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Famed pianist Leon Fleisher to play at Memorial Hall

Pianist afflicted with dystonia


Pianist Leon Fleisher will perform in Memorial Hall tonight. Fleisher suffers from focal dystonia, a neurological condition that affects specific muscles. Photo courtesy of Carolina Performing Arts.

For a pianist, hands are the key to success.

At the age of 36, Leon Fleisher — regarded at 16 as one of the most gifted pianists of his generation — lost that key.

Fleisher, who lacks control of his right hand, is performing a program of classical pieces tonight at Memorial Hall.

“He is the stuff of legends,” said Sean McKeithan, director of communications and marketing for Carolina Performing Arts.

“He’s one of the brightest stars of piano and of classical music, period.”

Fleisher was set to perform on the Memorial Hall stage in September, but he was forced to reschedule citing personal health issues.

Trained in the German school of Beethoven and Mozart by Artur Schnabel, Fleisher first performed publicly at 4 years old.

By 16, he had accompanied the New York Philharmonic and, during the next two decades, came to be known as the most talented pianist of the time.

In 1965, after getting stitches in his right thumb, his control of his right hand began to disintegrate.

Fleisher underwent surgery in 1982 which temporarily relieved his symptoms, but he was later diagnosed with focal dystonia — a neurological condition that affects specific muscles.

Dr. Heather Walker, an assistant professor in UNC’s department of physical medicine and rehabilitation, said dystonia makes the brain unable to control movement of a limb.

It is generally seen in patients who have suffered strokes.

After he was diagnosed 15 years ago, Fleisher decided to test the newly discovered drug Botox.

“Botox is not just for cosmetic use,” Walker said.

Walker said that Botox is not a cure for dystonia.

Rather, by injecting small doses into the affected area at regular intervals, the overactive muscle and all those muscles fighting against it can be relaxed, allowing for normal movement.

In 1995, Fleisher played his first public concert in nearly 30 years using both hands.

Tonight’s performance will feature six pieces from the likes of Bach, Brahms and Schubert.

Fleisher will play some of his famed left-hand alterations, which transform compositions originally meant for two able hands.

He and his wife, concert pianist Katherine Jacobson-Fleisher, will play the two finale songs together — called “for Piano Four-Hands.”

Fleisher, a professor at The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, has become even more of an icon for music students because of his struggles.

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“They almost worship him,” said Clara Yang, an assistant professor in the department of music at UNC.

Yang said that seeing Fleisher play at UNC is like hearing Bill Gates talk at any university.

“It’s a big deal,” Yang said. “It’s a great opportunity for the students to broaden their horizon and witness someone who is such a master at work.”

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