Review: At 94, seven decades after his L.A. debut, a pianist’s steely tone shows little tarnish

Ninety-four-year-old pianist Menahem Pressler is the soloist with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard at the Alex Theatre in Glendale Tuesday night.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Music Critic

It was a “humble reviewer’s opinion,” in an unsigned 1948 Los Angeles Times review of a 20-year-old pianist making his local debut in UCLA’s Royce Hall, that Menachem Pressler, then the recent winner of a piano competition in San Francisco, “is the outstanding pianist of the younger generation.

“His command of dynamics is uncanny and his steel-like fingers plow into the keys with certitude and accuracy. Watch him. He has a great future.”

In this reviewer’s opinion (being humble gets you nowhere in this profession anymore), Pressler is the outstanding pianist of his present generation. Of course, he has no competition. Having turned 94 in December, Pressler proudly bills himself the oldest performing pianist today.


He played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Tuesday night at the Alex Theatre in Glendale (where I heard him), and he has a Wednesday repeat at Royce (70 years after his debut there).

Sure enough, his command of dynamics remains uncanny for his age. The steel has but little tarnished; the certainty is not in question. As for accuracy, nonagenarian fingers not in need of a little time to limber up for rapid runs would be less uncanny than freakily artificial. A few flubbed passages at the beginning meant nothing: Watch him. He has a great future.

Pressler wasn’t the only news for LACO’s first concert of the new year. The orchestra is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year and is in the process of reinventing itself after Jeffrey Kahane’s 20-year tenure as music director, which ended last season. The search for a new music director is ongoing; this season’s guest conductors are presumably the main candidates.

Next season has just been announced, and it is one full of new ideas for bringing what has long been a highly regarded but conservative institution into the current age, including concerts of new music with “hang” sessions around town, the first being a downtown brewery. Clearly the next music director needs imagination.

Anyone who will be carried over from this season is presumably still in the running. But that probably doesn’t extend to Thomas Dausgaard, who was this week’s engaging guest. The Danish conductor was recently appointed to be music director of the Seattle Symphony beginning next year. Last season he became chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony. Busy though he would be with two orchestras, he is about to end his longtime gig as principal conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, so who knows? He may be up for another chamber orchestra.

If so, Dausgaard is a strong candidate. Seattle is crazy about him and for good reason. The orchestra just released a recording of arresting live performances of two Nielsen symphonies, the Third and Fourth. (In a curious coincidence, Dausgaard was appointed in Seattle last October by its then president and chief executive, Simon Woods, who last week began as CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic).


Dausgaard began Tuesday with a selection of his own arrangements of Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Waltzes” and “Hungarian Dances.” The waltzes were gracious; the dances, fun.

In the Mozart concerto, Dausgaard doted on Pressler. Although he may have started off as a hotshot soloist, Pressler has been most noted as a chamber musician. He was a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio and the one player who remained with the piano trio throughout its 51-year history. When it disbanded a decade ago, Pressler returned to the solo limelight as a living legend.

Pressler’s Mozartean certainty was phrase by phrase, each a small I’m-still-there victory. The pianist, it is worth noting, is 64 years older than Mozart was when he wrote the concerto, and he has surely known this concerto for most of his life. Still, little was wistful about his approach. He played with straightforward vigor, almost as though he were teaching to the concerto to us — this is how it goes.

That proved particularly touching in the slow movement where Pressler applied that dynamic sensibility to giving essential notes great depth and letting them sink in. He is the kind of pianist, from another era, who shows listeners what’s in the music without telling us how we’re supposed to feel. That’s our responsibility.

Similarly, two Chopin encores (Reverie and a nocturne) were neither reverential nor nocturnal. Rather it was their calm incandescence that Pressler made seem the secret to his longevity.

Dausgaard’s main contribution, other than his loving and steadying concerto accompaniment, was a buoyant and stylishly balanced performance of Mozart’s last symphony, No. 42 (“Jupiter”). His gestures on the podium often have the manner of scooping up the music, as though it were a creamy ice cream. He also favors a glassy string sound and a finely calibrated balance of winds, brass and timpani. He made the players sound, and look, happy.



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