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Top Five Comeback Stories in Classical Music

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The return of James Levine to the Metropolitan Opera orchestra podium last month, and news of a young opera singer’s success after undergoing a pair of double lung transplants, have reminded us of other musicians who returned from seemingly career-ending maladies to the stage. We wish Maestro Levine and Charity Tillemann-Dick the best, and perhaps they’ll eventually join our list of top comeback stories:

1. Leon Fleisher

Leon Fleisher was among the most celebrated American pianists of his generation when he began to lose control of his right hand in the mid 1960s. Distraught by his weakening digits, Fleisher practiced even more, which cruelly worsened the focal dystonia—a neurological disorder—affecting his fingers. Surgery didn’t help, but a technique called rolfing paired with Botox injections helped spur a remarkable recovery and subsequent return to the stage. A decade later, Fleisher is still playing with both hands, as he prepares to celebrate his 85th birthday. His ordeal was chronicled in the documentary Two Hands, and his biography, My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music, co-authored with Washington Post critic Anne Midgette.


2. Maxim Vengerov

Shoulder surgery is a fate usually ascribed to gymnasts and baseball pitchers, so it was an unusual occurrence when the then 36-year-old Maxim Vengerov had to undergo an operation to repair a ruptured muscle in his right shoulder (said to be the result of an exercise injury). However, surgery was a relief after Vengerov spent three years trying to identify the source of his arm troubles. It took an additional year for the violinist to completely relearn how to play his instrument and finally return to the stage last year. While he wasn’t able to hold a bow, Vengerov found he enjoyed wielding a baton. His conducting career has since taken hold with stints in front of the Toronto and Chicago Symphony orchestras.


3. Sherrill Milnes

Though his stentorian baritone seems to embody power and authority, baritone Sherrill Milnes learned just how fragile his vocal chords were when he began to suffer problems while singing in the early 1980s. Though rumors circled that a careless dentist severed one of his chords during a routine cleaning, he in fact had a burst capillary at the base of one of the chords that didn’t heal. It took a year of recitals and concert performances before he threw himself back onto the opera stage, where he remained consistently until his retirement in 2002.


4. Peter Oundjian

Like Leon Fleisher, former Tokyo String Quartet violinist Peter Oundjian was stricken with focal dystonia in his left hand. The injury ended his 14-year stint in the ensemble. However, Oundjian, who studied conducting at Juilliard, decided to test his abilities in front of an orchestra. He is now the music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (right) and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Oundjian described his ordeal in for Musical America’s special report on healthcare. For the 90th anniversary of the TSO, he completed his comeback by playing violin with Itzhak Perlman in Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.


5. Murray Perahia

An innocuous-seeming paper cut felled the pianist Murray Perahia, cutting off nearly five years of his career, while he was in his mid 40s. The wound became infected, and though Perahia was prescribed antibiotics, he stopped taking them because they made him nauseous. Days later the swelling returned which caused his thumb to go out of alignment. Exploratory surgery followed by a second surgery and then a long recovery. Eventually in 1997, he returned to the stage and now in his 60, he continues to perform around the world.

Weigh in: What's your favorite comeback story? Leave your comments below.

Photo of Peter Oundjian by Cylla von Tiedemann