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Concert: Conductor and pianist Leon Fleisher in constant search for altered level of human awareness

By John Terauds on January 10, 2012

The most remarkable thing about meeting Leon Fleisher in person is his absolute stillness.

Sitting down for an interview with the 83-year-old American pianist, conductor and teacher after his first rehearsal with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in advance of Wednesday’s opening concert in the TSO’s Mozart@256 festival, the conductor’s studio at Roy Thomson Hall lacks the usual star buzz.

Most conductors or soloists — and Fleisher is both, in this instance — emanate a sort of electrical charge that energizes whatever space they occupy. Fleisher, on the other hand, is an oasis of calm. His words come slowly, deliberately, sometimes with eyes closed.

“It’s okay, the first rehearsal is over, and I think it went well,” he says. “What I do is not so much leading the band as giving ideas and a direction to go in.”

Fleisher explains how he prefers to lead from the piano bench rather than from a podium. “Great orchestra playing is like chamber music played on a much larger scale.” For him, the secret to a great symphonic performance is the same as for chamber music: everyone involved needs to listen intently to each other.

The secret to making this happen is zeroing on on how an orchestra keeps time, coaxing each section to switch from keeping strict time to a state where everyone is following a conductor’s instructions for larger, narrative rhythmic flow. “This is very dangerous work with an orchestra,” says Fleisher. “What matters most to them is their ability to play together, and there is no way one can jeopardize that.”

Keeping everything on an even keel during a rehearsal amounts to being able to pinpoint problems with great accuracy, and then resolve them as quickly as possible. “It’s a question of diagnosis and prescription,” Fleisher explains. “Otherwise, you lose respect instantly. I call it Music Care, instead of Obama Care,” he chuckles.

Is there a special knack to achieving this? I ask. Yes, answers Fleisher, giving me a stern look, “you have to know the score.”

Making the transition from the soloist’s perch to holding the baton is not an easy one, Fleisher allows: “To convince them (the orchestra) of the validity of your concept is always the greatest challenge. If you can induce them to follow your vision of what the music is about, you can have the most satisfying moments of a lifetime.”

Fleisher describes these moments as “being in the zone.” He smiles when I ask if these moments are more frequent in youth or maturity. “They’re more frequent now,” he answers. “It gets easier with time.”

There’s another type of zone that Fleisher addresses during our chat, a heightened sense of awareness that, he believes, propelled the great masters such as Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert et al to write such beautiful music. It’s a level of consciousness he believes we are all capable of attaining, but are stymied by the constant of interruption of daily modern life — from having to look both ways before crossing a street to being interrupted by phone calls, emails and, he adds with a grimace, “this thing called Twitter.”

The master describes how he was giving classes at his teacher Arthur Schnabel’s house on Lake Como in Italy one summer many years ago.

“I was sitting on the edge of the lake, looking at that view, of the Italian Alps in the background, with some of my students. I was thinking that nothing in the world could be more beautiful, when one of my students said, ‘Aloha.'” He stops to smile again, before explaining that this was a new acronym for Altered Level of Human Awareness.

If a concert goes well, it will impart a little bit of Aloha to the audience as well as everyone on stage.

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On Wednesday and Thursday, Fleisher conducts Mozart’s final, glorious “Jupiter” Symphony — No. 41 in C Major, K. 551. On the shorter, earlier Wednesday programme, he also leads the orchestra in a performance of Mozart’s Concerto in F Major for Three Pianos, K. 242, a light, three-movement piece where Fleisher plays the easy third piano part, next to his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher on Piano II, and Canadian powerhouse Stewart Goodyear on Piano I.

On Thursday, the programme expands with Mozart’s first symphony, K. 16, written when he was 8 or 9, as well as the A Major Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488.

For all the details on the Mozart@256 festival, click here.

Both Fleisher’s wife and Goodyear are former students. He is a Toronto fixture, a regular visitor with the TSO since 1955 and a welcome, three-time-a-year master class presenter at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Glenn Gould Professional School. He says he’s been giving classes there since the 1970s, and allows that Conservatory CEO  Peter Simon is another one of his legion of former pupils.

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Here is a moment of J.S. Bach (as conceived by Myra Hess) and Frédéric Chopin (with apologies for the abrupt cut before the end of the Nocturne), as brought to you by Leon Fleisher, courtesy of a recital filmed for French culture channel Arte in 2008:

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