Leon Fleisher 90th Birthday Celebration
Tuesday, February 12, 2019 | 7:30pm
Herbst TheatreVenue Information
No subscription discounts available for this performance.
Works by BACH, KIRCHNER, SCHUBERT, DVOŘÁK and RAVEL
This presentation is made possible in part by the generous support of Frank S. Bayley.
About This Performance
Join the San Francisco musical community and SF Performances favorite Jonathan Biss to celebrate native son Leon Fleisher’s 90th birthday with this special concert. Born in San Francisco, Fleisher has enjoyed an epic career, which began with his professional debut at age 16 with the New York Philharmonic when conductor Pierre Monteux called him “the pianistic find of the century.” True to Monteux’s prophetic words, the pianist is regarded as one of the great performers of the 20th century.
Pianist Leon Fleisher thrives in a sustained career as conductor and soloist, recitalist, chamber music artist, and master class mentor. He made his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1944 and in 1952 became the first American to win the prestigious Queen Elisabeth of Belgium competition, establishing himself as one of the world’s premier classical pianists. At the height of his success, he was suddenly struck at age 36 with a neurological affliction later identified as focal dystonia, rendering two fingers on his right hand immobile. Rather than end his career, Mr. Fleisher began focusing on repertoire for the left hand only, conducting, and teaching. In the mid-90’s he able to return to playing with both hands after experimental treatments using a regimen of Rolfing and ‘botulinum toxin’ injections. A recipient of numerous honors and awards, he received the honor of Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters by the Minister of Culture of the French government as well as the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007 and is the subject of the 2006 Oscar and Emmy-nominated documentary film Two Hands. In 2013, Sony Classical issued a 23-CD box set of his entire recorded output, and in 2014, Mr. Fleisher released his first solo CD in a decade, the Grammy nominated All The Things You Are. At age 88, in addition to his teaching at Peabody, Mr. Fleisher continues with an international schedule of master classes, performances and orchestral guest conducting.
Jonathan Biss was born in 1980; his professional debut preceded this event by several months, when he performed, prenatally, the Mozart A Major Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall, with the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Lorin Maazel. Subsequent violin performances have shown greater independence, though they have also been more likely to send listeners running in the opposite direction, wildly searching for Ear, Nose and Throat specialists, and handguns.
Although the highlight of his career as a violinist took place when he was a fetus, Mr. Biss’ childhood was nonetheless saturated with music. With both of his parents playing the violin, and his older brother Daniel taking up the piano, he remembers music emanating from nearly every room in the house, including bathrooms, which, while modest in their decor, were valued for their acoustical properties.
Given this background, Mr. Biss’s commencement of piano studies at the age of six might seem like a defensive move, but it was in fact entirely offensive: while this adjective may in fact describe the sounds he produced when he began studying, it is simply meant to convey that the motivation to play the piano was entirely his own—his parents had no extra bathrooms to practice in, after all, and were not keen to build an outhouse. Mr. Biss’ enthusiasm manifested itself from the very beginning of his studies, far exceeding his six year-old physical and intellectual capacities.
This enthusiasm (or, if you take the word of Mr. Biss’s friends and associates, “obsessiveness” and “neurosis”) remains today, as does the feeling that doing justice to great music is an ever unattainable goal4. While this doesn’t necessarily make life easy, it is Mr. Biss’s deeply held sentiment that any other approach would be unthinkable. Or, in his own words, “if I ever stop finding music challenging and life-altering, I’ll quit and become an accountant.”
Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, Mr. Biss was blessed with excellent teachers, starting with Karen Taylor—who as his first instructor, helped him give what is still regarded as the definitive performance of the Middle C Piece—and continuing with Evelyne Brancart, who for six years was an invaluable source of information while Mr. Biss weathered what might best be termed an awkward adolescence. At the age of 17, Mr. Biss went to the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Leon Fleisher, which proved a phenomenal learning experience whenever Mr. Biss stopped looking under the piano to see if magic or pharmaceuticals were involved in the production of Mr. Fleisher’s surreally beautiful sound.
Around the same time, Mr. Biss began concertizing, which has led to his present activities. Highlights have included post-natal reengagements with Ms. Fried (with Mr. Biss a less reticent partner this time around), Maestro Maazel, and in November 2007, the Cleveland Orchestra.
While Mr. Biss’s life in music provides him with tremendous satisfaction, playing music remains ever a struggle. He regards it as a pleasure and privilege to live this struggle, and to share its results with other people.