Renowned pianist takes on new challenges
Menahem Pressler’s schedule is daunting. There is globe-trotting travel and performance as a concert pianist — both solo and with the world’s leading orchestras. Plus, he handles a full-time teaching position at a university, and practices four hours a day.
Even so, he finds a few moments to talk about his upcoming visit to Columbia, where he will play at the Horowitz Performing Arts Center on Oct. 18, at the season opener for the Candlelight Concert Society.
The maestro is especially excited as he looks forward to the Columbia concert, because, he said, he will be playing something new to his repertoire.
“The Mozart Rondo is wonderful. Everyone always told me, ‘You’re too young to play it.’ But then when I became 80, I decided I’m going to play it now. Now or never!”
And he laughs. Not a guffaw, but a mirthful chuckle, a pleasant sound rich with appreciation of life’s many ironies.
Pressler is now 90. Whether it took him 10 years to get around to playing the Mozart piece for an audience, or if he considers something he has been playing for ten years something “new,” he does not say. He simply exudes joy at sharing an exquisite and timeless musical jewel with people.
Yes, he is 90. And with a schedule that would exhaust a 30-year old. His life is a long and vivid tapestry of challenge and reward, of family and music and discovery. He has a playful wit and an engaging manner.
One imagines he is a popular teacher at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he holds the rank of Distinguished Professor. He has been a fixture there for six decades, and it has been the place he and his wife Sara make their home.
Escape from Nazi Germany
Before that, before the applause that has filled the great halls of the world and the honors and accolades, there was childhood in Magdeburg, Germany, where he was born in 1923. His family made an arduous escape from the Nazis in 1939, with the sounds of Kristallnacht, the shattering glass of Jewish homes and businesses, still ringing in his ears.
The family ended up in Israel, where Pressler recovered physically and returned to his great love: the piano.
“Certainly, the fact that I was a refugee, that I suffered physically…” and he trails off for a moment before continuing. “The music was a healing aspect in my life. And then, you know how life turns. Germany awarded me their highest civilian award [the Bundesverdienstkreuz or Cross of Merit]. And the city I had to run away from has made me an honorary citizen. It’s a complete reversal.”
“Everything forms you,” he said. “You are made by your experiences. There’s not one that’s more or one that’s less. Everyone makes an impact. And every one is a line on your face.”
Forming the Beaux Arts Trio
Pressler was already famous by 1955, a familiar visiting star with orchestras in Philadelphia, New York, London, Paris, San Francisco, London, Brussels, Oslo, Helsinki and numerous others.
But in that year, he cemented his place in music history with the formation of the Beaux Arts Trio, with Daniel Guillet and Bernard Greenhouse. They played a hundred concerts a year until 1988, recognized as an iconic cultural institution.
The retirement of the Trio did not slow him down, however. To understand why, one only has to hear Pressler speak reverently of the music created by the great composers:
“Their music is my bible. And the great composers, themselves, are my gods. And my prayer house — my synagogue, my church, my mosque — is the concert hall. And I am the prophet who is trying to bring you the message of these great composers. The message that is the richness, the beauty, the drama, and the love.”
All that beauty. How much belongs to the composer, and how much of it comes from the hands of this pianist, the messenger? “It is the message of the composer, as seen through my eyes. It is me bringing to you that message the way I understand it,” he explained, adding, “And the way I love it.”
“I feel imbued with the beauty of that music. For me, the joy is to transfer it to the one who can listen,” he said after a few more moments of reflection.
Pressler rigorous daily practice schedule is an act of love, not discipline. After the concert in Columbia, his travels will take him to Paris and other concerts in Europe, before heading back to the United States to play a few dates here.
Then he returns to Europe, where Pressler’s year will culminate with one of the highest honors a classical musician can achieve: soloing with the Berlin Philharmonic on their New Year’s Eve broadcast to the world. And for that, he plans to add yet another Mozart piece to his repertoire.
“It is a Mozart aria for orchestra, voice and piano,” he said. “I know the piece. I have heard it and I love it. Now I have to learn it.”
So what is it like to bask in the warmth of an appreciative audience and soul-stirring music?
“When you sit in front of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras, you feel quite alone,” he reflects. “That never goes away. You always are worried that you’re not showing your work from your best side.
“You have to be prepared, of course. But you have to love it. You have to give of yourself and give the best that you can, the message to the audience. Why is this music so beautiful? What does it do for you? To make life complete, music is one of the most beautiful arts there is.”
Teaching a new generation
Pressler said he teaches because he feels an obligation to share what he has learned. “I feel an obligation to make it easier for them, to stand on my shoulders and do it better than me,” is how he describes it.
And is this treasured music safe in the hands of tomorrow’s musicians?
“It is not only in safe hands, when they study with me, it had better be in safe hands,” he said, dissolving once again into gentle laughter. “When they study with me, they are my spiritual children.”
The teacher may be learning something from his children, too. When asked what he would tell readers of this interview what they should seek out to familiarize themselves with his music, he begins by mentioning two recordings he has made within the past year. They include his beloved Schubert sonatas and that new Mozart Rondo.
But then he catches himself and notes, “Of course, when you open YouTube, there are at least 50 performances you can see.”
Going strong as 91 approaches, Menahem Pressler said he still has a hunger to make music. After all, music kept him sane during the bad times, and has given his life the impulse to do something grand.
Pressler will perform Saturday, Oct. 18 at the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Performing Arts Center, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy. in Columbia. There is free parking. The performance is at 8 p.m.
Adult tickets are priced at $32 ($30 for those 60 and older), and $12 for students (age 18 to 24). Senior and adult ticket buyers are also entitled to a free youth ticket (age 9 to 17). For tickets and information, visit www.candlelightconcerts.org or call (410) 997-2324.
For information on the artist, visit menahempressler.org.