Preview: Piano Legend Leon Fleisher’s 90th Birthday Celebration

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor has long been a feeder line for pilgrimages by aspiring performing artists to Juilliard and other New York institutions. Not everyone realizes, though, that the pilgrimages often take place on the southbound route instead.

Leon Fleisher. Photo courtesy of Washington Performing Arts.
Leon Fleisher. Photo courtesy of Washington Performing Arts.

A big reason for that is the longtime presence at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of piano legend Leon Fleisher, who has left a legacy among his students of concert pianists around the country and around the world, in addition to Fleisher’s own large discography and live concert history.

On Saturday evening, Washington Performing Arts will mark Fleisher’s 90th birthday in a celebration at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, including performances by Fleisher, notable Fleisher student Jonathan Biss, and a number of others.

It’s not explicitly a Beethoven evening, but Ludwig van Beethoven’s visage might as well be hanging over the Terrace Theater stage during the entire proceedings. Fleisher’s own “sainted” teacher Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) was one of the first proponents of Beethoven’s piano sonatas on recorded disks, and the concepts revealed there carried all the way through to Fleisher’s teaching and now Jonathan Biss’ popular global online course on the Coursera platform about the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas.

In a recent telephone conversation, Biss told me that it’s not a coincidence that so much of his student work with Leon Fleisher involved Beethoven. “Leon’s relationship with music has so much to do with its questioning quality. It’s asking the big questions, trying to make sense of the universe,” said Biss. “There’s no composer who more represents that way of thinking than Beethoven. Everything in Beethoven is a question.”

At Fleisher’s birthday celebration on Saturday, Biss will perform – and presumably give some spoken notes about – Beethoven’s iconic Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major. It’s one of the “late sonatas” that legendarily employs a set of variations to almost automatically set the human mind to thinking of the great beyond and the meaning of life.

Much of what has been transmitted in a line from Schnabel to Fleisher to Biss and others has to do with removing Beethoven’s deafness from the realm of cliché – largely around simple amazement that a human being could write music that he couldn’t physically hear – to what worlds Beethoven’s deafness may have actually opened up to him.

“Listen, I think that on a personal level, losing his hearing was catastrophic,” said Biss of Beethoven. “But although this is speculative, I think it also opened up imaginative possibilities that would not have been available otherwise. People always talk about how much more ahead of his own time Beethoven’s music was than any written before or since. Being insulated from other sound was hugely important in making that possible.”

The concert program on Saturday evening also includes piano arrangements or “transcriptions” that Fleisher himself will play of some of the best-known themes by Johann Sebastian Bach. Those include “Sheep May Safely Graze” from one of Bach’s cantatas, and the Chaconne in D Minor that is a touchstone of the violin repertoire, in a piano arrangement by Johannes Brahms.

One of the most interesting items will be Fleisher’s being joined by colleagues about a third of his age who are now the Kennedy Center’s string quartet in residence, the Dover Quartet. It’s actually Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in an arrangement that doesn’t require a full orchestra. Rather, it will be Fleisher joined by the string quartet plus double bassist Rachel Calin.

In a recent telephone conversation, Fleisher told me that four of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos were authorized by Mozart himself in this sort of re-arrangement, although in modern times, several others of the concertos have been rearranged in this way – sometimes for recording by others of Fleisher’s past Peabody students.

Fleisher will also play a work dedicated to him by longtime friend Leon Kirchner: L.H. for Leon Fleisher, dating from a period of Fleisher’s career when he only had the use of his left hand, owing to what was eventually diagnosed as “focal dystonia” which caused involuntary contractions of two fingers of Fleisher’s right hand.

Even with these particular musical items in focus, attendees can probably expect Fleisher to connect the dots on the entire history of Western art and music. In our telephone conversation, Fleisher told me that while his own studies with Artur Schnabel largely focused on Beethoven, it informs all of his work.

He said that musical “impressionism,” largely associated with the French composers Debussy and Ravel, “depends on the senses,” while the next-largest quantity of classical music, the Russian, represents “kind of a historic breast-beating cultural background.” Alluding to the way that the melancholy but also lush music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, for example, has often been appropriated for other uses, “it speaks to that level in all of us that responds to that pain, in all of those great tunes with lots of notes.”

“But it’s the German music that really seems to ask the most existential questions,” Fleisher continued. “It asks, how am I like a brook, or a leaf, where are the boundaries out in the universe, in the cosmos. It speaks to a different part of our souls.”

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Leon Fleisher & Friends: A 90th Birthday Celebration will be presented by Washington Performing Arts on Saturday, February 9, 2019, at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, 2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online. For Washington Performing Arts’ entire remaining season schedule, see their season calendar.

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David Rohde
David Rohde is a pianist, conductor, vocal teacher, music arranger, and arts writer. David has worked extensively in musical theater in Washington and around the mid-Atlantic region. He’s been music director and conductor for shows ranging from the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ 2016 production of Oklahoma! in Fredericksburg to pop/rock musicals like Evita, Next to Normal and Blood Brothers in the D.C. suburbs. His other journeys around the musical genres have included performing a piano recital series at the National Lutheran Home, accompanying singers in repertoire from bel canto opera to contemporary Broadway, and fronting a band one night in Rockville for the late Joan Rivers. David is a 2-time recipient and 8-time nominee for the WATCH Award for Outstanding Music Direction, and he loves watching the actors and musicians he’s worked with “make it” when they pursue regional and national performing arts careers.

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