Some of the world’s greatest musicians have storied histories with The Cleveland Orchestra. But even among that select group, Leon Fleisher is exceptional.
The Orchestra’s Artist-in-Residence this season, Fleisher, 85, began playing at the age of four. Early in his career, he had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of conductor Pierre Monteux, who proclaimed him “the pianistic find of the century.” Fleisher also had a brilliant piano teacher – the incomparable Artur Schnabel, with whom he began studies at the age of nine. After a promising start on the American concert circuit, Fleisher won the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1952, launching his international performing and recording career.
In 1965, Fleisher’s career seemed over when he developed focal dystonia, a disability that froze two fingers on his right hand. Undaunted, he developed a left-handed repertoire and took to the podium, becoming a skilled conductor. After years of medical treatment and therapy, he recovered the use of his right hand, returning to the full repertoire with a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, K. 414, with The Cleveland Orchestra in April 1995.
In December, Fleisher will be making his first appearance with the Orchestra in 10 years, conducting soloist Mitsuko Uchida in three performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. The concerts also mark 67 years since Fleisher’s debut with The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall, a time span which encompasses 70 performances together and a dozen recordings made with George Szell. He talks about those years with amazing recall and great fondness. “Cleveland,” he says, “is quite unique in my personal history.”
How are you feeling about the December concerts?
Terribly excited, though with much trepidation. My heart will be going pitter-patter. I had the thought that I could procure a well-made rubber mask of George Szell, and walk on for the first rehearsal wearing that. But I don’t think there’s a single member of the Orchestra left from his time, so I’m not sure what the effect would be.
What’s so extraordinary about The Cleveland Orchestra, down through Maazel and Dohnányi and now Welser-Möst, is its genetic sense of what it was under Szell. It’s as though there’s a kind of musical DNA that’s been passed on. The standards are the highest, and the musicians carry themselves like the New York Yankees of old.
Have you worked with Mitsuko Uchida before?
Last year, at the Marlboro Festival in Vermont. We did the Beethoven Choral Fantasy. She’s wonderful, an extraordinary pianist and musician, very, very special.
How does a virtuoso pianist conduct another virtuoso pianist?
You listen, as you would do in any case. We’ll get together, she’ll play the piece, and we’ll talk about it. And probably in the end, we’ll both just listen – I listen to her, she listens to the orchestra, and occasionally we establish eye contact.
Does your approach to the Beethoven piano concertos differ when you’re conducting rather than playing them?
Not at all; it’s exactly the same. We’re trying for a cohesive, organized, organic view of the piece.
That can be the hardest thing to achieve.
Well, it’s harder with some people than others. That’s why I’m looking forward to this collaboration with such enormous anticipation. Mitsuko and I have remarkably similar ideas about music. And to have the opportunity to make music together with one of the great ensembles in the world is a very special kind of joy and good fortune.
How did your long association with The Cleveland Orchestra begin?
With George Szell, who was a close friend of my piano teacher, Artur Schnabel. Schnabel was involved with a group in New York called the New Friends of Music that staged concerts at Town Hall on Sunday afternoons, and he insisted that his students attend. One week in the early 1940s this imposing figure of a man, very tall in a black coat and black Homburg, strode in and sat in Schnabel’s box. I was about 10 or 15 rows back in the balcony. Schnabel beckoned to me to come down, and introduced me to the great George Szell.
Did you know who Szell was?
Yes, because for my 11th birthday, my parents had given me a recording of the Brahms Piano Concerto in D minor played by Schnabel with George Szell conducting the London Philharmonic. In the beginning of that piece, there’s a three- or four-minute orchestral introduction called a tutti that made my hair stand on end, with the timpani rolling and the horns blaring. Even though it was my teacher’s recording, it was at least a week before I got off the first side of that record to listen to him play. So that piece, and the two figures involved in making that music, were already a leitmotif in my life.
When did you first perform with Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra?
In the fall of 1946, not long after he was named Music Director. That summer I was at Ravinia, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where I played four concertos with two different conductors – William Steinberg and George Szell. With George I played Schumann and the Brahms Concerto in D minor. Afterward he asked me if I would join him for the Schumann Concerto in Cleveland, and I became his first piano soloist.
You made a number of recordings with The Cleveland Orchestra that are now considered definitive, in particular the Brahms and Beethoven concertos. Did you and Szell set out to make definitive versions of those works?
No, but Columbia had created a new subsidiary label, Epic, to record The Cleveland Orchestra. That left George free to do the entire piano literature, and he asked me if I would be willing to record it with him.
We would meet first to discuss how we were going to do the piece. I remember when we were doing the Schumann Concerto, there’s a pair of four-note phrases to open the second movement that are tossed back and forth between the piano and orchestra, a kind of question-and-answer situation. George said, “We don’t have to rehearse that, because I’ve trained my orchestra. Whatever you do with your first four notes in terms of expression or inflection, the orchestra will respond to that.”
When we were in the studio, some malevolent spirit invaded me and I started the second movement twice as fast. The Orchestra was totally unfazed. Not an eyebrow was lifted, they did precisely what I did – all before George could even get his stick down for the beat! He was caught totally by surprise. At first, he was ready to explode. But when he realized that what I had done had proven him right, that the orchestra would respond to whatever I did, no matter how bad it was, he turned to me with a great beaming smile. He was just so proud and happy.
After you developed a disability in your right hand in the mid-1960s, you became a conductor. Was that a forced move, or something you always wanted to do?
I started playing with orchestras when I was eight years old, and was always interested in this phenomenon of conducting, which seemed quite wondrous. And I was unbelievably lucky to be exposed to some great figures. Early in my career I came to the attention of Pierre Monteux, then the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and a legendary historical figure. He conducted the world premiere of The Rite of Spring, and other historic works by Stravinsky, Ravel, and Debussy. He was a great conductor, and became my mentor. Almost every concerto that I’ve ever played, I played with Monteux for the first time.
Will your December concerts with Mitsuko Uchida be your conducting debut with The Cleveland Orchestra?
Actually, I conducted the Orchestra in early 1978, when Lorin Maazel was Music Director. We were doing a run-out concert in Lakewood, and I think he was testing me. He wanted me to conduct Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with no rehearsal. I refused, of course. But I suggested another work, Sibelius’s First Symphony, and he agreed to that.
by Frank Kuznik
Frank Kuznik is a longtime journalist and culture writer covering Northeast Ohio's vibrant arts and entertainment scene. Born and raised in Cleveland, Frank has worked extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe, most recently in Prague as the editor-in-chief and culture editor of The Prague Post. He also writes about music on CulturedCleveland.blogspot.com.