Leon Fleisher Remembered

Aug 6, 2020

Credit Stephanie Kuykendal for The New York Times

On today’s IRIS ORCHESTRA MUSIC MINUTE, I am remembering the great pianist Leon Fleisher, who passed away last weekend at the age of 92. 

My collaborations with him on stage were some of the most inspired music making that I have ever experienced. My friendship with him, since my youth, allowed me to learn from one of the greatest musical minds this country has ever produced. He was an immigrant success story, born in San Francisco almost 8 years to the day after my father, Isaac Stern, and the two lifelong friends were part of the the same Russian Jewish community which also nurtured Ruggiero Ricci, Yehudi Menuhin and his sisters, and many others. And they were both championed by the great French conductor Pierre Monteux, then the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, another link with him and my dad. 

Leon was quickly recognized as the phenomenon of his generation, and his performances and recordings of Grieg, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert are recognized still today as the phenomenal achievements they are. But focal dystonia, a rare neurological disease which robbed him of the use of his right hand, interrupted his career and life in his prime. It was a tragedy for American music. And yet, for 30 years, he did not give up — he championed the repertoire for the left hand alone, he conducted, he lectured, and above all, he inspired two generations of students, all of whom carry the spark the he inherited from his great teacher, Artur Schnabel, whose musical lineage went straight back to Beethoven. And then at the end of his life, thanks to new botox therapy, he triumphantly returned to the stage. 

More than any other musician, Leon’s musical timing and his sense of breath left one breathless. For him, music was motion, and as he said famously, “music is the antidote to gravity”. Hearing him play could transport to a different place. I am missing him already — may his memory be a blessing.

Michael Stern is Music Director for IRIS Orchestra and Kansas City Symphony.