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St. Olaf College to honor piano legend Leon Fleisher and host piano master class

By David Gonnerman '90
March 12, 2004

St. Olaf College will honor American pianist Leon Fleisher with an honorary degree on Thursday, March 18. The ceremony, which is free and open to the public, will take place in Boe Memorial Chapel at 11 a.m. A reception in Buntrock Commons will follow.

Widely recognized as one of the leading pianists of the 20th century, Fleisher will conduct a piano master class on Wednesday, March 17, also open to the public, from 1 to 3 p.m. in Urness Recital Hall, Christiansen Hall of Music.

A native of San Francisco, Fleisher began studying keyboard at age 4 and gave his first public recital at 8. In 1944, at age 16, he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux, prompting the New York Times to write, "Fleisher at once established himself as one of the most gifted of the younger generation of keyboard artists."

He went on to become the first American to win the Queen Elisabeth International Competition in Belgium. Later, his collaboration with conductor George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra resulted in a series of recordings that remain central elements of the classical catalog.

But Fleisher is perhaps best known for performing piano works written for the left hand playing alone. In the mid-1960s Fleisher's right hand became debilitated due to the repetitive stress of countless hours of practice. He was eventually diagnosed with focal dystonia, causing him to shift his focus to conducting and teaching.

"Teaching is where he found his real happiness," says Fleisher's son, Julian. "He has this kind of weird adoration from students. Someone once called him the 'Obi-Wan Kenobi' of piano teachers."

Holder of the Andrew W. Mellon Chair at the Peabody Conservatory of Music since 1959, Fleisher also serves on the faculties of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He was artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center from 1986 to 1997.

Fleisher's teaching activities include master classes at the Salzburg Mozarteum, the Paris Conservatory, the Ravel Academy at St. Jean de Luz, the Reina Sofia School in Madrid, the Mishkenot in Jerusalem and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

After he learned conducting, Fleisher became music director of the Annapolis Symphony in 1970. He has appeared as a guest conductor with the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony.

Beginning in the 1980s, Fleisher mastered the left-handed piano repertoire, which included works by Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten commissioned by an Austrian pianist who had lost his right arm during World War I. Fleisher's 1994 recordings of the Ravel and Prokofiev concertos each earned a Grammy nomination.

He performed Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with the St. Olaf Orchestra at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, in 1987. "I remember that well," recalls orchestra conductor Steven Amundson. "It was my birthday, and he played 'Happy Birthday' for me on the piano."

In 1995, at a concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, Fleisher was once again able to play the Mozart Concerto in A Major successfully with both hands. He currently performs both the left-hand repertoire and select works for two hands.

Fleisher holds honorary doctorates from The Juilliard School, the Cleveland Institute of Music, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Towson University. He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1994, Musical America named him Instrumentalist of the Year. He was also awarded Johns Hopkins Universitys Presidents Medal and the Decoration of the Commander in the Order of King Leopold II from the Belgian Government. In 2000, Fleisher became the first living pianist to be inducted into the Classical Music Hall of Fame.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-646-3315 or