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Leon Fleisher Passed Away at age 92


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Leon Fleisher, the first truly great American classical pianist, died yesterday at age 92 in Baltimore from cancer. I had the thrill of a brief lesson from him in his early 80's at Peabody. He was the first classical pianist to be inducted into the American Music Hall of Fame. He was professor of piano at the Julliard in New York, the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins Univ. in Baltimore, and at various times did other jobs including Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.  His last major album of piano music in 2004, won him another Grammy Award and contributed to his receiving, in Paris in 2006, the honor of Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters by the Minister of Culture of the French government.  That 2004 album is entitled "Two Hands" and the reason that's significant is a very inspiring story.


He was a child prodigy from California, playing since age 4 and reaching symphony level at age 8.  In the years after World War II, he won many first-places prizes world-wide in top-notch competitions, including Russia and the Queen Elizabeth competitions. Then, his right hand stopped working!  His condition was later diagnosed as "focal dystonia," a neurological condition that causes the fingers to curl into the palm of the hand.

Not to be stopped, he began to write versions of classical pieces that can be played with one hand - something important to many American WW2 and Korean War veterans who had lost their profession as pianists due to wounds in war.  He won a Grammy Award for them.  He became a piano teacher at America's two top piano schools, Julliard and Peabody and became Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

In the 1980's, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital (my sister was a young nurse there then!) began a study of Fleisher's disease.  Eventually, they discovered that Botox temporarily forced focal distonia into remission.  Leon was back with two hands!

Here's Leon, playing with two hands in Italy in 1998, under Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Conductor Sergio Commissiona.

He was the main American teacher of my virtuosa piano teacher at the Peabody, the late Frances Cheng-Koors, and I had thrill of him stopping in, when he was in his early 80's, to talk to her while I was her student in the Adult Program at the Peabody Institute when she was Chairperson of the Piano Department. Leon Remained on the active faculty until 2020, retiring one week before he died!

Leon asked me what piece I was studying and it was Chopin's Prelude in E Minor - a slow but difficult piece to get right.  Frances was also the student of a student of a student of Chopin himself, and scolded me often with, "That's NOT how Chopin played it!"  Chopin's ghost was speaking through her until I got it right.

But Leon also helped: he spent about 5 minutes teaching me and gave instructions like, "This part (just before the real fast passage) should sound like a pig slopping in the mud." Supposedly, the constant rain in Majorca, where he was vacationing and writing his 24 Preludes, was reflected in those that were Chopin's sad Preludes - one of his other Preludes is called "The Raindrops Prelude."  So Leon was onto something and opened my eyes!  It was all I could do to focus on the music: I was playing piano for the great Leon Fleisher and following his teaching and I was thrilled!  Five minutes represents my entire time as his student, though I also attended, through invitation, two of his piano master classes at Peabody, sitting in the audience with hundreds of others.

Later, Frances told me that Leon had little formal education because he was on tour by age 8 and that in some ways he was "dumb as a brick." But he was unbelievably brilliant about the piano, especially in performance teaching. But he often used very helpful but non-standard music terminology when he taught - the "Mozart and antigravity clip" below is a good example.  That's how he sat when he taught me - I think his right hand was bothering him a little and he needed his Botox shots. Today there are hundreds of top-rated professional pianists across the world who studied under Leon. My teacher, Frances Cheng-Koors, was one of the few virtuoso pianists allowed to play on Mozart's own piano during the Salzburg Music Festival each year.



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