Legendary pianist Leon Fleisher brings to the stage a life of music and inspiration, even in the face of a debilitating condition that left him playing with only one hand for decades.
Yet he never walked away from his passion for music and the piano, and, at the age of 83, he is going strong.
He comes to Rockport tonight, fresh from a performance for the U.S. Supreme Court justices in the east conference room before an invited audience.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, he spoke with his trademark humor about the recent appearance a couple of weeks ago when he also performed with his wife.
"The justices sat within about three feet of us. Before we started, I turned to say 'If it may please the court,' and I went into a little spiel about the perils of playing duets, and the knocking of knees and elbows, and we finally came up with new tort law for divorce, irreconcilable pedaling," he said.
In his performance tonight, Fleisher will perform a selection of Ravel with his special guest and wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, on piano. His program also features works of Bach, Takacs, Kirchner, Brahms as well as the presentation of the Academy Award nominated film "Two Hands" on Fleisher's life and career.
Fleisher, also a conductor and teacher, was singled out as one of the most gifted young musicians by a New York Times critic and later called "the pianistic find of the century" by noted conductor Pierre Monteux. But in the ensuing years, he suffered from a rare neurological disease that left him without the use of his right hand. That did not hold him back. Decades later, he would undergo brain surgery and difficult experimental treatments, and at the age of 67, he would perform again with both hands at Carnegie Hall. The iconic performer continues to charm the audiences with both his talent and spirit.
He grew up in San Francisco, the son of a milliner. He recalled his father commenting on one of his first customers who sought out his hat design talents. She was a tall leggy redhead, one who later received much attention — Lucille Ball.
Fleisher was first generation American, born of immigrant parents; his father was Russian and his mother was Polish, neither of which were particularly musical. But that legacy would change with their younger son, Leon.
"They gave piano lessons to my older brother who seemed quite disinterested. I was around four, and I would curl up in a corner and listen and observe," he recalled. "When the lessons were over and my brother would go out to play, I would go to the piano and repeat his lesson. My parents decided I needed lessons."
That was a fortuitous decision looking back at his storied career.
Fleisher also commented on the benefits of musical instruction for the youth.
"Once you start a youngster on the path of learning an instrument, it is challenging, but they are so ready and capable and eager to meet that challenge. It engages all their capabilities and some kids really thrive on that, and it will always be a source of satisfaction and gratification," said Fleisher. "As far as quality of life is concerned, as a nation we tend to give short shrift to the arts without realizing how important it is in the long run. I wouldn't ignore the arts and the humanities —- they are profoundly important."
After tonight's concert, the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, now in its 31st season, will present its five-week series featuring pianists, string quartets, string trios, choral and early-music ensembles, and a brass quintet.
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Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at email@example.com.
A piano legend
What: Legendary pianist Leon Fleisher opens 31st Rockport Chamber Music series
When: Tonight at 7 p.m.
Where: Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport. A limited number of $78 tickets are still available. Call the Rockport Music Box Office at 978-546-7391 for the latest availability.
In other events this week, there are tickets for the Centennial Chamber Music concert on Saturday, June 9 at 8 p.m., with its program including Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" for piano four hands, and much more.
On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Rockport Music hosts a free concert with The Next Generation, featuring music of four prolific, prize-winning, teenaged composers — Nicholas Davies, Lev Mamuya, Christopher Staknys, and Matthew Woodard. Each will perform and discuss their work and creative process with composer Howard Frazin. No reservations required. For series information, also visit www.rockportmusic.org.