More than 40 years ago, a neurological condition caused legendary pianist Leon Fleisher to lose the use of his right hand. Instead of giving up his skill, he championed works composed for the left hand—even after regaining use of his right more than a decade ago—including Sergei Prokofiev’s rarely conducted Concerto No. 4, which he performs with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra this month.
The Prokofiev concerto was commissioned by one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, but he would never play it. Any thoughts as to why?
I think it was because he couldn’t wrap his mind around it, and he was a curmudgeon. It’s a very special piece, a spiky, daring creation. I don’t think it has tunes you’ll be whistling on your way home.
How much repertoire is there for the left hand alone?
There are at least 35 to 40 concerti, a limited amount of chamber music, and about a 1,000 solo works—most of which are pretty bad.
Did you come from a musical family?
No. My mother’s vision for me just happened to coincide with whatever gifts I might have. I did have a choice though, to become the first Jewish president or a great pianist. Growing up, pianist seemed a little more accessible.
Why are you still working so hard at age 87?
I really don’t look at it as working hard. The worst part is jet lag. The human body was not meant to pass through so many time zones. This year I’ll do my usual 25 to 35 concerts, but at least 50 percent of those will be conducting.
Did the conducting start when you lost the use of your right hand, or was it something you always wanted to do?
A combination. I’ve always been fascinated by the kind of magic arm-waving that can result in beautiful music. Around age 12, I wanted to take lessons from Pierre Monteux, conductor of the San Francisco Orchestra then, but he forbade me. He felt I was meant to be a pianist. I finally started when my hand went bad around 1968.
How is the musical satisfaction you get from conducting different from playing?
When you are able to convince 70, 80, 90 musicians of your point of view and get them to come along with you, it’s one of the most ecstatic experiences you can have.