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My Drink With Leon

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On October 11, 2008, the Westchester Philharmonic marked the beginning of a new era. That previous Spring, Paul Lustig Dunkel, the Phil’s founding music director, had stepped down, after leading the orchestra for 25 years. Dunkel’s towering achievement also meant that his departure left an enormous void for us to try to fill. The stars had aligned and we ultimately tapped world-renowned violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman as our new artistic director, a momentous occasion for the organization. For his first performance with us, Maestro Perlman tapped his friend Leon Fleisher to perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. The pair of concerts sold out as soon as tickets went on sale.


I am not usually star-struck by famous people, but Itzhak Perlman and Leon Fleisher are, in a word, legendary. The Phil was going to have both of these giants, two Kennedy Center honorees, on our stage at the same time. My well-studied casualness with guest artists would not survive this.


Several months prior to the engagement, Fleisher’s agent had sent me the contract, a fairly standard few pages that outlined our understanding. As is often the case, this contract also included a rider that specified a few of the artist’s special requests, and Fleisher being Fleisher, his special requests were in fact quite ordinary, the kinds of things we do for everyone who performs with us: A dressing room with a bathroom (check), a bottle of water (got it), transportation to/from the venue (of course), maybe some hot tea (lemon with that?). But there was one further provision, which seemed typed into the rider with a different font, and which made me smile: “After the performance (and not before), Mr. Fleisher would appreciate having in his dressing room one inch of Chivas Regal scotch in a glass, no ice.”


Riders are the place where artists make all kinds of outrageous demands (think “no green M&Ms!” or “sushi grade tuna that must be caught that same morning”) but this was an easy “yes.” As sometimes occurs, the rider is also where a small change might be agreed upon, and the standard procedure for implementing the change is for the requesting party to hand-write the change and initial it. I’m not sure what possessed me to be so bold, but after “no ice” I added “on the condition that I can join him. JW”


The contract came back with that amendment initialed “LF.”


On the morning of the concert, I bought a pint bottle of Chivas…the size of a flask. I figured there were just two of us having “an inch” and that would be plenty. Fleisher performed the Emperor and brought down the house. Tears were flowing, on the stage and in the house, and after multiple curtain calls, Perlman and Fleisher finally retired backstage for the intermission. I gave Fleisher a few moments of quiet in his dressing room, then knocked and entered with two glasses and the pint of Chivas.


“Joshua! I can’t tell you how much you made me laugh with that note in the contract! I’ve been looking forward to this!” (Was he lying? I’ll never know. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)


We sipped our scotch and schmoozed about non-musical topics. He was charming, generous, smart. I was in heaven. I still had to manage the second half of the concert and for a moment I wondered if having whiskey at intermission, albeit just an inch, was a good idea. I gave myself permission. I am having a drink with Leon Freaking Fleisher.


There’s a bookshelf in my office where I keep a few photos and other knick-knacks. The half-empty pint of Chivas became part of that display. Over the years, people visiting my office would joke about my having a bottle of scotch on my bookshelf…”hitting the sauce, eh?” and I would tell them this story.


And from time to time, if we had a day that was particularly bad (around the last financial crisis in 2009, for example), or particularly good (a six-figure gift to the orchestra), I would “give myself permission” to take a tiny sip from that bottle. It wasn’t so much for the brace of liquor as it was an affirming reminder that greatness is near. Over the next twelve years, as the level in the bottle gradually got lower and lower, my tiny sips would get tinier and tinier, to the point of barely a drop on my tongue, so as to preserve something at the bottom of the bottle that could remain there in perpetuity.


Until the news came that Leon had passed away. Alone at the office the next day, I stood at my desk, raised that flask, and said to no one “This is for you, Leon,” and finished the last couple of drops. It was pretty smooth.

Read the NY Times preview of that concert here.

Read Leon Fleisher’s obituary here.

Read the original program here.

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