TWO HOURS BEFORE HIS JAN. 13 performance at Carnegie Hall, pianist Leon Fleisher teetered on the edge of panic. “My fingers wouldn’t obey,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘Get the hell away from the piano, just go and sit down.’ ” Though even veteran musicians face preconcert jitters, Fleisher’s situation was special: This would be the first Carnegie Hall concert in over 30 years in which he would play using both hands.
In 1964, Fleisher, then 36, was widely regarded as among the finest American pianists of his generation. Then he began to notice a problem: the little finger on his right hand felt weak. So he practiced harder and longer. “The finger seemed to refuse to respond,” says Fleisher, now 67, sitting across from a Steinway grand in the living room of his hilltop, two-bedroom Baltimore home. “In fact it seemed to defend itself involuntarily by curling under.” To the pianist’s horror, the fourth finger soon followed, and over the next 10 months, the rest of his right hand. He canceled a tour with the Cleveland Orchestra and lamented other lost bookings. When the hand showed no sign of recovery, he realized he might be facing, in his prime, the abrupt end of his brilliant career. “I was in the deepest despair,” he says. “There’s no question but that suicide entered my mind.”
Through it all, doctors didn’t have a clue how to cure him. (It wasn’t until the 1980s that his problem even acquired a name: repetitive stress syndrome, a condition in which muscles and tissues are traumatized from repeated overuse.) With his hand so crippled he could barely write his name, Fleisher went from one therapy to another. “I tried everything,” he says. “Cortisone shots; X-rays where they shoot a dye into your spinal column to see if there are any vertebrae that are impinging on a nerve; nerve induction tests where they stick needles into the nerves in your hand and then shock you and time the speed of response. Great stuff.”
He also tried medications: L-dopa, the drug found to give temporary relief to Parkinson’s patients; and Botulinum—a form of the poison that causes botulism—that was supposed to relax the muscles. When conventional treatment failed, Fleisher turned to alternative therapies: hypnosis, acupuncture, biofeedback. He even spent a few weeks attending est seminars. When doctors suggested the problem might be psychosomatic, he went to a psychiatrist. “I didn’t believe that,” he says, “but they’ve got you coming and going.”
Then, last February, Fleisher’s wife of 13 years, Katherine Jacobson, 48, a pianist who is a music professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, persuaded him to try a form of deep connective tissue massage called Rolfing, which she had been using to enhance her flute playing. Fleisher, who believes he had never properly “de-contracted” his finger muscles after strenuous practice sessions by stretching and rest, felt his right hand begin to loosen after only three sessions. “I manipulated the connective tissue of his hand, arm and wrist using my fingers and knuckles, sometimes my elbow,” says Tessy Brungardt, his Rolfer. “The tissue in his arm started to get softer.”
In April 1995, he resumed playing two-handed with the Washington-based Theater Chamber Players, a group he had cofounded in 1968. When longtime friend Andre Previn heard Fleisher playing two-handed at the Tanglewood Music Center last summer—where Fleisher is artistic director—the conductor suggested that he play with him at Carnegie Hall.
It didn’t take much urging; Fleisher couldn’t remember when his life hadn’t revolved around the piano. The younger son of a San Francisco ladies’ hatmaker and his wife, Leon became a student of renowned Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel at 9 and made his Carnegie Hall debut at 16. When he won the prestigious Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Music Competition at 24, he became an instant celebrity. The prize brought invitations to perform all over the world, and it also brought pressure. “From that moment on, you’re operating under a microscope,” he says. “I wanted to sustain this career, and that’s when I started overworking.”
Fleisher’s home life also suffered. His first marriage, which produced three children, failed, Fleisher says, in part because he was away so much. His second, during which he had two more children, fell apart due to his injury. “My self-pity was certainly a contributing factor,” he admits. “I was in a funk.”
If ambition hastened Fleisher’s fall, music picked him up. He began to play piano works for the left hand—a slim but rewarding repertoire greatly augmented by compositions by Ravel, Prokofiev and Britten that were commissioned by a wealthy Austrian pianist who had lost his right arm in World War I. He embarked on a successful conducting career and also immersed himself in his other talent, teaching.
“Teaching is where he found his real happiness,” says his son Julian, 29, a jazz singer and writer. “He has this kind of weird adoration from students. Someone once called him the Obi-Wan Kenobi of piano teachers.” He is “fabulously complex,” says pianist Andre Watts, Fleisher’s most famous pupil. “He’s a really big, big human being.”
Indeed, as his hand grows stronger—after his Carnegie Hall triumph, The New York Times lauded “his pianism, not just his courage”—he is planning performances with the San Francisco Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic. Fleisher concedes he has grown through his ordeal. “Before, I was just a two-handed piano player,” he says. “What happened to me has expanded my life, my awareness, my humanity.”
MARGIE BONNETT SELLINGER in Baltimore