Leon Fleisher, 92, Dies; Spellbinding Pianist Using One Hand or Two

Leon Fleisher, 92, Dies; Spellbinding Pianist Using One Hand or Two

Leon Fleisher, 92, Dies; Spellbinding Pianist Using One Hand or Two

Leon Fleisher, 92, Dies; Spellbinding Pianist Using One Hand or Two

Leon was drawn to the piano from an early age. Though he showed little interest when an older brother, Raymond, was given piano lessons, Leon would go to the piano when Raymond went out to play after his lessons and repeat, by ear, everything he had heard. He was 4 years old.

His mother soon decided that Leon, rather than Raymond, should study piano. She made her intentions for her younger son clear: He would be either the first Jewish president of the United States or a concert pianist.

So devoted was his mother to Leon’s musical training that after two weeks of kindergarten, during which he objected strenuously to nap time, she withdrew him from public school and hired tutors so that he could devote his time to practicing the piano. She also found ways of bringing him to the attention of two San Francisco conductors, Pierre Monteux and Alfred Hertz, who in turn persuaded the pianist Artur Schnabel to take Leon on as a student in 1938, when he was 9, despite Schnabel’s policy of not teaching children.

By then Leon had already played a few concerts, but Schnabel’s single condition for teaching him was that there be no more concerts. Schnabel relaxed the rule in 1944 and allowed his teenage pupil to play the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor with Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony and then with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, also with Monteux conducting.

Noel Strauss, reviewing the Carnegie Hall performance for The Times, wrote that Mr. Fleisher, making his New York debut, had “established himself as one of the most remarkably gifted of the younger generation of American keyboard artists.”

In 1945, at the Ravinia summer festival in Illinois, Mr. Fleisher played the Brahms again — it became one of his signature pieces — as well as the Liszt Concerto No. 2 in A, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The next summer at Ravinia, he performed four concertos under the direction of William Steinberg and Szell, who soon engaged Mr. Fleisher to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra, which Szell took over later that year.


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