85-year-old piano legend Menaham Pressler will preside over a master class on Saturday morning, October 10, and play a Mozart Concerto with the Canton Symphony under Gerhardt Zimmerman that night at 8, all thanks to Canton’s executive director Steve Wogaman, who was a doctoral student of Pressler’s at Indiana University.
Wogaman noted that “Pressler has a command of the physiology of piano playing without equal. The really amazing thing is that he teaches a sensibility for the deep understanding behind every single note. He misses nothing! We were lucky to snap him up the moment the Beaux Arts Trio disbanded and before he signed with Columbia Artists Management. I suggested that he play a certain Mozart concerto. He said ‘that sounds great, but if you have a really fine oboist, we can do No. 17’. Canton does in Terry Orcutt, and so we will!”
Steve Wogaman kindly arranged a phone conversation with Menahem Pressler in his studio at Indiana University. We reached him during his lunch break.
Daniel Hathaway: Mr. Pressler, we were delighted to hear that you would be playing with the Canton Symphony in October. How did that come about?
Menahem Pressler: Steve Wogaman was my student, he made his doctorate with me, so I have a natural ‘in’.
DH: You’ll be playing a Mozart concerto on Saturday?
MP: K. 453, no. 17 in G. A wonderful piece. It is a particular favorite, a very beautiful, very wonderful concerto. It’s like the sun coming up when the oboe begins the slow movement.
DH: You’ll also be teaching a master class on Saturday morning. What do you try to accomplish in such a session?
MP: I try to accomplish an eye opening for the player. You know, everybody has problems. At first I didn’t believe that master classes could be helpful — I thought that only lessons could do that. And then many, many years ago I attended a master class that opened for me an ‘in’ into that particular work which I didn’t have before. And so I have been giving master classes all over the world for the last thirty years, in chamber music as well as in piano. And I find that people have gotten something from them because I am not someone who gives aspirin pills and says, “everything is beautiful and everything is good — continue this way”. I can’t do that because it’s not true. You know, when you go to a doctor who touches the arm that really hurts then you know what’s wrong with it — most people give you the arm that doesn’t hurt. But what is in a master class so very important and interesting is that you don’t just teach the one who sits at the piano, but you teach the audience. And it is very important for the one who plays to have an audience, because there is an interplay, something that happens when there’s an audience listening. So when a good master class is given, the audience feels enriched as well as the one who plays.
DH: Yes. We covered the whole Cleveland International Competition this summer, but for me, the most interesting session was the master class Peter Frankl and Dina Yoffe gave for some of the pianists who didn’t advance to the final rounds.
MP: I just came back from the Leeds Competition, and then I was in Hamburg — I was actually chair of the chamber music competition in Hamburg.
DH: Did you make some good decisions?
MP: Yes, but did you hear many good people?
DH & MP (in unison): Yes and no.
MP: What is ‘no’ is that in Leeds there were many fine pianists playing and some of them were quite artistic, but very few are creative. Many of today’s pianists are superior players, but they are not a replacement for a Schnabel, a Brendel or a Radu Lupu. The ones who reveal the magic of the great master works — and they are filled with magic — give an audience the experience that a concert should be. They should walk out of a concert feeling enriched, and feel that something in them is touched, something that they didn’t even know they had in their souls. There is something that you remember when you hear a great phrase of Mozart — and in the concerto that I will play, there are moments that are absolutely divine. And if those moments stay with the listener, the listener will come out enriched and say, I’m glad I went to the concert.
DH: A life-changing experience.
MP: Truly a life-changing experience. With other artists, what you get is very often the sport of music — of course it’s interesting — like a tennis match, yes? Very often the audience will applaud this virtuosity madly — especially if it’s loud. They’ll say, this was fabulous, this was fantastic. But when you hear a great musician play a great phrase… I listened to a video of Milstein playing the Paganiniana, Oistrakh playing the cadenza of the Shostakovich concerto, and then a short phrase from the slow movement of Mozart’s G Major concerto that Menuhin plays with Furtwangler conducting. You know, I had to start to cry. I who was a hardened musician who listens to everything! And all of a sudden, I felt, my Gott, how beautiful music can be and what it can mean to us!
DH: How wonderful is that. You are certainly not slowing down any.
MP: I played last night with the Emerson Quartet in Toronto, new auditorium, fabulous acoustics, 1100 seats, glorious piano. We played well. The audience went wild. (Laughing) when I came on stage, I was greeted like a lost son, and I hadn’t even played a note yet! And after the concert they had for sale the record that I made with some Schumann and Dvorak, about fifty or sixty records — they sold out immediately! They were surprised. I was surprised! And very happy, I must say. Then I came back to Bloomington to teach today [Thursday]. I’m playing on Sunday with the American Quartet in Long island. On Monday I play in Dallas with the American — different program, I also play solo, 12 Preludes of Chopin, two songs without words and the Brahms Quintet. Then I fly home to Bloomington, my student picks me up we come to Canton, and on Sunday afternoon I play with the Pacifica in South Mountain near Tanglewood, my 52nd performance there. And from there I fly to Houston, play with the American in Houston, and from Houston we fly to Santiago, Chile, to Lima, Peru, to Bogota, Colombia, to Medellín, then come home. And that is unbelievable, because in the meantime, I also teach like mad!
DH: How many students do you have at the moment?
MP: At the moment, I have fifteen.
DH: Fifteen is a lot.
MP: It is a lot. My friends here have six, and the Emerson (laughing) have also six, and they teach in groups! These boys [the Emerson Quartet] are just the best. They know so much. They play with such expertise. I’m just thrilled. I coached them for many many years and I was very, very critical so it became something very wonderful because they listened. They even listen today! (Laughing) Phil Setzer says “Menahem, you are always the teacher”. And it’s true in a way, because I do it to myself, I do it to my trio… I just played in Leipzig on the 23rd of August, once more with the Beaux Arts at the Mendelssohn Fest. We played the two Mendelssohn Trios, also a trio by Kurtág that I love. We were there for four days and we rehearsed five hours a day. Now these are works that I have played five, six hundred times, I cannot tell you how many. But the rehearsals were done with such utmost concentration, strictness, observation, searching to find new beauties. It was not just a runthrough, once over lightly, or an attempt to fix something that doesn’t need fixing. No. I need new inspiration. I need to go into a work and feel that that work is something that enlightens me and therefore in turn I am able to enlighten the listener.
DH: I notice on the Columbia Artists website that they’re offering you in concerts with Menahem Pressler and Friends. Who are the friends?
MP: That’s beautiful. I do concerts in January with Alex Goehr the violinist, who used to be first in Cincinnati for a short time, but then became concertmaster of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Now he’s professor here at Indiana. And then the wonderful woman violist Kashkashian and the cellist is Antonio from the Trio. This summer I played four concerts with Alex Goehr, the violist was Larry Dutton from the Emerson, and the cellist was absolutely incredible — Paul Watkins (he is a member of the Nash Ensemble in England, and he has just been appointed conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra). Completely new experiences. And I just played with the Orchestra National in Montpelier with their new director. I did Mozart K. 488, the famous A Major concerto which has the heavenly f-sharp minor slow movement. So I’m doing so many things, and you know, I find it quite ridiculous that a man of 85 still is so hungry! But I am hungry to make music. For me, it is a reason to be alive. I can’t see myself sitting in front of a television set waiting for the next doctor appointment. I still feel the thrill that comes when you play — of course only if you play well. But I still feel I have it, I can do it — and I’m doing it! So there you are.
DH: Is there something you always wished you’d done in your life but never got around to yet?
I can’t think of anything! My wife calls me in German ‘Ein Gluckspilz’ — someone who’s always lucky, things go his way, and when his bread falls down, it will not fall with the butter side on the carpet. Maybe I was stupid sometimes. My Trio was invited to play the Martinu Trio with Karajan. I wanted to play the Beethoven Triple, but he wouldn’t do that, so we played with Levine. So I’m sorry I didn’t have that experience with Karajan. I think I have recorded 60 CD’s with Beaux Arts. And I have been very lucky as a teacher to have had somebody like Steve Wogaman — I don’t know if you know that he’s a formidable pianist. And then at Oberlin, I have Angela Chang and her husband Alvin Chow, I have at Baldwin-Wallace Robert Mayerovitch and I have in Cleveland Angelin Chang, who got the Grammy last year. And so I have students all over the place. I have a lot to be grateful for and I’m deeply grateful to these friends and students. Another student of mine just wrote a book [William Brown’s Menahem Pressler: Artistry in Piano Teaching] and it has been selling so very wonderfully well. I’m thrilled for him. You see, I’ve always been a strict teacher. They knew that they would learn and that I would want the very best that they can give — and then, like Schumann, always a little more.
Read a concert report about the Canton Symphony concert on October 10 on ClevelandClassical.com.