When Leon Fleisher was four years old, his mother gave him two choices: he could become the first Jewish president of the United States, or he could become a great pianist.
“In those days, the presidency really seemed a lot farther out than it does today, so I chose music, not that I knew what the hell I was choosing,” he said.
Fleisher, who will turn 90 this year, is widely regarded as one of the finest pianists of the past century. He now considers himself lucky that his mother had such high aspirations for him more than 85 years ago.
“I think this was one of those rare cases where the ambition of the parent just happens to coincide with whatever gift the child might have,” he said. “That doesn’t happen too often.”
Though he became a greater and more renowned musician than his mother could have possibly imagined, he was struck a terrible blow at 36, amid the apex of his career as a concert pianist. An injury to his right hand eventually was diagnosed as focal dystonia, an incurable condition that caused his fingers to stiffen and curl, rendering playing the keyboard impossible. Given the forced limitations, he turned his attention to conducting, teaching and playing the left-handed repertoire.
His decades - long journey of recovery and triumphant story has been documented in the 2006 Oscar-nominated film Two Hands, as well as his 2010 memoir, My Nine Lives.
The condition continues to affect him, though with experimental treatments, including Botox and Rolfing, among others, Fleisher has been able to play with both hands since the 1990s.
“I can deal with certain kinds of music, and other kinds of music from a pianistic point of view are more recalcitrant, so to speak. I stay away from those, but I deal with the ones that I can deal with,” he said.
Fleisher will be performing at The Gilmore Keyboard Festival as part of an all-Mozart program on May 9.
Fleisher was the featured pianist, along with Van Cliburn, at the very first Gilmore festival in 1991, where he performed a newly written piano concerto by American composer C. Curtis-Smith with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. He has returned twice since, most recently in 2014.
Dan Gustin, director emeritus of The Gilmore, worked closely with Fleisher when they were both directors at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass. Gustin described him as “one of my musical heroes.”
“Fleisher is the last performing ‘member’ of the important wave of American pianists that flourished for several decades beginning in the middle of the last century,” Gustin said. “We are very honored that he will be here during the festival for a master class and a performance of the beautiful Mozart’s Piano Concerto, K. 414, a work that I know is very special to him.”
The program will also include the overture to The Marriage of Figaro and Symphony No. 35, conducted by Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, as well as the Mozart Two-Piano Concerto, K. 365, performed by Alon Goldstein and Yury Shadrin, two of Fleisher’s prominent students.
Fleisher is passionate about teaching, a phenomenon which he credits to his own teacher, Artur Schnabel, who’s part of a lineage of student-mentor relationships traced back to Beethoven.
“My teacher, my great teacher, one of the great musicians of the 20th century, loved teaching,” Fleisher said. “It was an act of love in a way. I think I learned that from him.”
And teaching, of course, goes far beyond merely helping students learn technique.
“The aspect of mastering your instrument, that has very little to do with the gift, the talent for making irresistible music out of all these notes,” Fleisher said. “In music, one of our goals is to speak, is to be eloquent, is to be moving.”
Fleisher continues to move audiences as well as students all over the world with a grueling schedule that includes teaching, conducting and performing — often with his wife, Kathy, a former piano student of his, in what he describes as split concerts: “I play the first half myself and on the second half we play four hands, one piano — of which there’s an extraordinarily large and beautiful repertoire.”
Just as Fleisher views his practically forced entry into piano as a child, he sees his continued ability to immerse himself professionally in music — despite the physical limitations of his right hand — as a great fortune.
“I’ve been somewhat limited just in terms of making music on the piano. Music is still there. I can make it as a teacher. I can make music as a conductor. I still have it available to me,” he said. “It’s a core part of my life. It’s not exclusively relegated to making two-handed music on the piano. For that, I’m really just unspeakably lucky.”
714 S. Westnedge Ave., Kalamazoo
May 9, 9 p.m., $18-$38