‘To be a mensch’

An interview with pianist Menahem Pressler

By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Pianist Menahem Pressler

My first attempt to interview Menahem Pressler was a 9 p.m. call to him at the Adamant Music School in Vermont after his day leading master classes and lessons. “Can you call back in an hour?” the 87-year-old Pressler asked. “I’m in the middle of a lesson.” The next morning, he would travel to perform at Taiwan’s centennial celebration.

The founder of the Beaux Arts Trio and distinguished professor and chair of music at Indiana University, Pressler will present two programs at the University of Dayton, Sept. 20 and 21. Born in Magdeburg, Germany, he won first prize at the 1946 Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco and made his historic debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1948.

In addition to a concert at UD, you’ll offer a talk with musical interludes. How did this come about?
I have done it a few times, not that long. I did one in Paris that was translated, I will have one at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. on my birthday and Beethoven’s birthday. I’m doing it because, first of all, talking comes easy to me. And I have a lot of things to talk about. I have a life that is absolutely as rich and as interesting and as lucky and as dramatic as one could want to have. I mean, no story would be as dramatic as when I escaped from the Nazis by the skin of our teeth.

How did you get out?
It was Kristallnacht. The Nazis went into the synagogues and into the stores and took Jews from the street and took them to a camp or whatever. And I was there this night and you heard the noise and you heard the yelling and shouting and actually they did invade our store. But actually not much happened (to us). We were in our apartment. No one came. And later my brother was telling me…we had a friend who was the son of a pharmacist, he was on the street corner where we lived. And this boy, he was a little bit older than we were, and he had joined the SR, the Nazi group. And he stood in front of our house and protected us. We actually escaped because that boy was very kind. He stood there to protect us. Now that is a very nice story, huh?

We left Germany before Germany went into the war. And we went ostensibly on vacation to Italy. And the German border guards let us through. They didn’t have to. And to make the story even more exciting, because it was so difficult to go to Israel, a week before Italy entered the war, we left on a boat to go to Haifa and the boat never returned because Italy went into the war. So look by what minutes we escaped.

What was it like to debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy?
A dream. (Ormandy was) The most fantastic accompanist that you could ever ask for. That was his great quality. He could follow or he could lead. And I was the second one in the history of The Philadelphia Orchestra that received a four-year contract. I remember even the review. This was ridiculous, but it said it was like the debut of Heifetz. It was most fantastic.

It was fabulous when I came back from Philadelphia before playing in New York and my manager saw me. Mr. Judson was one of the big managers. Arthur Judson said to me, ‘How was the concert?’ And I said, ‘Mr. Judson, I have the review in my pocket.’ And he says, ‘That is not important. What is important,’ he said, ‘did they reengage you?’ At that time I was much too innocent to know anything. So I was thinking if you get a review like that, of course you’ll be invited back. I have learned differently.

Let me tell you an amusing story. The best orchestra I had played with was the Israel Philharmonic and the radio orchestra. And here I come on stage playing with The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music, the Schumann Concerto. And in the slow movement, the journey starts. And I sat there. I thought, it’s not real. This is the kind of sound you hear in Paradise, after you have been allowed in Paradise. And I opened my mouth. And I didn’t come in. I was so stunned. Until Ormandy looked down and I immediately played my entrance. And I’ve never forgotten this moment of ecstasy that I had when I heard The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Do you miss The Beaux Arts Trio?
Yes. I miss it very much. Especially this last configuration. It was so excellent. And not just excellent, but they listened to me.

Where is home for you?  
My home is Bloomington, Ind. And in my heart, it is in Israel. I will never repay my debt to my country. My gratitude to Israel is very, very strong. I and my wife…we’re married 64 years. And I am grateful to America, I am grateful to Indiana. Many, many beautiful things have happened to me. One wonderful thing that will happen in October, after I see you, Wigmore Hall — that wonderful hall in London — is awarding me a medal. I have gotten this year in April the International Classical Music Lifetime Achievement Award. And in March, I am being awarded by the Music Teachers Association of America their highest recognition.

The accolades are the wonderful reaffirmation that your life is well spent. Look, you are in Dayton, Ohio. I have two students there on the faculty. One is chair of the piano department, and the second one is starting her job now. I’m the oldest full-time member of the university (Indiana). Crazy. But I love every second of it. I’m not slowing down.

What accomplishment so far is the most satisfying to you ?
To be a man. To be a mensch. To be a father. To be a musician. To be a teacher. And to be alive.


UD Arts Series Presents Pianist Menahem Pressler: Tues., Sept. 20, 8 p.m., Reflections on a Career in Music – Pressler in Conversation, with Musical Selections. Kennedy Union Boll Theatre. Free but tickets are required. Wed., Sept. 21, 8 p.m., Pressler in Concert. Philips Humanities Center, Sears Recital Hall. $15. For tickets to both events, call 229-2545.

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