Leon Fleisher was born on July 3, 1928, in San Francisco to poor Eastern European immigrant parents. His father, Isithor Fleisher, of Ukrainian descent, was a milliner, meaning that he made women’s hats, and he owned a little shop on Geary Street. He also allegedly once sold a hat to Lucille Ball. His mom, Bertha Fleisher, while officially a housewife, was mainly dedicated to making her son the best he could be, once telling him that he could either be the first Jewish President of the United States, or a great concert pianist. While one was obviously more ambitious than the other, it appeared that Leon made the right choice.
Leon’s brother, Raymond, was four and a half years older than him, and began taking piano lessons (they had a simple upright piano in their apartment, and the piano teacher would go there to give lessons). However, Raymond was not too talented, or even much interested, in playing the piano, and young Leon, beginning from the age of five. After Raymond was done with his piano lessons and went outside to kick a ball around, Leon would go to the piano and apparently do everything that he was supposed to do at the lesson and also the preparation for the next lesson. Eventually Raymond got caught up with his schoolwork and their mother put the lessons on Leon’s shoulders, setting him on the path to be a truly great concert pianist.
Leon’s talent was quickly recognized, and he studied under San Franciscan classical pianist Laura Dubman (who died of kidney failure in 1993 at the age of 69), herself a child prodigy whose expertise won her critical acclaim in the 1930’s and 40’s in San Francisco, New York and Paris. In 1939, Leon’s family moved to New York, uprooting their entire lives so that Leon would have a better chance at realizing his dreams. He had already made his public debut at age 8, and played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Carnegie Hall at the age of 16, under acclaimed conductor Pierre Monteux, who famously referred to young Leon as “the pianistic find of the century”.
The Nov 20, 1944, issue of Newsweek magazine had this to say about Fleisher: “As the youngster made his way through the extremely long and extremely ungrateful Brahms D minor piano concerto, every critic in the house immediately recognized that here was no ordinary, youthful debutante of average promise.”
Having fulfilled his mother’s dreams, Leon then moved to Europe to explore on his own. It was during the Cold War and even classical musicians were being enlisted. While in Europe, Leon studied with Artur Schnabel (colloquially known as “the man who invented Beethoven”, due to his recording of the complete cycle of 32 sonatas) and Maria Curcio, who was Schnabel’s student.
In 1952, Leon entered and won a major contest as a representative of the United States. This was a time where the Soviets were dominating international music competitions. Offers from orchestras began pouring in.
“Leon Fleisher was one of the darlings of all the great conductors,” says Leonard Slatkin, the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. “With Leon, you’re overwhelmed with the thought that goes into the playing, and this incredible sound that comes out of the instrument.” That incredible sound was captured in a series of celebrated recordings Fleisher made with conductor George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.
But then, tragedy struck.
In 1963, they were planning a tour, sponsored by the State Department, of the Soviet Union and Europe, but something wasn’t right. Leon felt a sluggishness in the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand… and it wasn’t due to a lack of muscular strength either…
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