestra. Composers who wrote music for him also included Lukas Foss, Leon Kirchner and Gunther Schuller.[1]

In 2004, Fleisher played the world premiere of Paul Hindemith's Klaviermusik (Piano Concerto for the Left Hand), Op. 29, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle.[12] This work was written in 1923, for Paul Wittgenstein, who disliked and refused to play it. However, he had sole performing rights and kept the score, not allowing any other pianists to play it. The manuscript was discovered among his papers after the death of his widow in 2002. On October 2, 2005, Fleisher played the American premiere of the work, with the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt.[13] In 2012, at the invitation of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Fleisher performed at the Supreme Court of the United States.[14]

He continued to be involved in music, both conducting and teaching for more than 60 years at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto; he was also closely associated with the Tanglewood Music Center. With Dina Koston, he co-founded and co-directed the Theater Chamber Players in 1968–2003, which was the first resident chamber ensemble of the Smithsonian Institution and of the Pedagogy.[15][16] His students include Frank Lévy, André Watts, Yefim Bronfman, Hélène Grimaud, Louis Lortie, Dina Koston, Jonathan Biss, Lori Sims Nicholas Angelich, Joel Fan, and Galen Deibler.

His memoir, My Nine Lives, co-written with the Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette, came out in November 2010.[17][18]



Fleisher died in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 2, 2020, at age 92.[19][20]

Awards and recognition

President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush with the 2007 Kennedy Center Honorees at the White House. From left: Fleisher, Martin Scorsese, Diana Ross, Brian Wilson and Steve Martin

Honorary doctorates



  • 1956: Schubert: Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960 / Ländler (original LP release), Sony BMG Masterworks, 2008 (digital re-release)[8][31]
  • 1956/1958/1962: Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 (rec. 1958) and 2 (rec. 1962), with the Cleveland Orchestra led by Szell; Handel Variations and Waltzes, Op. 39 (rec. 1956); Sony Masterworks, remastered and reissued 1997[8]
  • 1959: Debussy: Suite bergamasque / Ravel: Sonatine / Valses nobles et sentimentales / Alborado del gracioso (original LP release), Sony BMG Masterworks, 2008 (digital re-release)[8]
  • 1959–61: Beethoven: The Five Piano Concertos, with the Cleveland Orchestra led by Szell (original recordings, remastered), Sony BMG Masterworks, reissued 1990 and in new remastering 2006[8]
  • 1960: Schumann: Piano Concerto and Grieg: Piano Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell (original recordings, remastered and reissued 2004 by Sony BMG)[8]
  • 1960: Liszt: Sonata in B minor / Weber: Sonata No. 4 in E minor, Op. 70 / Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65 (original LP release), Sony BMG Masterworks, 2008 (digital re-release)[8]
  • 1960: Mozart: Sonata in C major, K. 330 / Sonata in E-flat major, K. 282 / Rondo in D major, K. 485 (original LP release), Sony BMG Masterworks, 2008 (digital re-release)[8]
  • 1963: Brahms: Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34 (original LP release), with the Juilliard String Quartet Sony BMG Masterworks, 2008 (digital re-release)[8]
  • 1963: Copland: Piano Sonata / Sessions: 'From My Diary' / Kirchner: Piano Sonata / Rorem: Three Barcarolles (original LP release), Sony BMG Masterworks, 2008 (digital re-release)[8]
  • 1990 reissued: Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25, with the Cleveland Orchestra led by George Szell Sony Classical[8]
  • 1993: Leon Fleisher Recital, Sony Classical[8]
  • 1993: Ravel, Prokofiev, Britten: Piano Works for the Left Hand, Sony Classical[8]
  • 2004: Leon Fleisher: Two Hands, (including a 2004 recording of Schubert: Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960), Vanguard Classics, 2004[8]
  • 2006: The Journey, Vanguard Classics[8]
  • 2007: Brahms: Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34, recorded with the Emerson String Quartet for Deutsche Grammophon[8]
  • 2008: The Essential Leon Fleisher, Sony BMG Masterworks[8]
  • 2009: Mozart: Piano Concertos, including 2008 recordings of the Piano Concertos in A major, K. 414 and K. 488, with Fleisher as soloist and conductor of the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, and of the concerto K. 242 with Katherine Jacobson Fleisher (his wife) as second pianist. Sony BMG Masterworks[8]
  • 2013: Leon Fleisher: The Complete Album Collection, Sony Classical Records[8]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Ho, Elijah (July 23, 2018). "At 90, SF Piano Great Leon Fleisher Continues to Inspire". KQED. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  2. ^ "An Interview with Leon Fleisher". Project Muse. December 2007.
  3. ^ Gereben, Janos (August 4, 2020). "San Francisco Remembers Leon Fleisher". sfcv.org. Retrieved August 5, 2020.
  4. ^ "Karl Ulrich Schnabel". Schnabel Music Foundation. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  5. ^ Immelman, Niel (April 13, 2009). "Obituary: Maria Curcio". The Guardian. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  6. ^ "Maria Curcio". Telegraph.co.uk. April 7, 2009. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  7. ^ "Fleisher Scores as Piano Soloist / Performs Brahms D minor Concerto with Philharmonic — Szell Is on Podium". The New York Times. January 1, 1954. Retrieved February 16, 2019.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Fleisher, Leon; Midgette, Anne (November 30, 2010). My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music. Knopf Doubleday. pp. 311–320. ISBN 978-0-385-53366-9.
  9. ^ Midgette, Anne (August 2, 2020). "Leon Fleisher, sublime pianist undaunted by mysterious hand malady, dies at 92". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 14, 2021.
  10. ^ "The pianist Leon Fleisher: A life-altering debility, reconsidered" by Holly Brubach, The New York Times. June 12, 2007.
  11. ^ "Pianist Leon Fleisher performing Feb. 1". Houston Chronicle. January 6, 2014. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  12. ^ Brug, Manuel (August 3, 2020). "Die linke Hand Gottes". Die Welt (in German). Berlin. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  13. ^ Schaal-Gotthardt, Susanne. "On Hindemith's Klaviermusik mit Orchester (Klavier: linke Hand), Op. 29". hindemith.info. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  14. ^ Tsioulcas, Anastasia (May 16, 2012). "Classical Music Is Supreme at the Nation's Highest Court". NPR. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  15. ^ "Dina Koston". Rogershapirofund.org. Retrieved July 12, 2014.
  16. ^ Kaltenbach, Chris (August 4, 2020). "Leon Fleisher, renowned Baltimore concert pianist, dies at 92". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved August 6, 2020.
  17. ^ "My Nine Lives by Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette | WQXR Features". WQXR. December 19, 2010.
  18. ^ Huizenga, Tom (August 3, 2020). "Leon Fleisher, The Pianist Who Reinvented Himself, Dies At 92". WAMC.
  19. ^ Kozinn, Allan (August 2, 2020). "Leon Fleisher, 92, Dies; Spellbinding Pianist With One Hand or Two". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  20. ^ "Leon Fleisher, the Pianist Who Reinvented Himself, Dies at 92". NPR. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  21. ^ Fleisher, Leon (September 23, 1999). "Oral history of Leon Fleisher". jscholarship.library.jhu.edu. Johns Hopkins University.
  22. ^ "Leon Fleisher". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. February 9, 2023.
  23. ^ "Musical America Award Winners". Musical America.
  24. ^ "Leon Fleisher". Kennedy Center.
  25. ^ a b "Leon Fleisher". Los Angeles Philharmonic.
  26. ^ a b c McPherson, Angus (August 3, 2020). "Leon Fleisher has died". Limelight.
  27. ^ "America to Celebrate Five Extraordinary Artists on Sunday, December 2, 2007". kennedy-center.org.
  28. ^ "Instrumentalist: Past Winners". Royal Philharmonic Society. Archived from the original on October 29, 2017. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  29. ^ "St. Olaf College to honor piano legend Leon Fleisher and host piano master class". St. Olaf College.
  30. ^ "Leon Fleisher | 2009 Honorees". Amherst College. Archived from the original on January 20, 2021. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  31. ^ ""First Digital Release of Six Recordings by Eminent Pianist Leon Fleisher Previously Available Only on LP" July 22, 2008". Kron4.com. Retrieved August 3, 2020.[permanent dead link]