Saturday, December 4, 2010

My Nine Lives

I have a poignant memory of pianist Leon Fleisher playing and conducting the now defunct Northwest Chamber Orchestra here in Seattle during the 2004/05 season; that was to be our last series. "Higher powers" in the local music scene had ordered its destruction. The demise of the ensemble meant that many of us would need to reinvent our selves.

Yuriy in the second violins raised his hand during a pause in the rehearsal with Fleisher. We were to perform, among other works, "Sheep May Safely Graze" (transcribed for piano by Egon Petri). "I have kvestion," Yury said in his thick, Ukrainian accent, a gold tooth gleaming.  Fleisher closed his eyes. "Keep talking. You sound just like my father who came straight off the boat from Odessa." I thought Leon Fleisher was about to cry as he remembered his parents and their humble origins. Fleisher's appearance with NWCO took place about a year after his triumphant return to Carnegie Hall playing a two-handed recital after over three decades.

The orchestra drank up the brief opportunity to work with this legendary artist. Fleisher shared with us the trauma of nearly losing everything on account of his debilitating illness. "If you're experiencing pain while playing," he said. "Speak up. You're not alone. I found this out too late. The most crucial thing is to take precautionary care. Don't try to be stoic like I was." We listened with rapt attention, as Leon Fleisher enlightened us about his focal dystonia, a neurological condition which causes muscular contraction and the curling and twisting of fingers. In Fleisher's case, at the age of thirty-six, just when his career had sky-rocketed, he lost the use of two fingers in his right hand.

Leon Fleisher's memoir, "My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music" written with the help of co-author, the celebrated music critic for the Washington Post, Anne Midgette, is a beautifully told story which conveys messages of personal transformation through adversity. It is a distillation of wisdom.

Fleisher cannot remember a time without playing the piano. His memoir begins as a child prodigy growing up in San Francisco, the youngest of two boys. Fleisher's mother, a quintessentially doting Jewish mother, wanted her son to become either the first Jewish president of the United States or a great concert pianist. She at least lived to see the latter realized, though while on her deathbed, Fleisher remained in Amsterdam to perform as soloist with the Concertgebouw, a choice he eventually came to regret. "My mother was in many ways not an easy woman. Her vision for me was often constricting. And she certainly had trouble letting go. Even after I moved to Europe, she treated me as her little boy every time I came home."

Every one of his nine lives was preceded by a death which is shared in this memoir with tenderness, candor, and often a light stroke of wit. There was the expulsion from Artur Schnabel's class for laziness after ten years spent with the master; but afterward young Fleisher was jolted into becoming his own teacher. In 1949, after an unsuccessful second concert at Carnegie Hall, Fleisher had been deemed a "has-been" by impresario Arthur Judson. But then, there was the big win at the 1952 Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels. And just when his career reached dizzying heights, he lost sensation in two of his right hand fingers. "I was living in a nightmare. I would wake up happy and then remember: You can't play--Ever since I can remember, the most important thing in my life has been playing the piano." A tragic death was yet to occur with the loss of his partnership with George Szell, the music director with "laser beam ears" of Cleveland Orchestra. Over the years the two had become almost inseparable; they shared a certain unspoken bond. Szell was his musical father.

In 1965, Fleisher had been offered to play his beloved Mozart Concerto K. 503 with Cleveland Orchestra on a three month tour of the Soviet Union and Europe. But after a performance of the work at Severance Hall, Szell took him into his office and spoke the dreaded words,"You cannot play." That year was to have been one of the greatest years of his life, the culmination of a career. Fleisher was obsessed by the thought: "What good was it to have reached this point, to have worked so hard, to have so many insights, if there was no way to let anybody know about them?" And he descended into the valley of the shadow.

But many other lives were to begin for Leon Fleisher; that of pedagogue, conductor, arts administrator, and advocate for instrumentalists grappling with psychic and physical wounds. "My Nine Lives" is a book to cherish.

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