Top Five Comeback Stories in Classical Music

Saturday, June 01, 2013

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


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Comments [9]

Pat Winter

Pamela Frank, violinist, whose career was soaring to meteoric heights 11 years ago was forced to stop playing altogether from a crippling injury due to faulty acupuncture, is playing again.

Jun. 08 2013 10:45 AM
Peter J Blume from Westchester, NY

I'm sure there are many amazing music come-back stories, but I am reminded here of Adolph 'Bud' Herseth (principal trumpet with the Chicago S.O. for 53 years) who had a very bad car accident back in 1952--his mouth took what could have been a potentially career-devastating hit to the steering wheel & he had to have major dental reconstructive surgery. But his strong will & determination in the passion for his craft helped him to return to his post (at the same high level!) after an extensive rehabilitation.

Incidentally, he just passed away on April 13th, 2013 at the age of 91. Hope he's now continuing his incredible craft in a better place...

Jun. 05 2013 06:36 AM

Roger Frisch, associate concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, coming back after brain surgery!

Jun. 04 2013 10:19 PM

What about kyungwha chung???

Jun. 04 2013 09:29 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

Music heals....absolute music cures absolutely!

Jun. 04 2013 03:16 PM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

Argerich's recovery from cancer is a blatant omission from the above list. After a rocky 1990s decade, and several years of stark absence, her first recording project back (Prokofiev Piano Concertos 1 & 3, Bartok Piano Concerto 3, with Dutoit/Montreal) took the Grammy in 2000 for best instrumental soloist with orchestra.

This is a review/commentary on her return, to the Carnegie Hall stage.

Jun. 03 2013 05:40 PM
RDG of from NJ

Horowitz's comeback in 1965 which shocked the Classical world at the time. To overcome both stage-fright amongst other personal problems, Horowitz's comeback was not only well-received-- it is a testament to the power of music and how passion for one's craft can conquer any and all boundaries!

Jun. 02 2013 05:53 PM

Two that come to mind immediately are Jose Carreras' comeback after a near fatal bout of leukemia in the late 1980's and the resurgence of Tebaldi's career after serious vocal issues in the early '60's led her take over a year off from performing publicly.

Jun. 02 2013 03:32 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I'm glad that Kurt Masur and Riccardo Muti are conducting again after their medical ordeals last year.

Jun. 02 2013 11:25 AM

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