In Remembrance: Leon Fleisher's Tanglewood odyssey

A look back at late pianist, conductor's on-again, off-again relationship with BSO

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LENOX — Leon Fleisher waxed indignant. France spent $2 billion a year on culture, while the U.S. allotted only $160 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, he told the assemblage of Tanglewood students, faculty and guests.

"That's B for billion," he said. "B as in Beethoven and other composers, and in Botticelli. What's the matter with those people? Are they nerds? Are they wimps? We have our own B's — Beavis and Butthead."

The audience roared with laughter.

Fleisher, who died Aug. 2 at 92, delivered the jeremiad at the Tanglewood Music Center's 1995 opening exercises while he was the school's artistic director. Two years later, he was out — kneecapped, as it put it, by Seiji Ozawa. He returned to an illustrious career of playing the piano, conducting and teaching elsewhere. Despite a brilliant early start, he was able to play only a limited left-hand repertory.

The 1997 dispute with Ozawa, in which the Boston Symphony's music director sought undefined change at the school, is ancient history. But it throws light on the man who spoke for music's integrity and came back from an injury to his right hand that turned him into a one-handed pianist for 30 years.

Ozawa brought Fleisher on board because of their history of collaboration and friendship. He spent 12 years as TMC director, succeeding Gunther Schuller, who resigned in a spat of his own with Ozawa. He too accused the conductor of heavy-handed interference in the school.

To an outsider, Fleisher seemed aloof, more a figurehead or gray eminence than hands-on leader. He taught, and you could see him in the faculty box at student concerts. But he was not a presence on campus like the three lieutenants who actually oversaw students' curriculum and performance.

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By coincidence, I recently listened to Fleisher's 1959 recording of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. It is part of their series of Beethoven and Brahms concerto recordings, which continue to tower high in the field today.

The concerto and performance struck me then, and continue to strike me now, as a portrait of Fleisher. The effect is heroic, but the hero must prove himself through struggle until he emerges triumphant at the end.

Just so did Fleisher undergo a series of ineffective treatments, including psychotherapy, shock treatments and EST, after damaging his right hand through overexertion at practice. (Robert Schumann suffered the same injury.) He performed the Ravel, Prokofiev, Britten and other left-hand concertos written for the Austrian Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. He also commissioned new pieces and branched out more into teaching and conducting. The brilliant early career had to find other outlets.

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The malady was eventually identified as focal dystonia. Finally, in the 1990s a combination of Rolfing and Botox injections restored the right hand to the extent that Fleisher could play less-demanding concertos and join with his wife (and former student), Katherine Jacobson, in four-hand recitals.

Then Ozawa left Boston for Vienna in 2002. Fleisher returned to Tanglewood as a two-handed BSO soloist and half of a four-hand duo with his wife in Ozawa Hall.

It was heartening to have him back and hear echoes of the old mastery. It was also sometimes disheartening.

I particularly remember a four-hand recital in which Fleisher's fingers failed him. The mistakes, as has been said of other pianists, may have been better than other people's mistakes, but they threw him, and the playing lost continuity.

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Nevertheless, Fleisher says, the handicapped years led him to musical riches he would not otherwise have enjoyed.

In 2010, he summed up in "My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music," written with critic Anne Midgette. He recounts his failings and successes, culminating in Kennedy Center honors, and gives a blow-by-blow account of the "devastating test" posed by Ozawa in his clumsy 1997 attempt to remake the TMC.

Ozawa offered to have him to stay on in a vague role as a teacher and chamber music coach, but in a letter of resignation Fleisher wrote that the invitation was "somewhat akin to having my legs chopped off at the knees, you then gently taking me by the arm and inviting me for a stroll."

Now BSO president and CEO Mark Volpe can say: "Leon Fleisher's devotion to the highest form of excellence in his musicianship and as an educator to the next generation of classical musicians has been deeply felt among all of those he crossed paths with in the Boston Symphony Orchestra family, including, in particular, the Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, with whom he worked in his faculty and TMC leadership positions in the '80s and '90s. Leon's perseverance in the face of a dire diagnosis and valiant return to the concert stage will forever serve as an inspiration to so many of us so lucky to have known him and worked with him."

Looking back in his memoir, Fleisher declares: "Playing music is a state of grace. It's ecstasy. And it's a privilege. After I began playing again, I never took it for granted. In all of my rich and varied life, there's still nothing I love more."

Perhaps the most telling reminder of Fleisher's Tanglewood odyssey is the naming of the former carriage house that serves as TMC headquarters. Despite the hard feelings of 1997, it was and still is the Leon Fleisher Carriage House.


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