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October 6, 2008

Leon Fleisher and friends deliver memorable marathon

Leon FleisherLeon Fleisher's 80th birthday -- the official date was July 23 -- continues to be celebrated around the country, as well it should be. The pianist, whose four-decade battle against neurological damage to his right hand never stopped him from developing greater and greater musical insight, deserves all the attention he can get. They just don't make 'em like that anymore.

Last week, Fleisher, who has been able to resume limited two-hand playing in recent years thanks to botox injections, was joined by his wife, Katherine Jacobson-Fleisher, and two of his other former students -- the stellar Yefim Bronfman and uncommonly gifted young-generation pianist Jonathan Biss -- for a program of solo pieces and duets at Carnegie Hall. Last night, they repeated the event back in Fleisher's hometown for the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

To start, the birthday honoree took note of all the tensions in the world at the moment and offered up as an antidote what he described as "an anti-acrimony anthem," a transcription of Bach's lilting Sheep May Safely Graze. He played it with consummate elegance, a quality that also characterized his collaboration with Biss in Schubert's darkly lyrical F minor Fantasy. The two men produced not just a seamless technical blend, but beautifully dovetailed phrasing. A masterful performance.

Fleisher and Bronfman took a vibrant romp through three of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, making up for a minor lapse or two of synchronization with lots of expressive flair. Ravel's La valse provided a colorful vehicle for Fleisher and his wife; the music's combination of nostalgia and almost demonic propulsion came across engagingly.

Jonathan BissIn her solo spot, Fleisher-Jacobson offered a fluent, but rather monochromatic and even somewhat steely, account of Mozart's A minor Rondo. Biss produced a wealth of colors on the same instrument moments later in Beethoven's Sonata No. 27. A minor slip in the finale aside, the pianist's finely polished technique left a strong impression. Even stronger was the sense of spontaneity and poetry in his phrasing. This was top-notch pianism. Same for Bronfman, who never fails to make a statement at the keyboard. He's type-cast as a champion of big war horse-type pieces, so it was enjoyable hearing him in such an intimate work as Schumann's Arabesque, which he sculpted with considerable eloquence and nuance.

The appreciative crowd that turned out for the occasion endured some amateur business at the begnning of the long evening (not to mention the breakdown-prone Hopkins parking garage that can get a concert off to a bad start before you even make it into the hall). A screening of Two Hands, the Oscar-nominated documentary about Fleisher, had to be halted because what came onto the screen was the end of the film. The director, Nathaniel Kahn, who happened to be in the audience, jumped up and yelled out, trying to get someone's attention. It took much too long for anyone to respond and correct things. The film was finally shone in its entirety, but the hall's crew had some more damage in store. After the screen was removed from the stage, the piano was rolled out and incorrectly set up, requiring yet another rescue to ensure that the lid was properly raised before Fleisher walked out to begin the concert. Not the sort of experience that does Shriver Hall proud.

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTOS (Leon Fleisher, top, and Jonathan Biss)

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:55 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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