Written by Janelle Gelfand
12:08 AM, Oct. 16, 2011
Pianist Menahem Pressler, co-founder of the Beaux Arts Trio, has received countless awards during an extraordinary career now well into its seventh decade.
But no honor was so “difficult, emotional and beautiful” as the honorary citizenship bestowed upon him two years ago by his hometown of Magdeburg, Germany, which he fled in 1939 to escape the Nazis.
Born in 1923, Pressler had only returned to his birthplace once before, in 2005, when he received Germany’s highest honor, the German president’s Cross of Honor. This time, the city paid tribute, the mayor said, “to one of the greatest pianists of our time.” It also honored his relatives who were deported and died in Auschwitz. Pressler participated in a “Stolpersteine” (tripping stones) ceremony. The stones were engraved with each person’s dates of birth, deportation and death and placed at their last residence.
“I said, while I’m not entitled to forget, I am entitled to forgive,” said Pressler, who had emigrated to Israel as a teenager. “I think we always have to remember, and I am happy and proud to be of the state of Israel.”
The 87-year-old pianist and distinguished professor at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music returns to the region for a piano recital at Miami University in Oxford on Saturday, as part of Miami’s “Year of the Arts.” He’ll be in Cincinnati for concerts next Sunday and Oct. 24 with chamber music colleagues on the Linton Chamber Music Series.
Speaking by phone from Bloomington, where he lives and teaches a studio of 15 pianists, Pressler had just flown in from Paris. He had performed Mozart with the Orchestre de Paris under former Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra music director Jesus Lopez-Cobos.
This weekend, he is in London to perform Shostakovich with the Pacifica Quartet and receive the rare Wigmore Hall Award.
Even Pressler seemed surprised at his boundless energy.
“It’s utterly crazy,” he said. “I come back, I teach, I don’t know. It’s a gift from God.”
He began his association with Indiana University in 1955, the year he co-founded the Beaux Arts Trio, which set the standard for piano trios for 54 years. Pressler remained its anchor until the group disbanded in 2008.
The early years, he reminisced, included touring to small Midwestern cities, where he might find pianos in varying states of playing condition, as well as growing numbers of enthusiastic fans. “(It) taught me how great music is made,” he said.
“There was never a concert that we played just – how should I say – routine,” he said. “It was never like people who cook for the month, and then put it in the freezer and when that meal is needed, they put it in the oven and they have the meal ready. No. With the Beaux Arts Trio, it was always freshly cooked.”
The last configuration of the trio, which included violinist Daniel Hope, was “a great joy” for Pressler. He is still ambivalent about retiring the ensemble when Hope’s solo career took off.
Today, he does not perform piano trios, reluctant to appear with assorted musicians on two rehearsals. But he regularly performs quartets and quintets with IU colleagues, two of whom (Alex Kerr and Eric Kim) will perform with him in Cincinnati.
He actually started his lifetime in music as a solo artist. For his Oxford recital, the pianist will include music by Debussy, a composer close to his heart. His career was launched after he was awarded first prize at the Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco in 1946.
Years later, he is still a bit surprised and pleased to receive so many accolades. A student has devoted a book (Artistry in Piano Teaching: Indiana University Press), and a biography is due out soon. A film of his life has been produced in France.
But for the pianist, his is not merely a life in music. He believes that his life was saved by music. After his family emigrated to Israel, he couldn’t eat. He realized many years later that, “I was damaged. And what kept me alive, what was my saving, was music. So when I made music, I felt good,” he said.
“All my life I have been hungry to make music. This hunger has not been stilled. … Yes, many people now would take it easy, have a home in Florida – I don’t need any of those things. I need my Schubert, I need my Beethoven, I need my Brahms and I need my Bach.”