At the beginning of the concert, Fleisher walked out wearing a black tuxedo and a shiny black shirt. As I watched him walk across the stage, I could not believe that Fleisher was about to perform a difficult solo concert in which he would play pieces written for two hands and not just the left hand. I wondered by what power Fleisher could instill life into his right hand and allow it move across the keyboard.
From the very first notes of the concert, Fleisher’s performance was magical. The delicacy of his playing belied his large size. He opened with “Sheep May Safely Graze” by Bach, which he rendered with an exquisite touch, a piece of modulated softness and great feeling. I could not see his right hand, but I would have been intrigued to see how he got that almost lifeless-looking appendage to strike the keys with such precision.
The whole performance was a marvel of virtuosity, although no doubt Fleisher had selected pieces that played to his mastery of technique and control. Whether because of his age, limitations of his hand, or a love of more tempered composition, there was no banging in the concert, and no bombast, great flourishes, or dazzling arpeggios that would have demanded his hands to fly along the keys.
Near the end of the performance, I thought I could detect a faltering of Fleisher’s right hand during a Chopin nocturne. It was trivial at most, but at the end of the piece (which was next to the last on the program) Fleisher lowered his lion-like head and, in a sad but ironic voice, said to the audience, “I have become fatigued by dealing with a recalcitrant piano.”
I anticipated that Fleisher was going to end the performance right at that moment but instead he added, “I will substitute another piece, but I want to inform you that it is six minutes longer than the scherzo that I was going to play.”
The audience laughed warmly as Fleisher repositioned himself on the piano bench. He moved his right hand to his side, almost tucking it away. The hand looked almost dead and without movement. Could this be the hand that created the lush, melodic sound of Debussy and Albeniz?
For his last piece, Fleisher played something from the left-handed repertoire. This was a stirring moment as an 80-year-old man with, yes, a serious disability would not let his audience or himself down and would finish his performance on a note of triumph and bravado.
My Musical Epiphany
I had never witnessed a moment in classical music like this, and the only analogy I could find in my mind was sports. In real life, this was the great Willis Reed of the Knicks fighting through injury in the final against the Lakers in the 1970 NBA championship. In the movies, this was Rocky Balboa, with blood streaming from his eyes, rising from the corner to knock out Apollo Creed.