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Leon Fleisher and Jaime Laredo: The Schubert Project

Los Angeles
Schoenberg Hall, UCLA
02/24/2007 -  

Franz Schubert: Sonatinas for Violin and Piano in D Major, D. 384, in A Major, D. 385, and in G Minor, D. 408 – Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, D.574 “Duo”

Jaime Laredo (violin), Leon Fleisher (piano)

The Schubert recital with pianist Leon Fleisher and violinist Jaime Laredo at Schoenberg Hall at UCLA on Saturday night was unique in several ways. A program of pure Schubert violin and piano sonatas is unusual, designed for an audience of musicians and connoisseurs. But these two veteran performers are so beloved and revered that any concert with both of them would be a sensation. But the story of Leon Fleisher and the timing of this particular performance, in Los Angeles the day before the Academy Awards, elevated the evening into another realm.

Originally scheduled for Sunday the 25th, the date was changed because a film about Leon Fleisher was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject, and the pianist would have to attend the ceremony. Before an injury to his right hand when he was 35 years old forced him to retire, Leon Fleisher, trained by the legendary Artur Schnabel, was already recognized as one of the world’s greatest pianists. Entitled "Two Hands," the film is about Fleisher's loss of the use of his right hand in 1965, and his decades-long struggle to find a cure for his mysterious ailment, known as focal dystonia, while reshaping his career to accommodate his loss. Only recently, improvements in his health have enabled Fleisher to play again with two hands. He performed 48 concerts in 2005 and made his first recording of two-hand piano works in more than 40 years. The album, also called “Two Hands,” was named one of the "Best Classical CDs of 2004" by The New York Times. The remarkable 17-minute film by director Nathaniel Kahn was screened after the performance, allowing Fleisher’s amazing story and character to lend a sense profundity and context to the evening that is unforgettable. One had the sense that Fleisher’s overwhelming musicality, an indomitable spirit, overcame the limits of time and flesh that the gods had placed upon him.

Schoenberg Hall, named after the composer who had been in residence there not so many decades ago, was packed, even oversold, with folding chairs behind the last row. The fan-shaped 570-seat modern hall has a broadly scalloped, relatively low ceiling and no balcony. The institutional seating has small fold out tables attached for students to take notes during lectures. While it is not the most attractive performance space, the room has musical history and is an important venue at UCLA and in Southern California. The sound is clean, clear and fairly dry, with no mechanical noise in the background, even though it used as a multi-purpose auditorium.

The opening Sonatina was radiant with delight, the performance even more charming than the well-known recording by Radu Lupu with Szymon Goldberg. Laredo’s violin was liquid and bright, lending the youthful classically oriented Sonatina a celebratory air, a little like the “Trout Quintet” in its ear-catching magnetism.

The second piece was darker and more substantial, closer to Schubert’s great piano sonatas, in a minor key. The emotions took us on a journey, perhaps even, “lieder-like,” a winter’s journey. The feeling was more middle European, in comparison to the Haydn-like charm of the first Sonatina. The third sonata opened more dramatically, and even felt slightly operatic in comparison to the other two. The final “Duo” Sonata, played after the intermission, was the most significant of the evening, with the broadest range of mood and substance. But even so, the program overall seemed more elegant and graceful than momentous.

By the end of the performance, the concert had provided an evening of tenderness and delight, but was not overwhelming. It might have been more so in a warmer, more intimate space. Last year for example, the pianist Menahem Pressler and cellist Antonio Meneses gave a private recital in a large gorgeous room filled with art at the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills. The ambience was so appealing and sympathetic that the Beethoven sonatas were intimately accessible as well as beautifully played. This delicate, rarified program of all Schubert was not quite dramatic enough to conquer Schoenberg Hall.

The man sitting next to me, whom I had not met before, asked me: “So, is Fleisher back? Has he still got it?” I had to respond that I could not tell for sure from this concert. His question reemphasized the significance of the evening, making me reflect again on the unique history of the situation. Then they projected the documentary film. Fleisher’s intense musicality, the massive strength of his personality, and depth of his life’s journey welled into the air around us. The evening suddenly became unforgettable. The remarks he made about his fate and his career are seared into memory. He was given a great gift of musical talent- then a defect in his mind destroyed that gift just as it was blossoming fully into its own. His observation: “The gods know how to hit you…” Now well into his seventies, regular injections of botox into the muscle of his arm enable him to perform again. His concept, he asserted in an interview, is that a great performance is an “artistic inevitability;” even though it may include the greatest of surprises, such a performance is inevitable. At the next opportunity, I will rush to hear him again.

Thomas Aujero Small



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