About seven or eight years ago, I ran into the pianist Leon Fleisher in a Baltimore grocery store. We've known each other since the mid-1990s but rarely meet, so I asked him how he was doing. "Well," he said, a smile coming to his weathered face, "I'm still vertical."
He was in his early 80s then. He turned 90 on July 23, still vertical, still teaching, still performing, still conducting, still animated by a lifelong engagement with the world's great music. "I don't want this to be a defense of music in any way, but it's certainly one of the most profoundly moving aspects of our civilization," he told me a few weeks before his birthday. "It's forever challenging, it's forever ennobling. Why wouldn't one want to live a life devoted to music?"
When he refers to "a life," Fleisher does not mean an adult life. He means the whole thing—he began playing at 4, and by age 9 he was the youngest-ever student of the legendary pianist and teacher Artur Schnabel. He was 14 when he appeared with the San Francisco Symphony, and two years later he debuted with the New York Philharmonic. He was regarded as one of the world's finest pianists when, in 1965, he noticed two fingers on his right hand had begun to curl involuntarily into his palm. The injury, eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia, disabled his hand and all but halted his performance career for 30 years. Two years of depression—Fleisher prefers the term "deep funk"—followed until he decided that his life's commitment was not to being a pianist but to music. He became one of Peabody Conservatory's most revered teachers, returned to the concert stage as a conductor, took on the role of artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts, and eventually rehabilitated his right hand to the point where he could resume his recording and performing career in his late 60s.
When we chatted, he was preparing for a pair of concerts, one at Tanglewood, the other at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago. Both appearances were with his wife, pianist and Peabody faculty artist Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and the latter was on his 90th birthday. "They keep giving me work to do on my birthday," he said, laughing. "I'm beginning not to appreciate it anymore."
I asked if he ever thought about what his legacy might be. There was a pause, then, "Oh, golly ... if I do, it's only for a few moments and then it disappears quickly." It was a silly question, anyway, because Fleisher's legacy is apparent: his many, many accomplished former students, who include André Watts, Peab '72 (AD), Lorin Hollander, and Jenny Lin, A&S '94, Peab '98 (AD). He's dazzled by how good his students' hands already are: "You have people doing extraordinary physical things." When asked about his work as a conductor, he added, "I'm becoming more and more interested in conducting young people. I love the energy they provide, and the curiosity. I love sharing those 'aha!' moments."