Leon Fleisher | 1928 – 2020
August 10, 2020
Leon Fleisher left the world a monumental legacy– a legacy not only of his transcendent performances and recordings, but also of his greatness as a mentor and an example of what it means to be a great artist. I think Jonathan Biss, the 2000 Gilmore Young Artist Award recipient and one of the many young artists he mentored, summed it up best: “The greatest artists are the ones who find the central truth in the music they play; Leon Fleisher did so again and again… and most of us will never reach the summits he regularly visited, but we have a responsibility to the musical values he represented.”
Like many others, I first experienced Leon Fleisher’s artistry through his memorable recordings of the piano repertoire. But in 1984, as Manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival, I was afforded the honor of collaborating with him for a memorable 13 years when he was appointed the Artistic Director of Tanglewood’s summer institute for young musicians, the Tanglewood Music Center. There I witnessed Fleisher’s extraordinary gifts as a mentor to the younger generation, which turned out to be another aspect of his remarkable musical career. He wasn’t so much a “teacher” as he was an inspired guide for the younger musicians toward finding that “central truth in the music they play,” in Jonathan Biss’ words quoted above.
The Gilmore has had a long and rewarding relationship with Leon Fleisher. It was he for whom the very first Gilmore commission was made– the Piano Concerto by Curtis Curtis-Smith– and the work was performed by him at the very first Festival in 1991 with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. He returned for many other Festival performances over the years and gave memorable masterclasses here during my tenure as Director of The Gilmore. His last local appearance was a very moving concert at the 2018 Festival, where he was honored on his 90th birthday year.
He is gone, but his legacy lives on.