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Pressler Bids Adieu To Beaux Arts Trio

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MusicMorning Edition
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.