Leon Fleisher, 92, Dies; Spellbinding Pianist With One Hand or Two

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An older brother, Raymond, was given piano lessons. He showed little interest in them, but when Raymond went out to play after his lessons, Leon, who was then 4 years old, would go to the piano and repeat, by ear, everything he had heard.

His mother soon decided that Leon, rather than Raymond, should study the instrument. She made her intentions for her younger son clear: He would either be the first Jewish president of the United States or he would be a concert pianist.

So devoted was his mother to his musical training that after two weeks of kindergarten, during which he objected strenuously to nap time, she withdrew him from public school and hired tutors so he could devote his time to practicing at the piano. She also found ways of bringing him to the attention of two important San Francisco conductors, Pierre Monteux and Alfred Hertz, who in turn persuaded the pianist Artur Schnabel to take Leon on as a student in 1938, when he was 9, despite his policy of not teaching children.

By the time Leon began working with Schnabel, he had already played a few concerts, but Schnabel’s single condition for teaching the boy was that there be no more concerts. Schnabel relaxed the rule in 1944 and allowed Mr. Fleisher to play the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor with Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony and then with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, also with Monteux conducting.

Noel Strauss, reviewing the performance for The New York Times, wrote that Mr. Fleisher, making his New York debut, “scored heavily in the exacting work and at once established himself as one of the most remarkably gifted of the younger generation of American keyboard artists.”

In 1945, at Ravinia, Mr. Fleisher played the Brahms again — it quickly became one of his signature pieces — as well as the Liszt Concerto No. 2 in A, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He also performed four concertos at Ravinia the next summer, under the direction of William Steinberg and Szell, who soon engaged Mr. Fleisher to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra, which he took over later that year.

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