Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Thomas Hecht Reminisces About Leon Fleisher


Head of Piano Studies at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Dr. Thomas Hecht was a student of (and also teaching assistant to) Leon Fleisher during his student years (1983-87) at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute. Following Fleisher’s week-long residency as the Ong Teng Cheong Distinguished Professor in March 2009, Hecht waxes lyrical about his mentor and his years as a student.

What were your early musical years like?

I was the seventh in an “Irish”-American Catholic family of ten children. My father, then a bank executive, had one great passion – music – and he played the trumpet and French horn. Incredible as it seems, all ten of us had to spend at least one year learning to play the piano - something like your compulsory National Service! When the year was through, though, we were left to make our own decision, no arguments. Most of my sibling counted the days (I can assure you!) so they could move on to other instruments. We used to give family concerts for the neighbourhood, like the Von Trapp family. Besides the piano, I played the alto saxophone for while, but soon discovered I was not a “transposing” person. That nearly drove me insane!

You were a Baltimore boy while Leon Fleisher had been teaching at Peabody since the 1950s. How did you first know about him?

It was my eldest sister Cathy, now a music teacher in elementary school, who introduced me to Leon Fleisher’s Beethoven piano concerto cycle with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Those were, of course, on ten or so vinyl LP’s, well before the emergence of the CD. At that time (10 years old), I had been enrolled as a scholarship student of Frederick Griesinger at the Peabody Preparatory. Fred had really opened up my ears and really first taught me how to “perform”. And all this time Fleisher had been Head of the Conservatory’s Piano Department. You can imagine what a “Titan” he was, even then, and I can still remember exclaiming to my sister while we listened to his “Emperor” Concerto how amazing it was that Fleisher lived right here - in Baltimore!

What does it take to become a student of Fleisher?

I did not do my undergraduate studies in Peabody. Unlike many Asian students, I couldn’t wait to get away from home! At the Oberlin Conservatory (Ohio), just a seven-hour drive away, I studied with Peter Takacs, himself a former Fleisher student. Even then I had wanted to learn and train under a Fleisher “product”.

To become a Fleisher student is a test of perseverance and persistence. I played in many master classes for him in various cities, and gradually worked my way into his awareness. No, I do not think coming from Baltimore made any difference as to why I was selected for his class. But for me, being in those lessons with the great maestro really felt as if my “piano soul” were finally coming home!

What is Fleisher like as a teacher?

Fleisher is not just a great artist, but a teacher par excellence. Learning under him was a mind-blowing experience. He was (and still is) so compelling and commanding in his musical thought that it always seemed as if there was no other way to hear the music. He really knows how to work these thoughts into his students, making everything completely clear.

Despite his magnificence (and the very possible intimidation factor of playing for him each week), there was always a sense of great comfort with him in the room. He would sit very close to you, demonstrating everything in those days with only his left hand - which, of course, exceeds what most people can do with both their hands. It was like being one with him at the piano. And when I performed my recitals, I always felt that I was hearing his voice - that guiding force - in my head, and this always provided an amazing amount of support and direction for me.

I was asked to be his assistant only after one year of study with him. He had never before had a teaching assistant. Why? I do not know. I felt extremely flattered, honoured and mostly humbled (if not in a state of shock!) when he actually asked me. For my part, I had wanted nothing more in life than just to study with the man; never had I imagined assisting him as well. In fact, I can honestly say that everything I’ve experienced since those years has been icing on the cake. Studying with Leon Fleisher was the “cake” itself.

What exactly does a teaching assistant do?

I took over his students in his absence, and got everybody ready for their recitals while I prepared for mine. Sigh…Looks like nothing has changed, right?! Anyway, I felt my life transformed. I was younger than many people had expected [24 years old then], and he had so many students that had been with him much longer than I. But his wife Katherine Jacobson (also a Fleisher student and several years my senior) shared with me one day that the reason Fleisher chose me was because he thought that I was the only one capable of doing it.
Duo-pianists Hecht & Shapiro following the performance
in which the great Maestro had just conducted them in the
Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos with the Cleveland Institute
of Music Orchestra in 1991. The duo's last performance together
was with the Cleveland Orchestra, playing the
Poulenc Double Concerto under Jahja Ling in 2002.

Who were some of your contemporaries as Fleisher students?

Oh, it was quite a class, alright! My peers included Kevin Kenner [2nd prize at the 1990 Chopin International Piano Competition], Stephen Prutsman [Finalist at the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition], Marcantonio Barone [Finalist at Leeds] and, of course, my former wife and two-piano partner, Sandra Shapiro, [with whom he won the Munich International Two Piano Competition].

Would you say that your teaching methods are similar to Leon Fleisher’s?

I think it’s important not to try to be a clone of anyone, but I do try to do my best to impart to others - through my teaching and playing - what he had given me. Although my teacher did not appear on the performing stage for decades, his ideas, messages and artistic inspiration came clearly through his teaching and recordings. I am 48 now, so I have had the benefit of time and many international experiences since my Peabody days, all of which have helped me explore things and to evolve as an artist and teacher. I guess it’s safe to say I now have some of my own views, which he might or might not completely agree with, but I think that’s OK, isn’t it?

At the master class the other day, one of your students performed Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole, not exactly “Fleisher” territory. Yet he managed to give a lot of himself.

Yes, that’s a common belief…but then again, why not Liszt, I ask? Fleisher is not one of those teachers who limit themselves to a certain set repertoire they are comfortable with. I have found that he often gives some of his best lessons on repertoire he does not normally play. When something’s new and it’s exciting for him, I think it gets his mind probing even more. Besides, there are always things like rhythm, line and texture in every piece, aspects which he loves to talk about whether it’s the first or hundredth time he’s taught a piece. It’s all about looking at something anew and making sense out of it; and that’s only one of the reasons he is so magnificent.

And…don’t forget that Fleisher made one of the greatest recordings ever of Liszt’s B minor Sonata [on Columbia Masterworks – yet to be reissued]. I had also studied Liszt (Venezia e Napoli) with him while at Peabody, so he was certainly open to such music, and our duo also studied the composer’s Reminiscences de Don Juan for Two pianos, which (alongside warhorses like Ravel’s La Valse ) became one of Hecht & Shapiro’s “signature” concert pieces.
Fleisher with his musical "child"
Thomas Hecht and musical "grandchildren"
Abigail Sin, Akkra Yeunyonghattaporn
& Nattapol Tantikarn (from L to R).

Are you still finding inspiration from him?

Oh, yes..and how! The master classes he just gave for us at YST will be forever cherished in my heart. All the things he said here were like taking a whole supplement of musical vitamins again. And it was really wonderful to see him work with my students - his musical “grandchildren.”

A few years back when I was preparing the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto for the Esplanade performance with the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra, I flew all the way to New York City just to play for him at Steinway Hall, where they arranged a special room for us. He accompanied me on second piano and the whole experience was simply thrilling. And then to think I finally heard him play this same Brahms -after all the years of waiting - at Carnegie Hall in 2008. WOW!

Indeed, after all these years, I find that his message has been amazingly consistent. This is his vision. What he gives to people is the great gift of his energy, which at 80 is still incredible. I still remember that after most lessons with him I usually scheduled a game of racquetball with a friend because it was the only way I could stop from bouncing off the walls myself!

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