Performing Brahms with Leon Fleisher - Entrada

September 14, 2021

Performing Brahms with Leon Fleisher

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With the first anniversary of Leon Fleisher’s passing, I am reminded of my great good fortune in performing the Brahms D Minor Concerto with Fleisher conducting my university’s orchestra in October of 2015.


Shortly after his death in 2020, I wrote Reminiscences of Leon Fleisher. The article appeared in Pianist Magazine, and I received responses from fellow Fleisher students with their stories, and requests for more of my own. With their spirit, and the memory of Mr. Fleisher strong in my heart, I’m recalling some of the high points of that unforgettable week.

Opening the academic year with the Brahms D Minor proved especially ambitious for our student orchestra, as it included many freshmen playing in their first major concert. It’s much easier to play with a professional orchestra than a student orchestra, however, we were fortunate to have a full week to rehearse. Mr. Fleisher elicited profound responses from the students, especially in regard to rhythm and inflection. It fostered a collaborative energy — a sense that we were all in this together and the goal wasn’t perfection.



I recently encountered a video of Fleisher speaking in 2014, supporting what I was witnessing with our students. “The teacher’s obligation is not so much to pass on his or her personal prejudices but to teach students how to learn, because they’re not going to be with a teacher all that long, and they have to learn how to learn what are those elements that go into making your decisions authentic.”

Further, he said, “Conducting the great orchestras can be fun, but in a way, it’s like driving a Bentley or a Rolls. You give the downbeat and then you get out of their way… I like working with young people and going through those ‘Aha!’ moments when they first realize something that is truly wondrous and earth-shattering.”

Ten days before Fleisher arrived for his residency, I met for a piano rehearsal with my conducting colleague. At the opening of the third movement, he said, “104, I presume?”—meaning that he thought I was planning to play at the same tempo that Fleisher took in his iconic recording with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. I laughed out loud! Although my tempi are spirited and rhythmic—and I admire Fleisher’s recording—at this stage of life, I don’t feel it so similarly to how Fleisher did in his 20’s and early 30’s. As it turned out: neither did he!



At the first rehearsal, for the downbeat of the first measure, Mr. Fleisher urged the horns, low strings, and timpani to play fortissimo, and the excitement was palpable. However, the distance between the first and second downbeats was much greater than I’d expected, and the tempo lumbered along. While his recording with Szell opens at around 57-58 bpm for the dotted half note, his first rehearsal tempo was closer to 45!

I’d read Fleisher’s memoir, My Nine Lives, and recalled his amusing story of how the authoritarian conductor Eugene Ormandy had “punished” Fleisher during a performance after he’d dared to ask for a bit more time before concluding his trill in the slow movement of the Rachmaninoff Second. I wondered how I might best make the case for my envisioned tempo. Later, I politely asked, “Maestro, would it be possible to move the tempo a bit more in the first movement?” I needn’t have worried. Leon (as he’d insisted I call him) seemed a tad surprised that it might have been that slow, but his response was equivalent to “of course.”
(Our tempo settled in the 54-56 range for the performance.)



On the night of the Brahms performance, Leon and I were in my studio at intermission, waiting to be summoned to begin the concerto. I was stretching, doing Tai chi, and I asked, “you’ve probably done more than 200 performances of this piece, yes?” to which he said, “Probably many more. I performed it 88 times alone with Pierre Monteux!” He said, “What about for you—which time is this?” I replied that it was my first with orchestra.

“REALLY?!! Well, you’re one of my only collaborators in this way (from the podium),” and I sensed a wave of excited anticipation from him as we prepared to take the stage.

Despite the challenges for the orchestra in performance, I felt ‘in the zone’ and deeply connected both to Mr. Fleisher and the students. Forty-eight minutes zoomed by. After greeting concert-goers for a long time, we were alone once again in my studio. It wasn’t long before we were back to talking about music.

The score of the Chopin Barcarolle was open on my piano, and soon I was playing, urged on by Fleisher who said, “I think it’s probably his most beautiful piece.” Part of me wanted to coax him to play. Instead, I found myself playing the last section, savoring the lush, extended harmonies and trading ideas about nuances in Chopin. It was late and I needed to get Leon back to the hotel before his morning flight back to Baltimore, but I didn’t want the time to end.



At our farewell at the airport, we shared a warm embrace. He looked at me and said, “Don’t be a stranger!” I replied modestly, in that way when one doesn’t want to be a bother to someone ‘important,’ so he looked into my eyes and firmly, emphatically boomed, “I mean it!”

Recently, I was redirected to the moving tribute to Mr. Fleisher on YouTube by Lydia Seifter. On hearing of Fleisher’s passing, she wrote, “I took out my score of the Brahms D Minor, turned immediately to the second theme.“ Playing it, she said, “felt like a sacred moment in sacred territory.”

Her commemoration includes a request for others to pay homage to Mr. Fleisher by posting their performances of that same Brahms theme. I’ve responded by submitting the requested passage from our performance with the Syracuse University Symphony Orchestra, augmented by photographs of our time together.

Thank you, Mr. Fleisher — my teacher, my mentor, my friend, for the incredible inspiration and wisdom you imparted. I call upon you every day.



How do you remember Leon Fleisher? Share your own stories in the comments! 


2 responses to “Performing Brahms with Leon Fleisher”

  1. Uel Wade says:

    My favorite memory of Leon Fleisher harks back to a solo concert he played at Seiji Ozawa Hall many years ago, not long after he had regained use of his right hand. After entering to thunderous applause, he sat quietly at the piano while the audience quieted down, and in that fraught silence that precedes every performance, he just sat there for minutes on end, stretching his hands over the keyboard, as serene as could be, almost kneading the keys to make all the required connections before he played. The piece was the Busoni transcription of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” and when he finally decided he was ready to play, out of that monster Steinway wafted the most gorgeous, gentle sounds I have ever heard. It was transformational. I think it perfectly reflected his gentle spirit.

  2. Deborah Cunningham says:

    While I never had the honor of studying with Mr. Fleisher, I was incredibly blessed to study with Fred Karpoff. I was also fortunate to be in attendance at the concert at which Dr. Karpoff performed the Brahms D Minor concerto. Earlier in that week, Mr. Fleisher gave a masterclass, at which several of the university students performed. Open to the community, I was excited to meet this amazing artist whom Dr. Karpoff had often quoted in my lessons. The masterclass was quite inspiring, and I was able to write down a few quotes from Mr. Fleisher that resonated with me at the time. I will share them here, and hope that you will gain as much from them as I have:
    “Today’s performances are so focused on perfection that they lack inflection. Imperfections are barely noticeable when a performer is communicating, rather than focusing on being perfect.”

    “You can’t see, touch, taste, smell, music; yet somehow, it touches us.”

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