Felix Klieser plays the horn with his toes, rather than his fingers. His handicap hasn't kept him from the upper echelons of classical music - and now he's won the coveted Leonard Bernstein Award.
Accompanied by a cash award of 10,000 euros ($10,960), the Leonard Bernstein Award is officially presented during the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in the summer. Announcing this year's recipient on Wednesday (03.02.2016), festival director Christian Kuhnt said, "His outstanding technique and ability to make his instrument sing are overwhelming."
Born without arms in 1991 in Göttingen, Germany, Felix Klieser plays a normal horn, operating the valves with the toes of his left foot. He rests the instrument and his heels on a stand that has been specially designed for him.
Considered one of the best horn players worldwide, Klieser expressed a desire to play the instrument at age four. He was admitted to Hanover's Academy of Music, Theater and Media at 17 and was a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Germany from 2008-2011.
After winning Germany's "Jugend musiziert" competition for young musicians, he went on to take an "Echo Klassik" as Young Musician of the Year 2014. Klieser has performed with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic - and with pop singer Sting.
The release of his debut album "Reveries" in 2013 was hailed by critics for the wide variety of timbres evidenced by Klieser's playing - notably so, for while most horn players influence the sound color by inserting a hand into the bell mouth, Felix Klieser developed alternative techniques. In his 2014 book "Fußnoten - Ein Hornist ohne Arme erobert die Welt" (Footnotes - A Horn Player Conquers the World), he explained, "You can do that by controlling the air flow, the shape of the mouth cavity and the lips."
Although Germany's daily "Die Welt" declared Felix Klieser "an absolutely exceptional talent," the instrumentalist himself plays down that factor. "Talent is overestimated!" he has said, citing hard work and force of will instead.
"Unfortunately, I'm not blessed with natural ability," he declared, having to work for everything from the ground up und practicing eight hours a day. Klieser reflects, "Maybe I chose the horn because I thought if I can master that, I can master anything."
The Leonard Bernstein Award is named after the late conductor and composer who helped initiate the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in 1986. The prize money is donated by a banking association in the German state. Its president, Reinhard Boll, declared, "We are proud to honor another exceptional artist who will fit well in the list of big-name winners of the Leonard Bernstein Award."
Previous winners of the prize, bestowed annually since 2003, include pianists Lang Lang, Jonathan Biss, Jan Lisiecki, Kit Armstrong, and Anna Vinnitskaya; violinist Lisa Batiashvili, organist Cameron Carpenter, percussionist Martin Grubinger, and conductor Krzysztof Urbański.