piano teaching

RIP Leon Fleischer

Whenever one of the giants of the music world passes from this realm into the next, it always makes me profoundly sad. It doesn’t matter if I had any sort of direct musical connection with them. The fact that a great voice was gone was somehow felt, seismically, even if far away, across the world.

In the case of Leon Fleischer, I had a direct connection with him. A smaller one than many had, but still dear to me. In my second year as a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, he was the coach of a chamber group I was in. We were working on the Brahms g minor Piano Quartet. I remember bits and pieces of the actual rehearsing and playing, but very clearly some of the things that Mr. Fleischer said to us.

One of the best was “Are you doing this out of conviction, or of convenience?” What a marvelous question – and perhaps a rhetorical one at that. It probes right to the heart of the musical decision-making process. And it belies a work ethic that was underpinned with an inquisitive, seeking mind. It makes (or does it?) a couple of assumptions. First, have you thought out what you want to do in this musical moment? And second, have you done the work necessary to accomplish what you really want to in this musical moment? Two really simple questions which open a vast realm of musical exploration. What is happening here? Why is it important? Is anything unimportant? Am I capable of doing what I internally hear, here? If so, what does that mean? If not, what does that mean? Is there a time when taking the easy road is the best? Is there a time when pursuing the most difficult solution is unavoidable and inevitable? And so on, and so on…

A mind that can take the overwhelming task of making music and distilling it into a single, probing question such as this is rare. Many musicians can do the work, but aren’t necessarily able to express it in such cogent terms. I would say that this is the most valuable part of Mr. Fleischer’s genius. There are generations of brilliant pianists who would probably agree with me.

Godspeed, Mr. Fleischer.

With Leon Fleischer at Seji Ozawa Concert Hall, Tanglewood, 1995.
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