Monday 22 January 2018

How a brilliant concert pianist single-handedly saved his career

Leon Fleisher has the most famous right hand in classical music, because for 30 years it didn't work. He still enthrals capacity audiences the world over, re-affirming his position among the truly great pianists of our time.

Fleisher was born in San Francisco, where he started studying the piano at the age of four. He made his public debut aged eight and played with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux at 16. Monteux famously called him "the pianistic find of the century".

Fleisher was at the height of his career in the early 1960s, when a pianist's nightmare struck. A repetitive-motion injury (later diagnosed as focal dystonia) caused the fingers of his right hand to stiffen and fold. "I knew I couldn't play with my right hand," said Fleisher. "My life was virtually over."

He continued to play though after discovering pieces written exclusively for the left hand. Long before Fleisher there was Paul Wittgenstein, a wealthy Austrian concert pianist who lost his right arm in World War One. He commissioned the great composers of his day to write music for left hand and orchestra. That music allowed Fleisher to resume his concert career, but he still ached over the loss of his right hand.

Fleisher began performing and recording the left-handed repertoire while searching for a cure for his condition. He also began conducting, serving at one time as music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in Maryland. After more than three decades, Fleisher regained the use of his right hand through a combination of Rolfing and Botox injections that allowed him to uncurl his fingers.

He returned to the recording studio to record the successful album Two Hands, which is also the title of a short documentary on Fleisher by Nathaniel Kahn that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2007. His memoir, My Nine Lives, co-written with the Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette, was published last year.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra is preparing to embark on a US tour with the legendary pianist at the end of this month. The tour is part of Imagine Ireland, a year-long season of Irish arts in America, an initiative of Culture Ireland.

Aedín Gormley presents Movies and Musicals, Saturday 2-4pm, and Sunday Matinée, Sundays at noon, on RTÉ lyric fm.

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