Pressler Bids Adieu To Beaux Arts Trio

Pianist Menahem Pressler i

After 53 years, pianist Menahem Pressler will close the final chapter of his Beaux Arts Trio with a farewell concert at the Tanglewood Music Festival. Marco Borrgreve hide caption

itoggle caption Marco Borrgreve
Pianist Menahem Pressler

The Beaux Arts Trio in its prime: Violinist Isidore Cohen, pianist Menahem Pressler and cellist Bernard Greenhouse

Marco Borrgreve

If they had an Olympic medal for "Long-Distance Chamber Music," the gold would surely go to the Beaux Arts Trio. After a 53-year run, the ensemble — made up of one piano, one violin and one cello — takes the stage Thursday night at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, to give its final U.S. performance before calling it quits.

There is something Olympian about the Beaux Arts Trio. The group performed at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, just one of thousands of venues the ensemble has played during the last five decades.

Birth Of The Beaux Arts

It's fitting that the Beaux Arts Trio is returning to Tanglewood, because that's where it all began. The group gave its first public concert there on July 13, 1955. And for 53 years, one member of the Trio has remained constant: pianist Menahem Pressler. He's 84 now, but he still vividly recalls how that first concert launched a career for three separate musicians who quickly grew into a single musical unit.

"Immediately after the debut," Pressler says, "we got 70 concerts, mostly in small towns and high-school auditoriums, and so it really became a trip where we tried everything out and became a trio."

The Beaux Arts Trio was, at that time, Menahem Pressler, piano; Daniel Guillet, violin, and Bernard Greenhouse, cello. Barnstorming across America, making a case for chamber music wasn't easy. Rock 'n' roll had just exploded onto the music scene, and some people didn't even know what a piano trio was. In one concert hall, the trio found the piano tucked away inside the orchestra pit. A few muscular audience members hoisted the instrument to the stage, but they dropped it, snapping off the pedals. Rather than cancel, Pressler played the broken piano anyway.

Little by little, Pressler says, all the hard work paid off.

"The people in these little towns enjoyed it," he says. "They said, 'You know, chamber music isn't that bad,' and so somehow they started to like it."

And they continued to like what they heard, for decades — not only in little towns, but also in the world's big cities and on classical record labels. There were piano trios before Beaux Arts, says Joshua Kosman, music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. But none had the staying power, and none set the bar for the trio repertoire as high.

Pressler Pushes On

"It's largely a testament to one man, to Menahem Pressler," Kosman says, "and his ability to reinvent himself as an artist, and to reinvent the group around him as an artistic entity."

Pressler had to reimagine the group, Kosman says, because over the decades, five violinists and three cellists filtered through the Beaux Arts Trio. But with each new player, Pressler always made the sound glow like a smoothly polished pearl.

"It was almost like a piece of sand got introduced into the interior of an oyster," Kosman says. "So there was this sense of grittiness for a while, and a sense of provocation and urgency as the players got used to each other, and then the rough spots and the abrasions would wear away. So one way or another, they take the new elements in and work it around so that everything is smoothly integrated in the end."

Menahem Pressler's lust for life and music, and his jovial attitude, belie the troubles in his past. He grew up in Nazi Germany, and many of his relatives didn't survive the Holocaust. As a teenager, he didn't know all the facts as they unfolded. But he felt it.

"You felt a fear that you didn't really know what it was that was pressing on your chest," Pressler says. "It's no pleasure to think back to it."

But Pressler had some luck. He and his parents got out of Germany just in time. In 1939, they left for a supposed vacation, and somehow the German border guards let them cross into Italy. There, they caught one of the last boats from Trieste to what was then Palestine, before Italy joined the war as Germany's ally.

With millions of musical notes behind him, and the end of his beloved Beaux Arts Trio before him, Pressler is not ready to retire. Nor are his two trio-mates. The young violinist Daniel Hope's career is skyrocketing so quickly now that he doesn't have time for the trio, and veteran cellist Antonio Meneses is in demand around the world as a soloist.

But it is time to say goodbye. Speaking to his bandmates backstage in San Francisco as the final U.S. tour winds down, Pressler, always the patriarch, sends them off on a sentimental note.

"I wanted to say that I have loved you," he says, "and I understand now that you are going now for your careers where you have all my heart and all my wishes to both of you, that you do get the career, because you deserve it as musicians and as people."

Pressler, Hope and Meneses will keep on making music, just not as the Beaux Arts Trio. Fortunately, after Thursday night's final Tanglewood performance, we've got five decades' worth of recordings and memories.

Beaux Arts Trio Bids Farewell At Tanglewood

Partner content from American Public Media

The Beaux Arts Trio: Antonio Meneses, Menahem Pressler and Daniel Hope.

Pianist Menahem Pressler (center) founded the Beaux Arts Trio in 1955. With his current colleagues, cellist Antonio Meneses (right) and violinist Daniel Hope, he plays the final U.S. performances at Tanglewood, before disbanding the group. Hillary Scott hide caption

itoggle caption Hillary Scott

Live at the Library

Beginning with the Beethoven performance below, The Beaux Arts Trio gave more than 100 concerts at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., over the course of five decades. Enjoy this sampling of some of the group's memorable moments.

Menahem Pressler, piano; Daniel Guillet, violin; Bernard Greenhouse, cello
Menahem Pressler, piano; Isidore Cohen, violin; Bernard Greenhouse, cello
Menahem Pressler, piano; Daniel Hope, violin; Antonio Meneses, cello

courtesy of Library of Congress

tonight's concert


Schubert: Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat

Schubert: Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat

Beaux Arts Trio

Menahem Pressler, piano

Daniel Hope, violin

Antonio Meneses, cello

Live at Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood Music Festival

Life After Beaux Arts

Menahem Pressler, founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, talks with "Performance Today" host Fred Child.

Beaux Arts Audio Blog

This Spring, Beaux Arts violinist Daniel Hope recorded these audio diaries on the road, as the group bid farewell to some of its favorite U.S. cities.

After a dominating 53-year run, the Beaux Arts Trio has decided to break up. It will play its final U.S. concert at the Tanglewood Festival — the very location where the venerable ensemble gave its first public concert on July 13, 1955.

At 84, pianist Menahem Pressler, the soft-spoken but strong-willed founder of the group, says he has no intention of retiring.

"I had, and I still do have, an enormous hunger for music," he told Performance Today host Fred Child in a recent interview. Pressler has concerts and projects spread out over the next several years, and he maintains a full teaching schedule at the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington.

There's plenty to keep the other Beaux Arts Trio members busy, too. Young enough to be Pressler's grandson, 35-year-old violinist Daniel Hope has a booming career: With a hectic concert schedule, an impressive recording contract, a book out and a music festival to run, Hope and his success have been among the factors in the group's breakup. Cellist Antonio Meneses' solid career was launched in the 1980s, when he began winning awards and making records with legendary conductor Herbert Von Karajan.

A Strong Start

As in the start of many classical music careers, the Beaux Arts Trio first grabbed the spotlight by filling in at the last minute. The group was asked to play a series of concerts at what was then called the Berkshire Music Festival after another ensemble called in sick. The Berkshire performances were so successful that the new trio found itself with a date book filled with 70 concerts.

Like any jazz or rock band, the group hit the road, playing in small towns and high-school auditoriums. Some audiences barely knew what a piano trio was. The group had to quickly hone its sound.

"We had to go through this process of rubbing stones together until fire came out," Pressler says, "until it was smooth; until the stones fit."

The Beaux Arts Trio was, at that time, Menahem Pressler, piano; Daniel Guillet, violin; and Bernard Greenhouse, cello. The group's sound, even in those early years, was praised for its beauty of tone, sense of style and cohesiveness.

Musical Chairs

The first original member to leave the trio was Guillet. Older than the others, he was ready to retire in 1969, and was replaced by Isidore Cohen.

"Izzy was a very excellent musician," Pressler says. "Always prepared, with an intense love for chamber music, and with a beautiful, natural sound. With Izzy, the French sheen became a little more Russian in its sound. But the search for that elusive inspiration continued."

Pressler's curious musical mind — and that continuous search for inspiration — has kept the trio's sound vital, even as he welcomed each new member into the group.

With Guillet gone, Pressler guided the Beaux Arts Trio into its next era. With Cohen firmly in place, the group toured more, demonstrating its insatiable appetite for the entire piano-trio repertoire and beyond. Along the way, record-store bins bulged with the trio's recordings, and composers began writing pieces for the group.

Greenhouse, in 1987, was the next original member to leave; his replacement was cellist Peter Wiley. Cohen stepped aside in the early 1990s when Ida Kavafian joined. Wiley and Kavafian both quit the trio in 1998.

"Then there was a time in the trio which was more or less a holding pattern," Pressler says. "Then, to my exhilarated pleasure, I started the group again with Antonio Meneses — an absolutely great cellist — and Young Uck Kim, a great violinist."

The critics were thrilled, but just three years into his tenure, Kim bowed out with an injury in the middle of a tour. Enter British violinist Daniel Hope. Pressler had never heard of him, but the 29-year-old Yehudi Menuhin protégé was dispatched to Basel, where he rehearsed with Meneses; then it was off to Lisbon to meet Pressler.

"I found him wonderful, and a sponge,who took in everything about the trio," Pressler says, adding that there was something in Hope that reminded him of his younger self in those early years.

"By his way of behaving and playing, by his way of being what he is, he made me able to rehearse five, six hours a day," he says. "I had the energy, the desire, the love. And so I had these two guys, being successful soloists, wanting to play trio music like trio players. And so, all of a sudden, I had the Beaux Arts Trio back again."

Soon, critics were again overjoyed with the newest incarnation of the Beaux Arts Trio. The Washington Post's Tim Page wrote of Pressler: "The tone he summons from the piano is sumptuous, bejeweled and seemingly effortless ... Nor did Pressler's colleagues let him down. Hope plays with a welcome mixture of dignity and songful sweetness, while Meneses is an elegant and soulful cellist with a tone of slate-gray velvet."

Pressler's Past

Menahem Pressler grew up in Nazi Germany, in the northeastern town of Magdeburg.

"I found a very kind piano teacher," Pressler says, "who taught me even at a time when it was forbidden to have a Jewish boy coming for a lesson."

Most of Pressler's relatives did not survive the Holocaust. He and his parents were lucky enough to get out. In 1939, they left for a "vacation," and somehow the German border guards let them cross into Italy, where they eventually caught one of the last boats from Trieste to what was then called Palestine. As a teenager, Pressler says he saw people losing jobs and friendships; some disappeared altogether. He didn't understand what it all meant, but he had a terrible feeling.

"You felt a fear, that you didn't really know what it was that pressed on your chest," Pressler says. "It's no pleasure to think back on it. But it is a pleasure to think about what Israel did for me."

In Palestine, Pressler found teachers: a Russian who had studied with the influential Max Pauer and a German who was a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni.

After the war, in 1946, Pressler had his eye on the Debussy Piano Competition in San Francisco. He was told there were too many applicants, but he entered anyway — and ended up with the top prize. It opened many doors for the young pianist, leading to a recording contract and a multi-year stint performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

A few years later, while living in Manhattan, Pressler had the idea to record some Mozart piano trios, but he didn't know a suitable violinist and cellist. Through a fellow musician in his Upper West Side apartment building, Pressler was introduced to Daniel Guillet and Bernard Greenhouse, the first chair violinist and cellist, respectively, of Arturo Toscanini's NBC Orchestra. Guillet had extensive experience playing chamber music, and led the Trio's rehearsal sessions with a combination of insults and insight.

Pressler describes those early sessions as "blood, sweat and tears" — the kind of hard work necessary "to make three people think as one." The work paid off. It landed the Beaux Arts Trio that first gig, in Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, and a 53-year run as one of the world's most durable and delightful chamber groups.



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