One-handed piano

A disease left piano star Leon Fleisher unable to play with his right hand, but that didn’t stop him

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

When pianist Leon Fleisher and the Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO) comes to Boulder next Tuesday, be prepared for fireworks.

Literally. Their last tour together was interrupted by a volcanic eruption.

“Last year I did a little tour of Ireland that was ended by the Icelandic volcano,” Fleisher reports. “We couldn’t get out of Dublin for about a week.”

A volcano may be the only thing that stops Fleisher from touring. At 83 and one of America’s most distinguished pianists, he continues the grueling life of a touring artist (for example, concerts on successive nights in Laramie, Wyo., Boulder and Ames, Iowa) because he still enjoys it.

For the current tour, Fleisher will be playing the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 4 for Left Hand and orchestra. Considered one of the young lions of the piano in the 1950s, Fleisher saw his career curtailed in 1965 by the development of focal dystonia, a rare neurological affliction, in his right hand. Little understood at the time, the condition directed him into a career playing music for left-hand alone — of which there is quite a bit, due to commissions by Paul Witgenstein, a pianist who lost his right arm in World War I.

Fleisher has also pursued careers as a conductor and teacher. More recently, he has received treatment that restored some use of the right hand, although two-handed performances remain relatively rare.

Interestingly, of all the challenges and career-changing experiences he has faced, it is conducting that had the greatest impact on Fleisher the musician.

“Working with 40, 60, 100 people is a vastly different experience than the quite solitary playing of a soloist,” he explains. “By nature an orchestra has a certain amount of skepticism. They all started out to be soloists, so they always look at a conductor with a half-raised eyebrow. But if you can convince them of the validity of your vision and can entice them to go along to achieve that vision, that’s an unbelievably gratifying experience.”

The Prokofiev Concerto for the Left Hand is one of the commissions that Witgenstein never played. After receiving a copy from the composer, he wrote back that he didn’t understand a single note of it. Even today it’s not well known, although Fleisher thinks it deserves to be more popular.

“I think it’s a wonderful piece,” he says. “It has a kind of lightness and elegance, and it has an imagination and a kind of courage that you don’t find that often in Prokofiev. It’s a four-movement concerto, and the last movement is a kind of recollection of the first movement that evaporates into nothingness.

“Most people, when they write concertos, they like to end it with a big triumphant reconciliation between soloist and orchestra, or triumph one over the other. But this just disappears.”

It’s also very difficult, which may be part of the reason that Witgenstein put it aside unplayed. “I have to be perfectly honest with you, it is not easy,” Fleisher admits.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra and their conductor, Gérard Lorsten, are no better known in the United States than the concerto, but Fleisher thinks they are as worthy as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and other European ensembles that have earned a reputation in this country.

“They’re wonderful,” Fleisher says of the orchestra. “They should be known. They should be heard.”

In addition to the Prokofiev, the orchestra will play Termon (“Place of Sanctuary”), a new piece by Irish composer Míchael ó Suilleabhain that was written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Termon is scored for strings with Uillean pipes, the characteristic bagpipe of Ireland. In comparison to the somewhat raucous sound of the more familiar Scottish bagpipe, the Uillean pipes have a sweeter and gentler sound.

The soloist on the Uillean pipes will be Pádraic Keane, recent winner of Ireland’s Young Musician of the Year and member of a prominent Irish musical family.

Two symphonies complete the program: Haydn’s Symphony No 96, known as “The Miracle,” and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony — the second of at least three performances of this exuberant symphony in Boulder this season. Boulder Chamber Orchestra presented the Seventh on their opening concert Sept. 30, and the Boulder Philharmonic will join in with its own interpretation in March.

The Seventh, chosen for the climactic scene in the Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech,” is a famously propulsive piece with great rhythmic drive.

Nonetheless, in Boulder it is unlikely to trigger a volcanic eruption. On Tuesday, it will be up to the musicians on stage to provide that level of energy.


On the Bill

Leon Fleisher plays with the Irish Chamber Orchestra on Tuesday, Oct. 25 at Macky Auditorium.

Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $12. 1595 Pleasant St., 303-492-8008. For more info, visit