Pianist Leon Fleisher Receives 2007 Kennedy Center Honors

Classic Arts News   Pianist Leon Fleisher Receives 2007 Kennedy Center Honors
Leon Fleisher, the revered pianist who for decades battled, and eventually overcame, a neurological disorder that crippled his right hand, was presented with the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors in ceremonies yesterday in Washington, D.C.

The five 2007 honorees — Fleisher, actor-comedian-author Steve Martin, pop diva Diana Ross, filmmaker Martin Scorcese and songwriter Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys — received their awards at a dinner hosted by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday (December 1). Yesterday the five were honored at a White House reception hosted by George W. and Laura Bush, followed by the annual gala performance at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Speaking to the gala audience in Fleisher's honor, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma recounted hearing, during his college days, the pianist's recording of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1: "That music is still seared in my brain," he said. Performing in tribute to Fleisher were a fast-rising former student of his, Jonathan Biss, and a chorus and orchestra from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where Fleisher is a longtime professor. The piece they performed was Beethoven's Choral Fantasy.

Now 79, Fleisher made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 16 with the New York Philharmonic and won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1952. He quickly became one of the world's most admired pianists, developing a major performing and recording career through the 1950s and early '60s. He then developed a mysterious and painful paralysis in his right hand, whose use he lost completely by 1965, before he was 40 years old. He made more than one attempt at a two-handed comeback, though those were ultimately unsuccessful, and through the rest of the 20th century Fleisher was the leading exponent of the left-hand repertoire as well as a renowned teacher.

Finally, in the early 2000s, Fleisher was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a neurological disorder; regular Botox treatments and Rolfing have enabled him to return to playing with two hands. His career and life have been hailed by critics and admired worldwide as a triumph over adversity. A 17-minute documentary on Fleisher's recovery, Two Hands, was nominated for an Academy Award last year.

Established in 1978, the Kennedy Center Honors recognize awardees for "their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts — whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures or television." Recipients are chosen by the Center's Board of Trustees; excellence is the primary criterion in the selection process; honorees are not designated or chosen by art form and are not limited to Unites States citizens.

CBS-TV will broadcast the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time on December 26; check your local listings for the broadcast time in your area.

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