An Interview With Menahem Pressler

Marianne Lipanovich on July 29, 2009

Legendary pianist Menahem Pressler makes his Music@Menlo debut on Sunday, Aug. 2, in a concert in Atherton titled "An Evening With Menahem Pressler."

His philosophy of music and his life can be summed up in his first statement in the interview: “It’s a privilege to be a musician, and one who feels so strongly and creatively about the music, even if I’m not as young as I once was. It’s a present.”


You spent 53 years as the founding pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio. That’s an amazing run. How did the Trio get started?

It was by accident, I used to be a soloist. One time when I was recording, I said I’d love to do a trio by Mozart. The recording man said to put together a group. Daniel Guilet lived in the apartment house where I lived, and I met Bernard Greenhouse. We started just planning to play for three weeks, then were invited to Tanglewood on July 13, 1955. What started out as a series of seven or nine concerts turned into 70 concerts that year. For 53 years, we’ve played with many groups all over the world. I played in all 7,000 concerts. I’ve played with broken ribs. That was painful.

Was it hard to end the group?

No. When our young violinist said he had to leave, I realized I had brought him up, I had brought all of them up, and it was time to call it quits. We played all over the world that last tour. We did 13 or 15 concerts in a row. We were lucky. Had even one plane not been on time, we would have missed a concert.

How would you describe your life as a musician?

I’ve been lucky. My wife calls me in German “Glückspilz,” which translates to “lucky mushroom.” I’ve been lucky with the Trio, lucky with invitations. I’ve had exquisite experiences. I just was at the Radio France et Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon festival in France, and got lovely reviews. Well, from what I can tell ... I only can recognize a few words.

I’d just go with those words, then.

[Laughing] Yes, that’s what I’ll do.

What do you love about performing?

I love the creativity, the closeness to the audience, the ability to share the love of the pieces, not just showing what you can do. I have happily given my life to this. It is, as the French phrase it, my raison d’etre. Music has given me some of the most beautiful moments of my life. It is special to devote your life to something ... and get rewarded for it. From childhood, I’ve had a hunger to make music. I feel awed that I have done it, and done it so expressively. I’ve gotten to work with people I love and admire and cherish. I love Wu Han [festival codirector]; I’m very proud of her.

What do you love about teaching?

It’s sharing things that are very important. I feel badly that some of my colleagues aren’t doing that, not passing along the knowledge. If we had not been taught, we would have been poorer for it. I strongly feel that we need to introduce young musicians to that which is important. You don’t just play, but you experience the music. The moral is the love for the music.

I love being in Indianapolis. It’s still a wonderful experience. I have outstanding students. Indiana University Press just published a work by one of my students [Estelle R. Jorgensen] , The Art of Teaching Music. She spoke to 100 of my students about what they learned from me. It gives me an insight into what I’ve done and said. It helps me to see myself analyzed.

If not the piano, what instrument would you have played?

I love the violin. I started out on the violin and my brother started out on the piano. But he was always tired when it was time for his lesson, so I took the lesson instead. Finally, I had to choose.

Can you imagine doing anything other than music?

Nothing else. I come home and still listen to music.

What fills your time besides music?

Many things. I love to read. I love basketball. I love good food and good wine.

Life can be very beautiful. I was born in Germany; I’m still alive. I’m grateful to have made it out when so many others didn’t. I appreciate my life and my friends, who have helped me go the extra mile. I don’t want to tempt God, but He has been good to me. I don’t even need glasses.