The performer is not the star. The music is the star.
The performer is the vessel, the performer is the channel through which the music passes as a prism and comes to the performer.
— Leon Fleisher
Leon Fleischer passed away this past week. He was a pianist, conductor, and teacher, who taught some of the greatest pianists of the last few generations (including my friend Michael Sheppard).
He lost the use of his right hand back in the 1960s, which resulted in his having to re-direct himself into new career paths. Although this loss was devastating to him, he said later that he enjoyed a rewarding life in career paths he never would have explored if he had continued as a concert pianist.
I saw Leon Fleischer in concert with the Baltimore Symphony in 1996, shortly before I moved away. It was an interesting concert and featured a new piece by William Bolcom, called “Gaea,” which consisted of three single movement piano concertos. The first performer was Gary Graffman, who had also lost the use of his right hand, and was playing Bolcom’s Piano Concerto #1 for left-handed pianist and half the BSO players. Fleischer then came out to play Bolcom’s Piano Concerto #2 with the other half of the BSO. They were two completely different pieces.
And then the full orchestra came out and both Graffman and Fleischer played what they just played separately, but now together in a double concerto. It just was mind-boggling – like putting together an intricate puzzle. What a wonderful gift William Bolcom gave to these two artists. I’ll never forget it.
My personal experience with Leon Fleischer was as a chorister when he was making his debut as a conductor with Washington Opera for Cosi Fan Tutte. However, he was replaced quite last-minute due to illness. When I was at Peabody, I don’t recall our paths ever crossing, unfortunately.
In the last 20 years of his life, Fleischer regained the use of his right hand and returned to concertizing with standard repertoire. I was supposed to see him play with his wife, Katherine Jacobson, in a Valentine’s Day concert at Howard Community College a couple of years ago, but unfortunately, there was an ice storm and the concert was cancelled. (Of course, we were already there, which meant we got to drive back home in the ice storm. Yay.)
Leon Fleischer was a great artist and teacher, who re-directed his life when his originally intended career path was upended. I hate the term Rest in Power – it seems contrived to me. So I guess I’ll say – Rest in Passion.
What would you do if the thing that you thought you were going to do for the rest of your life went away? How would you re-direct yourself? Many of us, in music and outside of it, are dealing with a similar kind of loss with the advent of COVID-19 – whether it’s through loss of a business, performing opportunities, or teaching opportunities.
Hopefully, it’ll come back – in one form or another. And when it does, remember that for those of us who are artists and musicians, it is not about us as performers. It is about the music, to which we are in service.
Find out more about how to serve the music in next Friday’s masterclass with Richard Carsey. One performer slot is still available – and there is plenty of room to audit.
More information on the masterclass may be found here.