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Legendary pianist Menahem Pressler opens series at CFA today

Menahem Pressler, a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, teaches two master classes and holds two performances at CFA this week. Photo courtesy of CFA

When pianist Menahem Pressler takes the stage at the CFA Concert Hall on Wednesday, February 7, it may be the hundredth time he has performed works by Beethoven and Dvořák. But, says one of his former students, Pressler has an astounding ability to make his playing seem new every time.

“He’s one of the last great, great pianists alive, and he still has the same incredible enthusiasm,” says Claude Hobson Campbell, a concert pianist and the wife of University Provost David Campbell. “The music is as fresh as ever, and he makes it very, very special.”

Throughout this week, the BU community will have the opportunity to experience Pressler both as a performer and as a teacher. The world-renowned pianist, a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, will teach two master classes at the College of Fine Arts and perform twice, at the CFA Concert Hall and at the Tsai Performance Center. The four-day series, The Art of the Piano, is designed to give students a complete view of a talented musician, says Andre de Quadros, the director of the school of music, and in Pressler they will find an artist whose knowledge and experience are “almost limitless.”

“Having performed all over the world, as soloist and chamber musician, in a very broad repertoire base for over 50 years gives him an unparalleled perspective on musical interpretation, context, and artistry,” de Quadros says. “Students will come face-to-face with musical greatness and, in so doing, will gain a unique perspective of the inner workings of the music and how better to communicate its message.”

Born in 1923 in Magdeburg, Germany, Pressler has performed with the orchestras of New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Dallas, San Francisco, London, Paris, Brussels, Oslo, and Helsinki, and his chamber music collaborations include performances with the Juilliard, Emerson, Guarneri, and Cleveland quartets. He is also a Distinguished Professor of Music at Indiana University, where he has taught since 1955.

Campbell studied with Pressler in the late 1970s while pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Illinois; she would drive more than three hours each way for her weekly lessons. “He’s had a profound impression on me,” she says. “It’s a combination of watching him play, of hearing his concerts, of having him try to explain how to get the most variety of musical expression and how to tell the music’s story. That’s the hardest thing of all.”

“Though his playing is magical, there is no hocus-pocus in his teaching,” adds Jonathan Bass, the chair of the piano department at the school of music. “He finds the inherent logic in a piece of music, in terms of relationships between phrases, larger sections, and movements. At the same time, he helps the student locate the emotional motivation behind the notes and to search for just the right sound to convey the composer’s intentions.”

This week’s program will display Pressler’s virtuosity in two master classes, one for piano and one for chamber music, and two performances. On Wednesday evening, he will play Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 4, with violinist Peter Zazofsky, a school of music associate professor and a member of BU’s Muir String Quartet, and Dvořák’s Piano Quintet, Op. 81, with the Muir String Quartet. Thursday’s program features Pressler with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra, playing works by composers including Ravel and Gershwin.

The opportunity to see Pressler on stage and in the classroom, Bass says, helps music students advance their training as performers and as future teachers, and more important, heightens their fundamental relationship with their instruments and their art form.

“Probably one of the main things they will take away from the experience is an attitude toward what they are doing,” he says. “It is unusual for such a prominent and renowned musician who has maintained an extraordinary performance schedule for decades to also devote so much of his time to teaching. The students will be inspired by the example of someone who balances a sense of responsibility to his art with a sense of delight.”  

Menahem Pressler’s Piano Master Class takes place on Monday, February 5, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. in the Marshall Room at the College of Fine Arts at 855 Commonwealth Ave. The Chamber Music Master Class is on Tuesday, February 6, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., in the CFA Concert Hall, also at 855 Commonwealth Ave.

Pressler’s performance with the Muir String Quartet is on Wednesday, February 7, at 5:30 p.m. in the CFA Concert Hall. His performance with the BU Symphony Orchestra takes place on Thursday, February 8, at 8 p.m. in the Tsai Performance Center at 685 Commonwealth Ave.

All classes and performances are free and open to the public.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.