Leon Fleisher – Photo Joanne Savio

5 Questions to Leon Fleisher (Pianist and Conductor)

Bridge Records released All the Things You Are, Leon Fleisher’s first solo album in nearly a decade. Consisting largely of works for left hand, the album also features works composed for Leon Fleisher by George Perle, Leon Kirchner, and Dina Koston as well as renditions of favorites by George Gershwin and Jerome Kern.

Leon Fleisher - Photo Joanne Savio

Leon Fleisher – Photo Joanne Savio

After seeing pictures of your studio, I was struck by the prevalence of satellite imagery of galaxies and nebulae hanging on the walls. What does this imagery convey to you, and what is its perceived relationship to music?

It’s my feeling that a lot of the music that we play, specifically German music actually, reaches heavenward, it seems to be involved with existential questions: What is man’s purpose in life? How does he relate to the universe? How is he like a brook? How is he like the leaf of a tree? These are all things that, I think — specifically German music — relates to as opposed to, for example, French music … which is sensual and sensory … and Russian music, which is very subjective, personal. The universe conveys movement; it passes through time and I think that it is subject to the same … you know, people talk about music and math, but I think the much more relevant comparison would be music and physics, and because it is movement I find that is subject to the laws of movement in physics.

Your latest record, ‘All The Things You Are’, features predominantly American music, owing as much to jazz as it does to the avant-garde modernism of the half-century. Within these stylistic juxtapositions, and with regard to the the avant-garde specifically, what fascinates you the most about new music?

It’s hard to say. I look to be moved by it. I look to be intrigued by it. This latest recording, to a large extent, consists of music that was written for me, with the exception of the Bach/Brahms, (old as I am I was not alive at that time). I included the Jerome Kern piece, first of all because it is such a beautiful tune, but it also such a great arrangement which was made by a former student of mine, a terrifically gifted young man named Stephen Prutsman, and I thought it might please those modernists who are attracted by Schoenberg because the tune of All The Things You Are comprises all twelve notes of the scale; I thought Schoenberg would have been quite pleased by that.

One can’t help but be impressed with the rhythmic command you demonstrate in these series of works, and I wanted to talk to you about rhythm a little bit further; in regards to rhythmical conceptions and traditions: have you ever found yourself, as you’ve matured artistically, questioning the validity of very strict and metronomically guided performances of older music?

Well, I’ve always felt (and I don’t think I am alone in this) that a metronome is a machine. And it has nothing to do with breathing or the life of music. It merely mechanically shows us where we play slower or where we play faster or where we don’t keep time. But the in-time-ness of each piece is an exceedingly important aspect of that piece, and is quite unique to that piece, to that specific combination of tones, so there is an in-time-ness, a kind of inviolate in-time-ness of each piece. It has nothing to do with the metronome, though. Again, it is a machine. If you want to pattern a piece of music after a machine, I guess you will go for a metronome [chuckles], otherwise they’re not very useful, musically speaking.

Looking back on your life and your experiences of learning music, what piece (or group of pieces) sticks out in your mind as being the first ‘modern’ work you encountered? A piece which made you really think differently about not only style but which struck you as something remarkably modern both in form and content?

I think the first serious contemporary piece that I ever played … I was around thirteen or fourteen, and my teacher Artur Schnabel gave me a manuscript copy of a group of pieces by a friend of his, whom he admired greatly, the composer Roger Sessions. They were his Diary pieces, four pieces, written in a style that I had never encountered until that time. However, as I said, I was quite young. But they seemed remarkably evocative and remarkably expressive to me, even thought the language was quite strange. Schnabel would continue to foster my interest in contemporary works; he felt that we were not just conservators, but we were of our time and we had a responsibility, we had an obligation to do the music of our time being musicians of our time, which meant the exploration of the music of our time. Schnabel was the prime influence of my life, musically. I spent the years between the ages of nine and nineteen studying with one of the most extraordinary musicians of the 20th century and one who has had an unbelievably powerful influence on everyone that came after him.

Leon Fleisher - Photo Koichi Miura

Leon Fleisher – Photo Koichi Miura

As a mentor and teacher who has inspired countless students and professionals alike, you of all people must readily acknowledge that every student presents unique opportunities and challenges, depending on the state of their development at that point in time. However if we were, for a moment, to consider a general rule, something derived from a reorientation (or an epiphany) which has altered your conceptions, something which you think can generally be applied to most cases of those who are enthusiastically pursuing careers in music … what idea would you say is that which your experience has taught you that you think could benefit those in their instrumental practice, performance, and/or conducting?

I think, possibly … especially for pianists, to think in terms of ‘vocal’. If you can sing something, and I don’t mean to sing all the notes, because the range of the piano is way beyond one person, but if you can sing the music, articulate it, then you can play it. One of the great challenges of a pianist is that every other instrument (I discount mallet instruments), violin to double bass, piccolo down through tuba, they have three things to think about: they have to think about how they attack the note; they have to think about how they support the note; and they have to think about how they stop the note. Most pianist just think of the first of those three, how they are going to attack the note, and not even all of them think about that. If they can expand their approach, new revelations will appear. You would be amazed how seldom one comes upon somebody who thinks in those terms or makes music on the piano in those terms.

In close, I wanted to ask you: are there any performances that you have given throughout the course of your renowned career which still resonate with you today?

I might say that I’ve spent the last decade or so doing some conducting, an evermore increasing amount of conducting, and a series of performances I gave conducting four manifestations, four performances of Le nozze di Figaro of Mozart in Baltimore. I would say that was probably the highlight of my life.

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