Pianist Leon Fleisher performs and discusses his work at first University Lecture in Hendricks Chapel

The pianist overcame injury to his right hand and found a passion for teaching music.

For most people, a tiny cut to the thumb would hardly be life-changing. But for Leon Fleisher, world-renowned pianist, a small slice diverted his career as a soloist for more than three decades.

On Tuesday, Sept. 29, in a humid Hendricks Chapel, Fleisher offered anecdotes and advice drawn from his career as a pianist, recording artist, educator and conductor.

“Music is a horizontal activity. It starts at point A and finishes wherever point Z is." - Leon Fleisher

The event began with a screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary on Fleisher’s life, Two Hands. In the film, Fleisher explains how a seemingly innocuous cut to the thumb caused the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand to tense and curl, restricting his ability to play with both hands.

He went on to explain in the film how he reconciled with his injury, how he dove into teaching and orchestral conducting and how years later, after carpal tunnel surgery and experimental Botox injections to relax his tendons, he returned to the concert stage.

Following the screening, acting professor Ralph Zito stepped to the stage to introduce Fleisher.

Fleisher, 87, sat at the piano, pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose and smiled at his audience.

“And now you expect me to play?” he joked, before performing Claude Debussy’s “La puerta del vino” (the wine door) from the composer’s first book of Préludes. The piece features a habanera, or a Spanish rhythmic structure that developed into the tango, and listeners clapped appreciatively at the piece’s close.

He followed the Debussy with Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” (arranged by Stephen Prutsman). During the years when his right hand was injured, Fleisher devoted himself to repertoire for the left hand alone. Kern’s piece was a stunning example; the musician’s right hand gripped the knob on the piano bench, while his left slid through Kern’s melodies with fluid ease.

“It’s difficult to have wine with dinner and then play,” Fleisher said after finishing, smiling at the crowd. Zito sat opposite Fleisher to moderate the question-and-answer portion of the evening.

Zito opened the discussion by asking the pianist to expand on a quote from his memoir: “The greatest teacher since Schnabel [Fleisher’s teacher] is teaching itself.”

Fleisher explained that teaching music is most rewarding when a student is eager and inquisitive.  He said that while his hand was injured, he worked to develop his ability to translate difficult musical concepts into words, which served him well as he attempted to work with students to improve both their technique and their understanding of music.

He spoke slowly, but not hesitantly, as if many of the concepts he was explaining were weighty enough to merit silence at the end of each of his sentences. Much like the silence that briefly precedes and follows a musical performance.

Fleisher explained that unlike a painting, music exists in a finite space in time.

“Music is a horizontal activity,” he said. “It starts at point A and finishes wherever point Z is. And it is filled with vertical events.” These vertical events include beats and bar lines, chord changes and dynamic shifts, and separate music from the other art forms, Fleisher said.

The conversation briefly shifted to conducting before Fleisher took questions from the audience. Responding to a query about working with George Szell, the famous conductor, Fleisher said, “Orchestras are autocratic, not democratic,” joking about Szell’s perfectionist standards.

Fleisher concluded the event with a book signing in the back of the chapel. Teachers and students moved to shake hands with the musician.

Fleisher will be giving piano and chamber music master classes on Wednesday and Thursday evening, and will be conducting the SU orchestra on Friday evening.

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