The legendary Menahem Pressler, who performed the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in San Francisco the other evening at the age of 94, is the personification of the triumph of art and beauty over the forces of evil.
In 1939, the then teenage Pressler and his immediate family were able to catch one of the last trains out of Germany for Trieste, Italy, from where they eventually traveled on to Palestine. All the Pressler family members that remained in Germany were murdered by the Nazis in various concentration camps.
Yet in San Francisco almost 80 years later this superb musician who had to run for his life from the barbarians was enthralling his audience with the music of perhaps the most sublime composers of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose 262nd birthday the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) was celebrating at this concert.
Kudos, then, for the thoughtful individuals at NCCO who put this very special event together--and, especially, to Daniel Hope, the one time partner of Pressler in the widely celebrated Beaux Art Trio and now the new Artistic Partner of the NCCO.
The British violin virtuoso, who gave a excellent performance of the Mozart Violin Concert No. 3 in the first part of the evening’s program, is one of those rare artistic personalities that apparently can mold an orchestra that specializes in modern music (they don’t call themselves New Century for nothing) into one for whom playing Mozart seems second nature.
His leadership and communicative abilities as concertmaster-conductor made the opening performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 as robust, joyful, and exciting as one is one is likely to encounter.
Time and time again during the performance Hope lurched toward the willing players prodding them to give the music the precise emphasis, swing and lilt the Symphony demands. This was hands-on leadership and the New Century musicians responded with spirited playing.
But, of course, it was Menahem Pressler that the San Francisco public came to hear and he did not disappoint.
There were some doubts even until the last minutes whether the 94 year old would be able to appear. And the first moments were indeed scary—Pressler doesn’t walk well and needed assistance even to set himself right at the piano. He looked like the frail old man he is.
But then he started playing and the news was out—Pressler was still Pressler and we all could relax. The playing had the earmarks of a typical Pressler performance. The touch was light, the playing fluid, the legato perfect and the musicality superb. Here he was the greatest chamber music pianist of our times and still in top form at age 94. Amazing!
The audience responded with thunderous applause and the old man obliged with two encores. The first was a sublime performance of the Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, which for me was the highlight of the evening. I cried. That was followed by Debussy’s Reverie.
At the end, with Pressler beaming and waving to the admiring throng, there was a feeling of elation in the air as if old age and infirmity—even death—had been conquered at least for the moment.
Maybe, just maybe, the audience also was applauding the fact that in 2018 the old Jew was still going strong while the Nazi murderers are long gone.