Classical Notes

A passionate pianist - in print and at the keyboard

Pianist Leon Fleisher sported a peace symbol at the Kennedy Center Honors in December. Pianist Leon Fleisher sported a peace symbol at the Kennedy Center Honors in December. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Email|Print| Text size + By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / February 29, 2008

For the last several years, much media coverage of Leon Fleisher has focused on the pianist's extraordinary return to two-handed playing. Decades ago, a neurological condition called focal dystonia robbed him of the use of his right hand, derailing one of the most promising careers in the history of American music. His comeback - he's now able to play a limited number of works for both hands - has been widely feted.

A new thread was added to Fleisher's story earlier this month, when he published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post. Titled "My White House Dilemma," it detailed a political quandary he faced last year, when he was one of five artists to be awarded a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime contributions to American culture.

It wasn't the award itself that presented the dilemma. "I was flattered to be included in so distinguished a group and to be recognized for whatever contributions I may have made to American life," wrote Fleisher, who performs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra next week.

"What made me unhappy and continues to trouble me," he continued, "was that I was required to attend a White House reception on the afternoon of the gala. I cannot speak for the other honorees, but while I profoundly respect the presidency, I am horrified by many of President Bush's policies." Chief among Fleisher's concerns was the Iraq war, though he also cited "the espousing of 'values' that include a careful defense of the 'rights' of embryos but show a profligate disregard for the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings."

Initially, Fleisher decided not to attend the White House reception, a decision, he wrote, that "was met with deep, if understandable, disapproval by the powers that be." He ultimately changed his mind and attended the ceremony wearing a small peace symbol around his neck and a purple ribbon on his lapel, "at once showing support for our young men and women in the armed services and calling for their earliest return home."

Speaking by phone from California, Fleisher says that he wrote the op-ed to express what he called "the dichotomy, the trouble that I had with the whole event." He'd considered airing his views before the reception but worried that any public statement about his political qualms would throw unwelcome pressure on the other four recipients. "I couldn't do that with any degree of assurance that it wouldn't somehow spill over onto my fellow honorees, in one way or another," he says.

His misgivings notwithstanding, Fleisher says he thoroughly enjoyed the series of events surrounding the Kennedy Center Honors, which took place over two days in December. As for the president whose policies he so reviles, the pianist found him "jovial and smiling. I have to say, it was difficult not to be polite."

What he remembers most clearly about the meeting was waiting to enter the foyer where Bush stood with his wife. Standing with him was one of his fellow honorees, Steve Martin. Just before they went in, "[Martin] grabbed my hand and shook it, very energetically up and down, and said, 'I hope you win.' " He laughs at the memory. "That kind of broke the ice as we strode in to greet the president. We were probably still smiling from that."

With the BSO he will play Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. Mention of the piece immediately calls to mind his classic recordings of the Beethoven concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra from the 1950s and '60s - versions that have become monuments not only of Beethoven interpretation but of recorded musical achievement.

Fleisher remembers them vividly, as he does all of his collaborations with Szell. "They were all, in effect, soul-shattering experiences," he says. "He had made [the Cleveland] into an orchestra that was so attuned and so aware, capable of ensemble [work] that you only really found in the highest string quartets. His demands were of the highest, and anyone that undertook to share music with George Szell was expected to share those standards, as they were personified by pale blue, steely glinted eyes magnified by Coke-bottle glasses. So they were wondrous and scary at the same time."

Tickets: 888-266-1200,

Wolff to NEC

The New England Conservatory has appointed Hugh Wolff its director of orchestras, the school announced this week. Wolff, 54, has held music-director positions at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and has been a guest conductor with the BSO. His contract, which will run five years, begins in August. According to an NEC press release, Wolff's mission is "to revitalize the orchestral program and to improve the student experience playing in orchestras," in the words of the school's president, Tony Woodcock.

"I am very excited to be coming to New England Conservatory," said Wolff in the release. "I have always found working with students to be tremendously energizing and an essential complement to my work with professional ensembles. The eager, gifted students at NEC are the future of classical music and I am thrilled to help guide them. . . . And I am grateful to NEC for the opportunity to realize a dream of building a new program in orchestral conducting."

Boston Irish

Next Friday, Camerata Ireland makes its first visit to this most Irish of American cities. The chamber orchestra, which includes string players from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, was founded in 1999 by pianist Barry Douglas. The idea for the ensemble grew out of Douglas's association with Co-operation Ireland, a charity that works to build peace between the two regions. It is the only ensemble to have the joint patronage of Mary McAleese, president of Ireland, and Queen Elizabeth II.

Douglas will conduct works for strings by Mozart, Prokofiev, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky and will lead Mozart's Piano Concerto in E-flat, K.449, from the keyboard.

Information: 617-482-6661,

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