Leon Fleisher (Photo: Stephanie Kuykendal)

Leon Fleisher certainly needs no introduction. The 83-year-old is a legend in his own time and without question the greatest pianist the United States has produced. This is a big claim given the number of exceptional American pianists, but what to a large degree sets Fleisher apart from the rest is his consummate artistry and his almost innate sense of interpretation and musicality – all of which was honed very early in his musical training.

His parents recognized their child’s talents early on and had the boy study with a series of private teachers until he met and became the student of the extraordinary Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel. “I came to him when I was nine,” Fleisher said in a phone interview from his home in Baltimore. “I was his youngest student.”

Fleisher knows the importance of developing  and nurturing the talents of young musicians. So when Eugene Watanabe, a former student of his at the Curtis Institute of Music and the director of Salt Lake City’s Gifted Music School, contacted Fleisher and asked if he would come perform with the school’s orchestra at its spring gala benefit, he immediately accepted. “I am looking forward to it,” he said, adding that he is impressed with what he’s heard of the school. “Eugene Watanabe has hit the mark on its head. He’s gotten them (the students) when they need to be gotten – when they’re youngsters. It’s around (ages eight to 11) when you establish what I call your neuro-muscular curriculum, when your instrument becomes a part of yourself, rather than being something foreign.”

The students in the Gifted Music School orchestra range in age from nine to 17, so they fall into the age bracket when children are most receptive to learning. “They drink it up and want to learn,” Fleisher said. “This is wonderful.”

Fleisher will be playing Mozart’s Concerto No. 12 in A major, K. 414, in a version for strings alone. “Out of the 27 concertos he wrote this was one of four Mozart designated could be played by strings. Of course you would add a double bass, so with the piano it would be a sextet.” The Utah Symphony’s assistant conductor, Vladimir Kulenovic, who also teaches at the school, will conduct.

Known for his performances of the romantic repertoire, Fleisher is also enamored of Mozart’s music and said that one doesn’t need a reason to play it. He recorded the K. 414 in 2008 with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and loves it. “It’s delightful, beautiful and joyous Mozart. You don’t need to look past that.”

Fleisher’s approach to the works he plays owes a great deal to Schnabel, as does his development as an artist. Schnabel was a tremendous teacher and mentor and was a profound influence on the young student. “He went so deeply into the music that you could see into the various levels,” Fleisher said. “This approach to the music is what we all are yearning for. Schnabel infused the music on every level with inspiration and spontaneity. It seemed fresh every time he did it.”

Having had such a profound teacher almost from the start gave Fleisher the impetus he needed to make teaching an important aspect of who he was as an artist. “Teaching is so fruitful and invigorating,” he said. “And it can be enormously helpful to you (as a performer) because you are constantly confronted with questions by your students, especially if you have gifted students – they always bring up good points.”

Fleisher began teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in 1959. He also teaches at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and until last spring also at Curtis. And over the years he has taken many young pianists under his wings who have gone on to major concert careers. Among his students are André Watts, Yefim Bronfman, Louis Lortie and Jonathan Biss.

One of the great collaborations in music was that between Fleisher and George Szell. It was Schnabel who introduced the young pianist to the fabled music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. “Szell and Schnabel were great friends,” Fleisher said. “They played bridge together and Szell just adored Schnabel.”

In the 1940s Schnabel was the creative force behind the Town Hall concert series in New York, and it was at one of these concerts Fleisher met Szell. “Schnabel insisted that his students go to these concerts, and it was here where I heard Huberman play, and also heard Bartok and his wife.”

It was during an intermission that Fleisher met Szell. “I saw this Darth Vader like figure in a black homburg and black overcoat striding to Schnabel’s box, where I was sitting, and crook his finger at me. I was about 14 or 15.” Not long after, Fleisher and Szell gave their first concerts together. “I played with him the first time at Ravinia. We did two concerts. For the first one I played Schumann’s concerto and for the second I played the Brahms D minor.”

That collaboration lasted for years and resulted in some of the most memorable recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms concertos. The two also recorded works by Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Franck, Grieg and many others, most of which have never been out of print and are now available on CD. “We would do concerts on Thursdays and Saturdays and record them on Fridays and Sundays,” Fleisher said.

Fleisher relates an amusing anecdote in his recently published book, My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music, about the time he and Szell played Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. When they came to the famous 18th variation, easily the best known moment in the work, Szell mouthed to the players, “Like the Philadelphia Orchestra.” “That was a bit nasty,” Fleisher said about Szell wanting his orchestra to mimic the Philadelphia’s famous lush string sound. “If you have ever been in the Academy of Music (where the Philadelphia Orchestra used to play) then you know it has the deadest sound. The strings had to develop a big, full sound which, in any other hall, would be lush.” And referencing the Philadelphia’s signature sound was the most direct and obvious way Szell knew to achieve his goal.

And yes, Szell always got what he wanted, Fleisher said. “They played it beautifully.”


  • Gifted Music School Orchestra, Leon Fleisher, piano, Vladimir Kulenovic, conductor
  • Venue: Libby Gardner Concert Hall, University of Utah
  • Time and Date: 6:30 p.m. March 24
  • Tickets: $25 reserved, $5 students
  • Phone: 801-913-2868
  • Web: www.giftedmusicschool.org


  • What: Master Class with Leon Fleisher
  • Venue: Libby Gardner Concert Hall, University of Utah
  • Time and Date: 10 a.m.-12 p.m. March 23
  • Tickets: Free, but reservations required
  • Phone: 801-913-2868
  • Email: giftedmusicschool@gmail.com
  • Web: www.giftedmusicschool.org


  • What: Two Hands, documentary about Leon Fleisher
  • Venue: Libby Gardner Concert Hall, University of Utah
  • Time and Date: 12-12:20 p.m. March 23
  • Tickets: Free

(Click on the following link to read more about the Gifted Music School: http://www.reichelrecommends.com/?p=2588.)

This entry was posted in Articles, Concert Previews by Edward Reichel. Bookmark the permalink.

About Edward Reichel

Edward Reichel, author, writer and composer, has been covering the classical music scene in Utah since 1997. For many years he served as the primary music critic for the Deseret News. He has also written for a number of publications, including Chamber Music Magazine, OPERA Magazine, 15 Bytes, Park City Magazine and Salt Lake Magazine. He holds a Ph.D. in composition from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He can be reached at ed.reichel@gmail.com. Reichel Recommends is also on Twitter @ReichelArts.



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