Leon Fleisher: My Nine Lives

I escaped into another world, a place populated by famous musicians.

You may remember Leon Fleisher as an American pianist. I recall him for performances that were usually my favourite versions of piano concerti, usually paired with Conductor George Szell and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.

And then something went wrong.

Fleisher was having problems with his right hand in the 1960s. Two fingers lagged behind, tending to curl when they were urgently needed to play complex music. At the height of a promising career, the pianist was forced to consider alternatives. He started conducting, continued playing –but with a focus on the relatively small body of work meant for the left hand—and teaching. Eventually treatments restored the use of his hand.

This can all be discovered in great detail through the magic of My Nine Lives, Fleisher’s memoir, written with the assistance of Anne Midgette.

myninelives_cover

It’s quite a life that Fleisher has had, as he now comes up to his 90th birthday in 2018, making the title more than just a metaphor.

His was a privileged childhood, not because he came from a wealthy family, but because his talent was recognized and encouraged by family sacrifices.

For example Fleisher studied with Artur Schnabel, a problematic statement for at least two reasons:

  • To study with Schnabel you had to get to him in Europe
  • To study with Schnabel you had to be admitted as a student: but Schnabel refused to work with anyone under the age of sixteen, and Fleisher at this point was 9 years old

The hard part was persuading Schnabel, by cleverly ambushing him to get an audition. Apparently he was a much kinder man than his reputation would suggest.

My Nine Lives is a very enjoyable read, a kind of rabbit-hole I fell into this weekend, populated with famous musicians and great compositions. Yes there’s name-dropping, but it’s very welcome, capturing some wonderful moments in the history of American musical culture.

We begin with the young Fleisher in San Francisco, hearing about the different strategies of teachers working with prodigies. Along the way as we observe Fleisher’s growth, we’re being presented with questions about music and pedagogy.  Here’s the very first sentence of the book for example:

“For Mr Schorr it wasn’t a good lesson until he made me cry.”

Fleisher’s life is structured around a series of lovely discussions that he calls master classes. His first concerns a work that was an occasion for an important premiere in his teens, namely the Brahms D minor concerto, telling us about the work and how to play it. Similarly, when disaster struck and we’d heard about the problem with his right hand, the next master-class concerns the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand. Because of the way they’re written these aren’t digressions but a natural, organic part of his story.

There’s a lot of Fleisher’s real life in this book, and it’s unflinching. If anything Fleisher is hard on himself, refusing to conceal his weaknesses, tossing out painful suggestions that his affliction might be psychological or (as his first wife said) karma. But in his late 80s Fleisher has the use of his fingers back, apparently through a combination of treatments including botox, and continues to play, teach and mentor.  You may recall him as one of the 2007 Kennedy Center Honourees, alongside Steve Martin, Diana Ross, Brian Wilson and Martin Scorcese.

As I begin to approach the end of the book that consumed my Saturday, I don’t want it to end. I think it would make a wonderful Christmas gift for anyone in your life.

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