Leon Fleisher, The Pianist Who Reinvented Himself, Dies At 92 : Deceptive Cadence The beloved pianist was a young lion of his generation until a hand injury forced him to rethink his relationship to music.
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Leon Fleisher, The Pianist Who Reinvented Himself, Dies At 92

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Leon Fleisher, The Pianist Who Reinvented Himself, Dies At 92

Leon Fleisher, The Pianist Who Reinvented Himself, Dies At 92

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the country's most beloved concert pianists has died. Leon Fleisher died yesterday at the age of 92. He had cancer. Fleisher was at the height of his career in the mid-1960s when he suddenly lost the use of his right hand. NPR's Tom Huizenga has this appreciation.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: In his memoir, Leon Fleisher said he couldn't remember a time when he wasn't playing the piano. He gave his first recital at age 8 and was just 16 when he debuted at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic. Conductor Pierre Monteux called Fleisher the pianistic find of the century. At 25, he recorded his first album.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEON FLEISHER PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S PIANO SONATA NO. 21 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, D. 960: I. MOLTO MODERATO)

ANNE MIDGETTE: Leon had this kind of Apollonian perfection.

HUIZENGA: Anne Midgette co-authored Fleisher's memoir, titled "My Nine Lives."

MIDGETTE: When you hear something that he's playing, you think, that is the way it needs to be played. There's just this sense of completion about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEON FLEISHER PERFORMANCE OF BRAHMS' CONCERTO FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA NO. 1 IN D MINOR, OP. 15: III. RONDO. ALLEGRO NON TROPPO)

MIDGETTE: The Brahms First was his signature piece. It's that sound world of the German-speaking composers that was his heritage.

HUIZENGA: Fleisher was born in San Francisco in 1928. He began playing at age 4. And by the time he was 9, he was off to Europe to study. His mastery of the piano led to a golden career. But it all came to a halt when he was only 36. He was slated to tour the Soviet Union with the Cleveland Orchestra, but fingers on his right hand were mysteriously curling under. He couldn't control them. He was dismissed from the tour, began canceling performances and, as he told NPR in 2000, slipped into a deep funk and despair.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEON FLEISHER: Having spent 36, 37 years playing two hands and then to have it denied, for me, was an enormous blow.

HUIZENGA: Fleisher considered suicide. But he also tried everything to cure his hand, from hypnosis to carpal tunnel surgery. And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FLEISHER: I suddenly came to a realization that my connection with music was greater than just as a two-handed piano player.

HUIZENGA: Fleisher increased his teaching, began conducting, and he played music written specifically for the left hand only.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MIDGETTE: I think it expanded him as a musician tremendously.

HUIZENGA: Anne Midgette calls Fleisher the quintessential left-handed pianist, especially in pieces like Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF LEON FLEISHER PERFORMANCE OF RAVEL'S PIANO CONCERTO FOR THE LEFT HAND IN D MAJOR, M. 82)

HUIZENGA: Although Fleisher accepted his condition, eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia, he never gave up hope. In the mid-1990s, after a series of deep tissue manipulations called Rolfing, the control over his fingers began to return. He took Botox injections. And little by little, Fleisher began performing with all 10 fingers. In 2004, he released an album simply titled "Two Hands."

(SOUNDBITE OF LEON FLEISHER PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "SHEEP MAY SAFELY GRAZE")

HUIZENGA: Leon Fleisher never approached his former two-handed glory. But he did make a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall and was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor in 2007. His story, Anne Midgette says, is a potent lesson.

MIDGETTE: He leaves a legacy about overcoming adversity and about pushing through and about finding different ways to express yourself. That's a really great thing for young musicians to be exposed to.

HUIZENGA: Young musicians and all of us.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEON FLEISHER PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "SHEEP MAY SAFELY GRAZE")

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