Thursday, April 19, 2007

MEMOIR: The child prodigy who lived across the street

Leon Fleisher is one of the great concert pianists of our time. Critics have compared him to the likes of Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. Now 79, Fleisher made his public debut at eight in San Francisco, where he was born, and at 16 performed with the New York Philharmonic.

His illustrious career was interrupted at 36 when he lost the use of his right hand due to a debilitating ailment known as focal dystonia. But he continued performing in public, limiting his repertory to selections for the left hand. He also became a renowned orchestral conductor and teacher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Over the past decade, he has regained the use of his right hand and has resumed his regular concert and recording career.

My own personal impression of Fleisher goes far beyond his international eminence as a concert pianist. I remember him as the child prodigy who lived across the narrow street from my family's apartment in the Bronx when I was growing up. He lived on the fifth floor of 1325 Grand Concourse and I lived on the third floor of 1299 Grand Concourse.

Both our apartments had windows facing Clarke Place, which was a block north of 169th Street. Weather permitting, our windows were always open. Young Leon practiced constantly, and it may well be that the gorgeous sound of his piano helped foster my lifelong love of classical music.

But we both had some far less worldly neighbors who did not share my love of Leon's music and who failed to recognize that we had a child prodigy in our midst. They regarded Leon's playing as an annoyance, and I can still remember them often calling the police to complain about the "noise" from Leon's apartment.

I recall that the Fleisher family moved to our block when he was about 10. I also recall that Leon's father had been a taxi cab driver in San Francisco. According to neighborhood lore, a wealthy patroness of the arts in that city recognized that young Leon was an exceptionally gifted child.

She arranged for the family to move to New York City so that Leon could study with the legendary pianist, Artur Schnabel, and have private tutors for his general education. I do not recall that Leon had any playmates or that he ever played outside on our street which was always packed with hordes of boys and girls at play. When he was seen outside, he was always dressed in an extremely formal style that was probably the fashion of boy prodigies.

Leon had an older brother, Ray, who was close to me in age. (I am three years older than Leon Fleisher.) Ray was a popular member of our "social and athletic" club, initially known as the Mohawks and later as the Eagles. I don't know whether he had any musical talent, but he was one of the best stick-ball and touch-football players in our gang.

I was inducted into the Army in 1943 and never saw Leon Fleisher again until about 15 years ago when I attended a concert in Trenton, N.J., where he was appearing as a soloist with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Over the years, of course, I had closely followed his career, deriving vicarious satisfaction over his reputation as one of the world's most prominent pianists.

When the concert ended, my wife and I succeeded in being allowed back stage, where I introduced myself to Fleisher as having grown up on Clarke Place, where I had been his brother Ray's friend.

Fleisher was extremely gracious as we tried to recall our early lives on "the block." (I don't know whether he was aware that he was not the only musical celebrity produced in our neighborhood; opera soprano Roberta Peters and pop singer Edie Gorme were our contemporaries.)

Fleisher told me that his brother Ray lived in California and had been a chemical engineer before his retirement. The only name that he could recall from his brother's gang of friends was a boy he called "Sluggo." I had to correct him that the nick-name had been just plain "Slug," and that the boy's real name was Seymour.

Neither of us could figure out why, after so many decades, that Slug was the only name he could recall from Clarke Place. Perhaps it was because it was an exotic one for a Jewish kid of that era.

I did not tell Fleisher that after my discharge from the Army in 1946 my mother urged me to take out her friend's daughter Beverly on a date, and that Beverly informed me that she was also dating Leon Fleisher. I recall being glad to learn that the boy prodigy, who had had such a seemingly restrictive boyhood, had successfully entered into the social whirl as a young adult.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Norma said...

A wonderful story--thanks for sharing.

Thursday, April 19, 2007 2:11:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

Nice that you could talk with Mr. Fleisher about boyhood days. Always interesting to see the different memories retained by people who may had shared experiences i.e. your neighborhood.
His perspective was certainly quite different from yours, since he was likely at the piano most of the time.

Quite a musical neighborhood. Always liked Roberta Peters. Edie Gorme could sing some good jazz along with husband, Steve Lawrence. I think I heard something about him recently, and they live in Las Vegas. Not sure if they still perform.

Saturday, April 21, 2007 4:47:00 AM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

Absolutely fascinating, Mortart. I find it so interesting that our genius's never seem to impress the neighborhoods where they grow up. You may remember that I wrote about Sylvia Plath being my school mate and , although she was quite "different" from us, we never thought that she would become one of the worls's most famous poets. Thanks for this entry.

Saturday, April 21, 2007 4:10:00 PM  
Blogger Norma said...

Your comments seem to be turned off on your more recent posts, so this refers to the scanned clipping about your blog. I was disappointed to see you set up the strawman "religious right" as what irks you most in life. I'm an evangelical Christian and a Republican, who was a Democrat until age 60. I can't imagine that you search the dial for conservative talk shows, and you certainly can't find conservatives on the network or cable news, unless you are watching the very timid Fox news. I, on the other hand, have almost no access to fairness unless I choose Fox, which sometimes is a bit too entertaining and giggly for my tastes. I read all the major papers, but am subjected to terribly biased opinion posing as news in the NYT, Wapo and WSJ. I don't mind it at all on the OpEd page where it belongs--just don't throw it into the news reporting. Because you are a liberal, I think you see this as "normal" or the way it ought to be because people can't be trusted to judge for themselves.

I believe I saw a survey that journalists were about 12:1 liberal to conservative; but you have nothing on librarians, who are 224:1 liberal to conservative. These are the folks who buy all the anti-Bush and anti-Christian books they can get their hands on, while insisting that another view must make it through the accepted review channels of PW and LJ, both owned by the same publisher.

What irks me most isn't left wing harangues, blogs or reporting. That is so much hot air. It's the result of leftist and socialist ideas that make it through congress or into the business world that result in real damage. What irks me is millions of Africans dying of malaria because do-gooders got DDT taken off the market; what irks me is the 60% poverty rate for single women and children when it is only 3% for married women, an almost direct result of militant feminism; what irks me is the head long rush into silly, expensive regulations and crushing business decisions that global warming fundamentalists are trying to impose--it's just a new age religion in different robes; what irks me is journalists who buried on the back pages the Christians who were tortured, mutilated (disemboweled, castrated, throats cut while alive) and murdered by Turkish Muslims, when Muslim terrorists who were "subjected" to wearing women's undergarments made the front pages for weeks and months.

Republicans are weak and disorganized and religious conservatives have all the same problems as anyone else--divorce, obesity, ill health, mortgages, etc. You need to find a bigger, stronger enemy to face down, and unfortunately, I think it is going to be the anti-semitic left wing of your party.

Friday, May 04, 2007 5:19:00 PM  
Blogger Norma said...

Another note: I tried to reply to your e-mail, but your server is blocking it with a 550 message--thinks I'm spam. Oh well.

Sunday, May 06, 2007 3:09:00 PM  

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