Menahem Pressler rehearses Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K.453, which was performed during the Festival Orchestra concert in June in the Musical Arts Center. Arthur Fagen is the conductor.
90 years old and playing with love
By Peter Jacobi
The big surprise was that I was to call him in his studio. That meant he, pianist Menahem Pressler, was home during Thanksgiving week, at least for most of it.
When we connected by phone, I mentioned my surprise, in that on former occasions, often I reached him in a hotel room somewhere or other on this planet, but not in Bloomington.
“I’m surprised, too,” he said. “But here I am. Of course, I’ve just returned from Toronto, where I had a wonderful evening with Schubert, for which I received a fantastic write-up. And I leave Sunday for Toulouse, where I’ll play Beethoven’s Fourth. Then I come back home for my birthday party, and then it’s on to New York, to Amsterdam, where I’ll play with the Concertgebouw, and to St. Petersburg. It’s back to Bloomington for 10 days, and then to Berlin for concerts with the Philharmonic.” All that, and he finds the time to teach his 15 students as distinguished professor of music in the Jacobs School.
“It’s a present from God to be able to do it,” he tells me, “to have the desire to do it and to follow through on that desire. At 90, I still have that desire.” At 90: that’s what “I come back home for my birthday party” is all about. Next Friday evening in the Musical Arts Center, Menahem Pressler will be honored with a 90th birthday celebration.
Now, that doesn’t mean he’ll sit in the audience to be entertained. That means, as I put it to him, “As always, you’ll be working for your supper.” “I love working for my supper that way,” says Pressler.
He’ll be up there on stage with invited friends, right in the middle of the action. And who will be his friends on this occasion? Violinist Daniel Hope, “Dear Daniel,” his colleague during the late years of the Beaux Arts Trio and now a soloist with a burgeoning career; cellist David Finckel, until recently a member of the Emerson String Quartet and currently co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; pianist Wu Han, a former Pressler student, prominent recitalist, teacher, and wife of David Finckel and the whole of the Emerson String Quartet, with whom Pressler has played on countless occasions.
What attendees will hear are the Schubert Sonata in C Major, “Grand Duo,” the one for four hands, along with Dvorak’s Piano Trio in E Minor, “Dumky,” a Beaux Arts Trio signature piece, and the Dvorak Piano Quintet in A Major.
The Bloomington birthday concert will not be the first; the indefatigable Mr. Pressler has already participated in a Paris celebration before 2,000 cheering fans. There’ll be a New York event the next day to follow our local tribute.
“I’m particularly thrilled about the concert here,” he says. “This is my home. I love Bloomington. I love Indiana University. I love my students. This is a kind of celebration of love, and I want to return the feeling by doing what I love, doing music. I feel really wanted here, and, you know, I really want to be wanted. Not that I ever did, but I don’t play at this time of my life to make a career. I am playing to fulfill my fondest wish: to make music. All of this is like a dream I couldn’t have imagined.”
Dec. 16 is the exact date in 1923 when Menahem Pressler was born in Magdeburg, Germany. Because of Nazi persecution of the Jews, he fled his homeland in 1939 and emigrated to Israel, all the while studying the piano. In 1945, he won the Debussy International Piano Competition. That launched his career, at first as soloist, then starting in 1955, as both chamber musician and teacher. 1955 was a big year. He became a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio and its only pianist for the 55 years of its existence. He also joined the faculty of IU’s School of Music, an association that spans nearly 60 years. With the end of the trio, Menahem Pressler turned very active soloist once again.
Along the way, he’s appeared with major orchestras and at festivals worldwide. He’s won honorary doctorates and lifetime achievement awards. His recordings include virtually all of the piano chamber repertoire, these with the Beaux Arts Trio, and close to three dozen discs as soloist. A couple, holding music of Beethoven and Schubert, have just recently been released.
After all these years, I ask, “Has your enthusiasm diminished in any way?” I ask the question, knowing full well the answer I’ll receive: “Oh, no. Of course not,” he says with a chuckle. “To play at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, where Brahms and Liszt and Mendelssohn performed, to play a Schubert evening there: How can anything be more exciting? To play music I adore with chosen friends here in Bloomington: Could anything be better? To work with my students, all talented and lovely people: That’s a heavenly gift for me.”
The ebullient Mr. Pressler notes that a reporter for the German magazine, Der Spiegel, asked the above question and whether age has become a factor in his still-so-active life. “I answered, ‘When I play in concert, I feel 50. When I teach, I feel 40. When I go up the stairs, I feel my age.’ But, really, nothing has changed. I’m still as excited as ever. Music is a wonderful reason to be alive.”
The combination of Menahem Pressler and music, I say, is a terrific reason to be at the Musical Arts Center come Friday night.
© Herald Times 2013