By some of his piano students, Leon Fleisher is perceived as godlike, a person whose understanding of music borders on the mystical. Christie Julien, one of Fleisher's current students, says she is regularly surprised by his level of insight into a musical performance.
"He knows everything," Julien says with a smile. "We try very hard not to show we are in trouble, but he tells us exactly what we need to hear without even asking him for his help. Trust me, he really knows."
Julien pauses, "Experience I guess."
Experience is surely not something that Fleisher, since 1959 the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Piano at the Peabody Institute, is in short supply of.
For the past four decades, aspiring young pianists like Julien have come from all over the world to study with the legendary teacher and performer. To celebrate the anniversary of Fleisher's appointment, seven of his current students will perform solo piano works of Brahms during a three-day marathon to be held from April 26 to April 28 in Peabody's Friedberg Hall. The event will conclude with a gala dinner for invited guests, to be hosted by actress Claire Bloom, at the George Peabody Library. There, the ambassador of Belgium will present Fleisher with an award from King Albert II in recognition of his longtime involvement with the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition of Belgium. The honor confers on Fleisher the title of Commander in the Order of Leopold II.
Julian Martin, a former student of Fleisher and the current chair of the Piano Department, says the event is a fitting tribute to a great man and teacher who has influenced the lives of many renowned musicians.
"In my opinion, Fleisher was the one who put the school on the map," Martin says.
And to think, Martin adds, it all began with a credit card.
In 1959, Fleisher, despite an already flourishing performance and recording career, couldn't qualify for a credit card because he was self-employed and didn't have what was considered a "regular income." His solution was to take up a career in teaching, and he has never looked back.
Fleisher began his career as the archetypal child prodigy, with piano lessons at age 4 and his first public recital at age 8. A year later he became a student of the legendary pianist Artur Schnabel, a person who was to have a tremendous influence on both his performance and teaching careers. Schnabel, who was from the German school, had studied with the pupil of the pupil of the pupil of Beethoven, making Fleisher only five times removed from Beethoven in pedagogical lineage.
In 1944, at age 16, Fleisher made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. When he was 24, he became the first American to win Belgium's Queen Elisabeth International Piano Competition. This early success led Fleisher to a series of recitals on the world's greatest concert stages. And his collaboration with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra resulted in a series of recordings--among them the complete Beethoven and Brahms piano concertos--that have remained touchstones of the classical catalog.
It was midway through the 1964-65 concert season when Fleisher's career was interrupted by the onset of a debilitating ailment affecting his right hand, later diagnosed as repetitive stress syndrome. The illness served to dedicate Fleisher even further to his career as a teacher, and it also led him to new pursuits--a career in conducting and the performance of left-hand-alone piano literature.
Fleisher has appeared as guest conductor with the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, among others. From 1986 to 1997, Fleisher also served as the artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center.
His performance and recordings of the repertoire for the left hand have won him both critical and popular acclaim, including two Grammy nominations. In 1994, Musical America named Fleisher Instrumentalist of the Year. The next year, at a concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, Fleisher was successfully able to play the Mozart Concerto in A Major, K. 414 with both hands. He now performs both the left-hand repertoire and select works for two hands.
All the while, however, Fleisher has foremost been a teacher, turning out a series of students who have won top prizes in international music competitions and have gone on to renowned careers of their own.
His students say Fleisher's strengths as a teacher are his patience and his ability to see inside a piece of music with vivid clarity.
Jean-François Latour, a first-year graduate student, says Fleisher is perhaps best characterized by his oft-repeated phrase "support the composer."
"He tells us not to put our ego in the music but to see all the shapes and dynamics in the music and to support the thinking of the composer," Latour says. "That is the phrase I will always remember."
Fleisher is described as a man of great character who commands the respect of those around him. When he talks, his students say it's impossible not to listen, and he can show disapproval from across the room with just a slight lift of his eyebrow.
"But he never discourages the student," says Latour, a native of Montreal. "He will say the best thing we did and also the things we didn't do. But he is always encouraging the student."
Fleisher's students come to him as already accomplished musicians. To enter into his inner circle, each prospective student must perform for him personally before passing an entrance audition for the entire piano faculty.
Those who make that cut become a very tight-knit group. Fleisher schedules his students in groups of three, rather than one-on-one, for weekly lessons. Each student is required to come to class with a different piece of music that he or she will perform.
Martin says this unique style, once the standard, stems from the way Fleisher was taught by Schnabel.
Some benefits of this style of teaching, according to Martin, are that Fleisher is able to teach his students three times as many works as he would individually, and the students can also learn from each other.
"You are more open to learning if you're not the one on the hot seat," Martin says. "It's a different experience if you listen objectively to the music."
The students say they don't come to Fleisher to learn technique but rather to expand their understanding of the music itself.
Julien, a native of Paris, says Fleisher teaches students to look deeper into what they are playing.
"He never tells you to go practice. He's not our dad," Julien says. "What he is giving us is an approach, and we can do whatever we want with it. He's more concerned with the sound, the structure, the timing and the cosmic approach of envisioning what you are doing. Before I went in hoping that it's going to be good. Now I start by knowing how I want the sound to be and how I want to do it."
All the students echoed the same sentiment, that they are honored to have this opportunity to study under one of the greatest teachers of his day.
Micah Yui, another Fleisher student, says she views Fleisher as an idol and an incredible musician. She adds, however, that he's not just the stereotypical maestro.
"At the same time, he is really cool. He talks about always wanting to have tried surfing, and he knows about all the recent flicks. Not just the profound ones but really stupid cheap flicks," Yui says. "I sound like a raving fan, but he really is a tremendous character."
The Brahms Piano Marathon will take place at Friedberg Concert Hall on Monday, April 26, 7 to 11 p.m.; Tuesday, April 27, 7 to 11 p.m.; and Wednesday, April 28, 7 to 8 p.m., with an introduction by Claire Bloom. Admission is free, but tickets are required for Wednesday night. Call the Peabody box office at 410-659-8124.