Hands On

Singer Merle Haggard is photographed at his ranch at Palo Cedro, Calif.
Singer Merle Haggard is photographed at his ranch at Palo Cedro, Calif. AP

Pianist Leon Fleisher's life — he was acclaimed by age 16, forced into early retirement by age 37 — reads like a movie script.

In fact, you might think his story is too unlikely to be believed on the big screen if it weren't for the fact that it's true.

And the movie world actually did come calling, in the form of award-winning documentarian Nathaniel Kahn. After completing his 2004 film "My Architect," which garnered an Oscar nomination

for best documentary, Kahn approached Fleisher and asked him if he would be interested in having a film done on his life.

Fleisher agreed, and the result was a 17-minute documentary short, "Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story," which went on to receive an Oscar nomination. Its success surprised even Fleisher.

"I must say I was a little bit taken aback that my 78 years of life could be so successfully suppressed into 17 minutes," Fleisher said from his hotel in San Francisco, where he gave a recital last week.

The San Francisco native, who celebrates his 80th birthday in July, started playing piano by age 4 and made his public debut at 8. By age 9, he began studying with famed Austrian classical pianist Artur Schnabel, and by age 16, he made his Carnegie Hall debut playing with the New York Philharmonic under conductor Pierre Monteux.

His rise through the classical music ranks as a teenager led the New York Times to call him "one of the most gifted of the younger generation of keyboard artists."

Eight years later, he became the first American to win the prestigious Queen Elisabeth of Belgium competition. In the late 1950s and early '60s, his performances were widely praised as he carved out a distinguished solo career. Conductor Monteux called him "the pianistic find of the century."

Then in 1965, at age 37, he lost control of two fingers on his right hand. Doctors weren't able to pinpoint the problem at first. Unable to play as he once had, Fleisher first withdrew from performing and went into semiretirement.

Told by the medical establishment he would never be able to perform again, he began to focus his energies on teaching and conducting instead.

Still undeterred by his condition, Fleisher returned to the concert stage performing a repertoire of piano pieces written for the left hand alone.

"I didn't give up playing. There is a not-inconsiderable literature for the left hand alone," he said. "I continued to play, I even continued to concertize, if you can imagine a one-handed concert pianist. There are some 20-odd or more concertos for left-handed orchestra and about 1,000 pieces for left hand alone. Most of them pretty bad. But there is enough good to make one to two recitals' worth. So I continued to function."

After a slew of treatments, misdiagnoses, partial recoveries and total relapses, Fleisher's condition was pinpointed as the neurological disease focal dystonia. While there is no cure for the condition, it can be treated with Botox injections. In 1995, Fleisher regained use of both hands and was able to return, two-handed, to the stage.

"I am in no way cured of the problem of focal dystonia," he said. "They don't know what causes it and they don't have a cure for it. They discovered a modality for minimizing some of the symptoms. But once dystonic, always a dystonic. Which is what I am, except I don't have a 12-step program."

His disease limits his repertoire. He said he can handle chordal music like Brahms well but has problems with more scale-intense works like some Mozart and Beethoven pieces.

In 2004, Vanguard Classics released Fleisher's first two-handed recording in more than 40 years, titled "Two Hands." Three years later, he received a 2007 Kennedy Center Honor. While honoring Fleisher, Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman called him "a consummate musician whose career is a moving testament to the life-affirming power of art."

In January, Sony BMG masterworks released the two-CD set "The Essential Leon Fleisher," which includes the first-ever release of the pianist's 1963 recordings with the Juilliard String Quartet. The first track on the set, the first movement from Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto, is one of the pieces Fleisher will perform with the Modesto Symphony Orchestra.

"One never knows when and how it's going to happen," Fleisher said. "My life is filled with surprises and things unexpected, which I guess gives it a certain interest."