Stewart Oksenhorn

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July 13, 2006
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A Fleisher family affair

Julian Fleisher's musical direction was shaped largely by his mother, Risselle Rosenthal, who played for her son the records by the notable singer-songwriters of the '70s, and by his older sister, Paula, who turned Julian on to his seminal influence, Joni Mitchell. Now 30-something, Julian Fleisher is a cabaret-style singer, who sings everything from Duke Ellington to Prince with his bands.Left off the slate of big influences is Julian's father, classical pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher. The elder Fleisher and Rosenthal divorced when Julian was young. But father and son both lived in Baltimore, and Julian spent weekends with his dad, so Leon Fleisher was a big presence in his son's life. In one way, maybe too big."He certainly influenced me in which way not to go," said Julian from New York, where he splits his time between the city and a home upstate, in the Catskills. "If your dad were Albert Einstein, you probably wouldn't go into physics."But if you grew up in an environment where numbers were important, you might go into something related to that, like teaching."Several branches of the Fleisher family will gather for a first-time-ever concert in Aspen. The performance, Thursday, July 20, at 6 p.m. at the Benedict Music Tent, is billed as An Evening with Leon Fleisher. But it would have been more accurately titled An Evening with the Fleishers. Joining Fleisher onstage will be Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, Leon's former student at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory and current wife; Deborah and Richard (known as Dickie) Fleisher, both professional harpists; and Leah, a Pilates instructor and physical therapist as well as an accomplished amateur harpist. (Deborah, Dickie and Leah are all offspring of Leon's first marriage, to Dorothy Druzinsky). In addition, the event will include Kayo Ishimaru, Dickie's wife and another professional harpist; and Julian, who leads a pair of New York-based groups, the Rather Big Band and the Julian Fleisher Experience.In addition to making music, the Fleisher family members will have to do a bit of dancing around the stage, to make the various components work as a concert.

For Caplet's "Conte Fantastique," based on Edgar Allen Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," Ishimaru will play the tricky harp part, and, because rehearsal time is limited, Leon will conduct. Another of Leon's daughters from his first marriage, Paula, will make a nonmusical appearance, reading the précis.For Hindemith's Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Harps, Fleisher will again conduct, with Jacobson-Fleisher on piano, and Deborah, Dickie, Leah and Ishimaru on harps, plus members of Julian's Rather Big Band. Fleisher and Jacobson Fleisher will team for Ravel's "La valse," arranged for four-handed piano. The second half of the concert will feature Julian and his five-piece rhythm section. Leah will sit in on two songs - Julian's original, "The Limit's the Sky," and a Duke Ellington ballad - specially arranged with harp parts.Fleisher and Jacobson-Fleisher perform together frequently, including a concert in Aspen several summers ago that Fleisher conducted. The two, who have appeared together recently at Carnegie Hall and with the Philadelphia Orchestra and often split recital programs, are also scheduled to perform with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra National d'Ile de France. Fleisher conducted Deborah and Dickey a few times in the community orchestra he directed in Annapolis, Md., and twice played a number at a concert of Julian's. Apart from that, however, there hasn't been much family-style music-making in any of the Fleisher households."We've only all been in the same room a handful of times, ever," observed Julian. "We haven't even rehearsed what it means to have dinner together, much less perform a concert together. But the ingredients to be a family are there, because there are no assholes in the bunch."Fleisher, who turns 78 two days after the performance, revealed his easygoing attitude toward the concert, and at least a rudimentary knowledge of pop culture: "I figured if the Osbournes could do it, we could.""It was a drunken inspiration, I'm afraid," he continued. "I had a 75th birthday here in Aspen; the whole family gathered. I get my ideas either in the shower or on the john. But I had never thought of this before. Because what Julian does is not compatible with what I do. They're difficult to combine. But doing it in a festival setting, it assumed a certain reasonableness."Liquor might have greased the wheels for the concert. But while the Fleisher name is most prominent in the program, it is another name that must be mentioned as the ultimate source of this collection of talent.

During Fleisher's first marriage, he was the brother-in-law of Eddie Druzinsky. Druzinsky was the first harpist for the orchestras in Chicago and Detroit, and the reason there are so many harpists bearing the Fleisher name."There were harps in the house," said Fleisher, who made his debut, at the age of 16, with the New York Philharmonic. "And in the true capitalist spirit, my father-in-law said, 'The instruments are here; play them.' They became harpists, with all the hernias that implies."The whole Druzinsky family was uniquely musical," continued Fleisher, noting that his father-in-law, Louis, headed the second violin section of the St. Louis Symphony, and his mother-in-law, Betty, played harp in the pit orchestras for numerous Broadway productions during the heyday of Broadway musicals.

Fleisher's formidable abilities may have chased his children away from the piano. It's possible his particular gifts were not even passed on to his kids; Julian made cursory efforts on piano. "And I showed no talent at all," said Julian, who studied voice in Peabody's prep division and theater at Yale. "Neither of my parents saw piano as something I should pursue."Still, the father's musicianship has had an impact. Fleisher turned his son on to Mel Torm, who became one of Julian's big influences. Even in Fleisher's approach to classical music, Julian has taken something he could apply to his jazzy style."If there's any real influence, much of what makes my father's playing so important is his devotion to rhythm," said Julian. "Of the three essential components of music - melody, harmony and rhythm - what Dad shares with the great jazz players is that he thinks rhythm is important."Julian has also gleaned from his father's playing the significance of what might be termed the fourth essential element of music. "When I listen to him, I'm always reminded how important silence is in music-making," he said. "I'm young, and I can still hold notes for a long time. But I realize I shouldn't. Dad has a kabuki quality, a kind of Buddhist approach. He knows how silence can make the notes mean more. I'm always impressed by his lack of flourish, the lack of indulgences."Perhaps most influential is the respect Fleisher has shown for Julian's stylistic choices. The father heaps praise on the son, saying he "composes beautifully.""It's nice to see that Dad and a lot of other classical musicians I respect, look at great jazz musicians with awe and respect," said Julian. "They don't look down on them.

Before he gets to the family reunion, Fleisher appears in a more standard concert. He appears as pianist with the Aspen Festival Orchestra and conductor Emmanuel Villaume on Sunday, July 16, performing Hindemith's Piano Music for Left Hand with Orchestra.From the mid-'60s, when he was afflicted with a finger disability, eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia, Fleisher has devoted himself to left-hand piano repertoire, conducting and teaching. (He also performs two-handed piano, though in with limited frequency.) He also addresses medical conventions and conservatories in the physical hazards of playing piano."These kids hear a Horowitz sound - it's wonderful, beautiful, exciting," he said. "They try to achieve it on a dead piano in a dead studio for seven, eight hours a day, and they'll injure themselves. They don't understand that the piano is doctored so it would be an extremely brilliant sound with minimal effort. They don't understand how we are athletes of the small muscle."

Fleisher, who receives semi-annual injections of Botox to relieve his condition, has grown grateful for the left-hand repertoire. The repertoire, created by Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Schubert and many others, is reasonably extensive. And, as Fleisher is pleased to note, has grown of late.Hindemith had composed his left-hand piano piece for Paul Wittgenstein, a wealthy patron who lost his right arm in World War II. It was composed in 1923, a rich period for Hindemith, but the demanding Wittgenstein was unimpressed."Apparently, Wittgenstein didn't like it, as he didn't like the Prokofiev or the Ravel," noted Fleisher. "He had awful fights with Ravel. He was a prickly man, a difficult person. He was unhappy with Britten. The only person he liked was Franz Schmidt, who wrote kind of Rodgers & Hammerstein, chromatic, very tuneful."The Hindemith piece had been thought lost forever; some thought its existence was a mere rumor. But three or four years ago, Wittgenstein's widow died, and when her children scoured the Pennsylvania farm where she lived, the Piano Music for Left Hand and Orchestra was unearthed (along with a lock of Beethoven's hair).Fleisher was the first person on the mind of the publisher, Schott Music. A year-and-a-half ago, Fleisher gave the world premiere of the 17-minute piece, with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle.Stewart Oksenhorn's e-mail address is

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The Aspen Times Updated Jul 14, 2006 06:46AM Published Jul 13, 2006 12:00AM Copyright 2006 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.