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IN A MASTER CLASS, MOMENTS OF LAUGHTER AND LEARNING

People thrill to the glamour of classical music. We revere the conductor in his black tie, the prima donna in her silver gown.

But some of music's most unforgettable moments take place behind closed doors.

Take the tradition of the master class.

Master class! The words can strike excitement or fear into students' hearts. It's a simple concept: An artist gives a lesson to promising students. But there's an audience, too. Everyone learns together.

Master classes can be dramatic. The diva Maria Callas gave an emotional series of them, inspiring the play "Master Class" by Terrence McNally.

A few weeks ago, pianist Leon Fleisher visited the University at Buffalo. Fleisher, who is in his 70s, is a musical legend. He studied with Artur Schnabel. He came to fame in the 1940s as a kind of wunderkind.

His story is also inspirational: In the '60s, Fleisher suffered a disorder that cost him the use of his right hand. Recently, he regained the hand's use and released a triumphant CD, called "Two Hands."

When Fleisher came to Buffalo, his recital in Lippes Hall was standing room only.

But first, he held a master class.

It took place in a small recital hall. About 150 people showed up, including a group from Rochester's Eastman School.

The afternoon offered a fascinating peek at the finer points of music making. It also illustrates music's exalted tradition of handing down wisdom, one artist to another. Here was a man who studied with Artur Schnabel, who, in turn, studied with the great Polish piano teacher Theodor Leschetizky, who studied with Karl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven.

Who, in turn, studied with Haydn. The magical chain never ends.

'I'm nervous'

Two students are performing for Fleisher. Pianist Andreja Juric is playing a Beethoven sonata. Cellist Adriana Pera joins her for a Schumann sonata.

Juric, who studies with UB's Stephen Manes, is a poised young woman from Croatia. She plays the first movement of the Beethoven confidently, from memory. Fleisher sits about 10 feet behind her, in a folding chair. When she finishes, the audience applauds.

"How do you feel about what you played?" Fleisher asks.

Juric reels off faults, in her soft accent: "I'm nervous. I wasn't sure of my tempo."

Fleisher laughs. "Sounds about par for the course," he jokes.

He points out a particular phrase, and he and Juric begin to discuss it. Juric wonders if the phrase is joking. Fleisher advises, "You can do one way on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the other on Thursday and Saturday. I admire you for having the flexibility and range to express both experiences."

Unlike other pianists of history -- word has it that Chopin, for instance, used to make his female students cry -- Fleisher appears to have the ability to put people at ease.

Advising Juric not to sentimentalize a line, he says: "You kids grow up thinking if something's not revolutionary, it's an I-love-you temperament."

Another word of advice: "The older I get, the more I appreciate silence," Fleisher says.

He slouches back. "It is ironic," he reflects. "You spend so much money on lessons, and this instrument," he says, indicating the Steinway grand, "only to find that the most important thing is silence."

Now and then, when Juric is following his instruction, Fleisher will play along with her, using his left hand. It's striking how adept the hand has become.

A listener can sense the joy he takes in the music. "This phrase is like a revelation," he says. And: "This is a bar I find fascinating, amusing, delightful."

Fleisher has the ingratiating habit of including everyone in the room -- professors, students, whoever. He looks around at everyone as he refers to "this craft of ours," and "these things we all do."

Even beginners are taken by him. Dave McGavern, a Buffalo teacher and a fledgling pianist, hurried after work to catch the class. He's taking notes.

"I thought it would be way above me, but I get most of it," he marvels.

Fleisher phrases even his finer points in a clear, simple style.

"Not everything in music is equally important," he says, memorably. "That's difficult for performers to accept. That's our job, to play every note. But most notes are filler."

He can radiate flirtatious charm. It's no surprise that he has been married several times.

Indicating a particular phrase that has to be approached gently, he advises Juric: "Slide into it. You don't go up to your boyfriend and just say, 'I love you.' "

When Juric begins the sonata's last movement, a good-natured rondo, Fleisher resumes his seat. He checks his watch. Then he listens, alertly.

When the piece ends with a series of idiosyncratic chords, the audience applauds.

Silence falls. Fleisher clears his throat. "When you spend so much money, when you work so hard," he says slowly, "it's hard to see there's humor in what you do."

He smiles. "This is one of his funniest pieces."

Fleisher tends to refer to Beethoven, with familiarity and respect, as Mr. Beethoven. His affection for the master shows as he contemplates the rondo.

"His sense of humor -- sometimes it's rude," he ventures. "The French have a saying . . . 'You couldn't always take him out in the best of company.' His manners weren't polished. But he had a great sense of humor."

Squinting the ears

Fleisher grows occasionally melancholy.

"It's so extraordinary to conceive of structure, of form. It's totally ephemeral. You can't see it or touch it. We've turned into such a visual society. We don't use our ears. We don't listen to what people say," he frowns, staring into a corner. "That's why the music industry is in such dire straits. Fewer people want to invest time to listen.

When Juric and Pera play the Schumann sonata, it draws him into a reverie.

"It's important to have the cultural context of what we're reading or playing, to have some kind of idea of what was going on at the time," he muses, ascending the stage. "They didn't have ready-made clothes. When they walked down the street, they didn't have to look left and right . . ."

A fresh thought strikes him.

"As pianists, the most important thing we play is German music," he says. "It's quite extraordinary. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms. In painting, Germans were much poorer. They had a couple. Albrecht Durer. But music was their realm."

His comments hint at the intimate nature of a master class. These days, even the gentlest ethnic generalization is considered verboten. But this is a class. This is private.

"After the Germans, the second are the Russians, though much less quantitatively," Fleisher says. "French music, there's this almost national aesthetic. It's sensory, responsive to touch, taste, smell. If you look with squinted eyes, you see impressionistically. If we could squint with our ears, that would be a nice way to hear French music."

The room breaks into laughter.

Fleisher goes on to explain the concept of "Sehnsucht," or longing. "Even in Beethoven," he says, "there are moments of great longing. These are all good things to be familiar with as a backdrop to this music."

He hums a Schumann phrase. "I know I talk too much."

'My sainted teacher'

The audience doesn't think so.

Juric, surrounded by chums who are hugging her after the class, is on a cloud.

"He's just such an extraordinary man!" she exclaims. "You want to hug him all the time. Even when he asked, 'What are you doing?' he said it with so much love. You can feel it!"

Another piano student, Yo-han Ku, is also glowing. "I'm so inspired," he says. "He's just amazing. It makes you feel like practicing."

Not all the people there were piano students. John Loder, who attends many Buffalo Chamber Music Society concerts, doesn't play an instrument. "I like master classes," he says.

Loder caught guitarist Christopher Parkening's master class in June but says Parkening did too much religious proselytizing. He prefers Fleisher.

"I would say he's pre-World War II in the scope of his thinking," he reflects.

And Fleisher?

Perhaps he picked up his winning teaching style from the man he refers to, perhaps with tongue in cheek, as "my sainted teacher, Mr. Schnabel."

Schnabel held master classes.

"He wanted all his students together," Fleisher says. "When you play for your peers, it's great."

The class lasted two hours, but Fleisher seems energized.

"The students responded so quickly," he says. "I was very pleased."

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com