It’s the second week of June, skies are drippy, and the Sox are in the cellar. Fortunately, the summer music season is upon us. In the vanguard is the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, which commenced its 31st season in memorable fashion last evening with a concert featuring venerable American pianist Leon Fleisher.
These are heady times for Rockport Music as it enjoys its third year in the glowing confines of the Shalin Liu Performance Center and has just capped off a two-year, $20+ million capital campaign. Providing the initial $3 million, the Center’s namesake recently came to the rescue with another $1-million gift to wrap up the fundraising efforts. For this gala opening, Performance Center architects Alan Joslin and Deborah Epstein were on hand, as was the generous Ms. Liu herself. (Her succinct remarks summed up the feel of the evening: “Thank you, everybody. I love you!” Short and very sweet.)
The capacity crowd, having spilled into the warm space following pre-concert festivities, was first treated to an enlightening 18-minute documentary, “Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story,” an Academy-Award nominated film that tells the absorbing tale of Fleisher’s monumental struggles with focal dystonia, a neurological affliction that struck him down at the height of his career. (Intriguingly, this debilitating condition may also have affected Robert Schumann.) Unable to perform with his right hand, Fleisher was forced to expand his musical horizons, coming to characterize himself more broadly as a musician, as opposed to simply a pianist. During a never-say-die 30-year odyssey to find a cure, Fleisher redefined himself as both an impassioned conductor and articulate teacher while concurrently exploring the surprisingly fecund repertoire of piano works for the left hand. Relief at long last came in the form of Botox, a thrice-annual treatment regimen that relaxes the muscles enough to allow Fleisher full use of his right hand. Now 83, this indefatigable musician currently concertizes with one, two, and occasionally four hands. The inspiring back-story afforded a deeper appreciation of the performance that followed. (Book recommendation: Fleisher’s engrossing memoir, My Nine Lives, with Anne Midgette, 2010)
Upon taking the stage, Fleisher first complimented the breathtaking venue, appropriately describing it as “beautifully and organically integrated.” He also amusingly referred to the first piece on the program, J. S. Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, BWV 208, transcribed by Egon Petri, as “The Vegetarian’s Anthem,” though it must be pointed out that, ironically enough, this work is actually from Bach’s so-called Hunting Cantata! Fleisher’s introductory remarks were consistently witty and insightful, adding an extra human dimension to the performance. His was a moving and emotionally freighted rendition, with his improbable life’s journey infused in every note. While reveling in the elegant simplicity of the music, one could not help but reflect upon Fleisher’s inspirational triumph over a particularly cruel fate. This multifaceted musician is a true embodiment of the indomitable human spirit.
After demonstrating facility with both hands, Fleisher then harkened back to single-handed literature for the next three offerings. Based on Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, the Toccata and Fugue for the Left Hand, Opus 56 by Jenö Takács (1902-2005) takes the master’s original composition and refracts it through a 20th-century musical lens. Ranging from athletic to drifty, this demanding piece was stirringly recreated by Fleisher. The composer’s dates, by the way, are indeed correct: he survived well into his second century, “giving us all hope!,” as the octogenarian Fleisher remarked.
L.H. for Leon Fleisher: for Piano Left Hand, composed in 1995 by Leon Kirchner (1919-2009) for his friend Leon Fleisher (from one Leon to another, as it were), took as its inspiration the Romantic poetry of Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Utilizing the entire keyboard and a broad dynamic range, this far-ranging piece was lovingly portrayed by Fleisher. The gulls outside the picture window behind the stage appeared to particularly enjoy this work, as they swooped and wheeled over a harbor laced in tendrils of early evening fog.
The final single-hand composition, Bach’s Chaconne for the Left Hand from Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, was transcribed by Johannes Brahms for pianist Clara Schumann after she had suffered an injury to her right hand. It consists of a four-bar theme and some 63 variations (though, in Leon’s words, “I strongly advise you not to try and keep count!”) Bach somehow manages to distill an inordinate amount of complexity and profundity into a relative paucity of notes, much like this evening’s concert. Fleisher’s playing was forthright and unvarnished, with a direct and unsentimental approach that allowed the pure analytical inventiveness and depth of Bach’s musical structure to shine through.
This trio of single-handed pieces was offset by the final work on the program, La valse, un poème choréographique, composed by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and arranged for piano four hands by Lucien Garban. In this realization, Fleisher provided two of the hands, with the other pair belonging to his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher. This gutsy work was as glittery as Katherine’s outfit, featuring smoky, sensual passages and multifarious glissandi. Ms. Fleisher performed with confidence and a graceful virtuosity; the Fleisher duo played as one in a seamless performance bursting with joie de vivre. As the final notes died away the audience was quickly on its feet, no doubt moved as much by the story behind the music as the music itself.