Leon Fleisher, acclaimed Jewish pianist, dies aged 92

Fleisher battled through a three decade long hand injury during which he played left handed only, before recording two new albums of two-handed music in the early 2000s.

Pianist Leon Fleisher, a 2007 Kennedy Center Honoree, greets photographers as he arrives for a Gala Dinner at the State Department in Washington December 1, 2007. (photo credit: MIKE THEILER/REUTERS)
Pianist Leon Fleisher, a 2007 Kennedy Center Honoree, greets photographers as he arrives for a Gala Dinner at the State Department in Washington December 1, 2007.
(photo credit: MIKE THEILER/REUTERS)
Leon Fleisher, an acclaimed American-Jewish pianist whose career spanned seven decades despite the loss of use of his right hand, has died aged 92. 
Born to eastern European Jewish immigrants in San Francisco in 1928, Fleisher rose to prominence as a child prodigy in the 1940s. The following decades saw Fleisher juggle a busy schedule of recording, teaching, and live performances on both sides of the Atlantic, but that career was brought to a standstill in the mid-1960s when he lost the function of his right hand. 
A two-year hiatus followed during which he suffered a “deep funk and despair,” he later said, but he returned to the piano where he focused on a left-handed repertoire, including of pieces written for him. For 30 years he investigated routes to recover the use of his right hand, finally finding success in the 1990s, going on to record two new albums of two-handed work. 
Fleisher began to learn the piano aged four by repeating phrases learned by his older brother without any teaching. His first public concert was given at the age of eight, and the following year he began taking lessons with Artur Shnabel. His debut came with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at the Carnegie Hall at the tender age of just 16. 
A contract with Columbia Masterworks followed when he reached adulthood, earning him acclaim for his performances of concertos by Brahms, Liszt and Beethoven. In addition to his recording work, Fleisher kept up an intense schedule of live performances across Europe, where he lived in the 1950s, and, upon his return to the US in 1959, teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. 
“There was always more to attain, and more to achieve, and more musical depths to plumb, and lurking behind it all, the terrifying risk of failure,” he wrote in his memoir, The Guardian has reported. 
This pell-mell activity took its toll. He developed a condition called focal dystonia in his right hand, caused, he believed, by too much practicing - “seven or eight hours a day of pumping ivory,” as he told The New York Times in a 1996 interview. By the age of 36 he could no longer play with his right hand, suffering numbness and two fingers curling inward. 
After a period of despondency, he realized that his musical talent could be accessed in other ways. He renewed his focus on teaching, both at Peabody and at the Tanglewood Music Center, where he was artistic director between 1986 and 1997. He also threw himself at the catalogue of works by Ravel, Prokofiev and others composed for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during WW1, as well as commissioned new works for the left hand by American composers, and he began conducting, according to the New York Times.
However, he never gave up pursuing the use of his right hand, trying almost any potential cure that seemed promising, including psychotherapy, shock treatments, rehabilitation therapy, and shots of lidocaine. During these three decades, he later said, he would grow so despondent as to consider suicide. 
In the 1980s he attempted to return to playing two-handed, but didn't feel that his right hand was up to the task. By the 1990s, following further treatment including Botox injections and deep tissue massage, he regained the use of his affected fingers, and was able to record two new albums, “Two Hands” (2004) and “The Journey” (2006) - although he would return intermittently to the left-handed work that sustained him over the years. 
Fleisher married three times, and is survived by his wife, Katherine, and five children from his first two marriages, according to The Guardian. His death was confirmed by his son, Julian, who said that he was still teaching and conducting master classes online last week. 
A documentary of his life titled Two Hands was nominated for the best documentary short at the 2006 Academy Awards.