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Dr. Peter Simon Remembers Leon Fleisher

Dr. Peter Simon Remembers Leon Fleisher

Published on August 3, 2020

Dr. Peter Simon Remembers Leon Fleisher

Leon Fleisher, widely considered to be one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century and a titanic figure in the field of music, passed away yesterday at the age of 92.  Mr. Fleisher was the Distinguished Artist in Residence at The Royal Conservatory for more than 30 years and held the Ihnatowycz Chair in Piano at The Glenn Gould School since it was first created.
It would be impossible to express in words the profound impact that Mr. Fleisher had on the lives of hundreds of students at the RCM and thousands more throughout the world.   It was Mr. Fleisher’s monthly masterclasses at the Conservatory in the mid 80s that became the foundation for the creation of The Glenn Gould School.  Over the years he instructed a small group of talented artists who are now among Canada’s leading pianists and teachers including Stewart Goodyear, Jan Lisiecki, Jean Saulnier, David Louie and many others.  He heard the St. Lawrence String Quartet 10 days after their inception and invited them to Tanglewood.  He conducted and led inspired performances by The Royal Conservatory Orchestra many times over the years, and also performed with them while conducting. He gave memorable solo performances in Mazzoleni Hall and with the RCM’s ARC Ensemble.
His eloquence and insights into music were unmatched and unsurpassed.  Students would emerge from sessions inspired to a level they considered life-changing.  Through his poetic yet utterly precise language, Mr. Fleisher would connect music to another dimension and realm that was both “sublime and ennobling.”  Through it all, he sought the truth of the music itself and was insistent on the need for one’s intentions to be exacting and to avoid any form of compromise in achieving one’s goals.  
He believed that music could access the deepest levels of human awareness and experience and was a force of such power that it could reconcile people with each other and achieve the human connection we all seek. 
As a pianist, his playing was often called “Apollonian”. It was towering, magisterial, transcendent, exhilarating, pure, and illuminated the very purpose and nature of each work.  He was hailed by the great conductor Pierre Monteux as the “pianistic find of the century” following his debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 16 playing the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. Mr. Fleisher’s recording of this work and the Beethoven Piano Concerti with conductor George Szell stand today as unsurpassed and definitive. 
When tragedy struck and he lost the use of his right hand at the age of 37 due to focal dystonia, a long period of despair followed as his very reason for being had been taken from him.  In a development that is truly a triumph of the human spirit over adversity, he came to realise that his connection to music went beyond playing an instrument and this led him into teaching and conducting.  Without this tragedy, his immense gift for inspiring and helping others would not have been possible and today, thousands of musicians carry forward the great historical insights he conveyed and his exacting standards. 
As a person, Mr. Fleisher was truly a humanist – someone who helped others in a large number of ways outside of the musical realm.  He and his wife Kathy were highly active in addressing inequity in their home city of Baltimore and in promoting social justice.  He had an enormous heart and never disparaged others.

On August 18, 2020, Dr. Simon spoke with broadcaster/writer Eric Friesen about his colleague and former teacher for Ottawa Chamberfest's Chamber Chats: At Home, Chez vous. Watch their conversation here

Dr. Peter Simon with the late Leon Fleisher

Later in life, he began to play with both hands again through a number of interventions that included deep tissue massage and Botox treatments in his arms.  While these were but short term and temporary remedies, he was able to perform and record for highly limited periods of time.  I would suggest that you listen to one of these late performances – the Nocturne in D Flat Major by Chopin on the album “Two Hands”.  If one were to contemplate the feeling of immersion in a sublime universe – it would be the four minutes spent listening to the magical spell he casts.
It is difficult to come to terms with the fact that he is no longer with us and that he will not be in our halls and classrooms elevating the lives of all those in his presence.  On a personal note as a student and friend of Leon’s for fifty years, I mourn his passing in the deepest way.


Leon Fleisher at The Royal Conservatory of Music