Leon Fleisher Shares Tales of Despair and Triumph

February 23, 2010 

It is not often that one can have a candid and intimate conversation with one of the world’s greatest living musicians.  However, on Monday, Feb. 15, the Rollins community was graced with the musical genius of Leon Fleisher. 

Presented by Music at Rollins College and the Winter Park Institute, a showing of the Academy Award-nominated documentary by Nathaniel Kahn, entitled Two Hands, was followed by an extended Q&A in which the renowned pianist, conductor, and teacher shared life stories and personal musings with the audience. 

The short documentary chronicled Fleisher’s near career-ending battle with Focal Dystonia, a disorder of the brain causing him to lose the use of his right hand.   The loss of his dexterity occurred at the peak of his career just before a major tour, and Fleisher confessed that at first he felt he no longer had a purpose in life. Yet the film illustrated how Fleisher worked through his despair finding an affinity for conduction and teaching. Doctors remained confounded for many years until recent medical advancements improved his condition. However, despite the fact that surgery and additional experimental or newly developed therapies has enabled Fleisher to use both hands again for performance, he will never have a full recovery as his disorder remains incurable.

Still, Fleisher remains the “pianistic find of the century.”  In 2007, Fleisher was bestowed the Kennedy Center Honors, at which Caroline Kennedy aptly described him as a piano prodigy who, “rose to the heights, embraced adversity and became a musician for all seasons.”

Susan Lackman, professor of composition and theory at Rollins, reiterated how significant Fleisher’s visit is to the Rollins community.  “Leon Fleisher is a national treasure and what we can get from him in this short period of time will be diamonds,” said Lackman.   “Everything he says will be so precious.  I don’t think that any of the students that work with him will ever forget the experience.”

It is the students for whom Fleisher came.  “I hope to be able to offer some solutions to their questions, some answers to those many challenges that face all musicians as they embark on the various pieces in their repertoire,” explained Fleisher following Monday’s event.  “I’m hoping to be a kind of resource.  Most artists have endless questions and at this time in my life I’m hoping to offer possible solutions.” 

Fleisher has much to offer aspiring musicians.  A student of the legendary pianist Artur Schnabel, who was trained by none other than Ludwig van Beethoven, Fleisher’s knowledge of music in its true form is without equal.  During his brief tenure at Rollins, Fleisher allowed students multiple opportunities to learn from his greatness.  Events included an open dress rehearsal with the Rollins Student Orchestra which Fleisher conducted, an informal duo piano recital in which Fleisher, accompanied by his wife, acclaimed concert pianist Katherine Jacobson Fleisher; and a master class allowing students to play in a piano ensemble with Fleisher. 

“It’s always exciting to meet with young artists who are filled with curiosity, energy, and enthusiasm,” said Fleisher.  “I find it invigorating and life-renewing.” 

Up next for the Winter Park Institute will be a series of lectures and symposiums by literary masters Jules Feiffer, Marsha Norman, and Billy Collins beginning on March 25.  For more information on upcoming Winter Park Institute events, please visit rollins.edu/wpi/.

-Justin Braun (MBA Class of 2011)