Saturday, April 21, 2012

Masterful Menahem Pressler at the SF Conservatory of Music

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music hosts a series called "Chamber Music Masters," where a famous musician is invited for master classes at the school, and then joins faculty members and a few special students for a concert. On Thursday, it was the turn of 89-year-old pianist Menahem Pressler above right, who accompanied professor Axel Strauss in Brahm's first Violin Sonata.

Afterwards, Pressler played Debussy's Estampes for solo piano. They are three short pieces of exotic tone painting that Pressler played with an exquisite grace, reminding everyone in the fairly full house why he is so special. There are certain musicians, such as the late violinist Josef Suk or cellist Pablo Casals or pianist Rudolf Serkin, who played the chamber music repertory with an unusual delicacy and sense of poetry, and we're fortunate they were around during a period when recording devices and home playback flourished.

With the Beaux Arts Trio for 50 years, Menahem Pressler recorded virtually every piano trio in the repertory, and the recordings will probably always be "the gold standard," as the Washington Post put it. The trio finally disbanded four years ago, but Pressler chugs on, giving off energy like a magical munchkin.

There was a program change announced from the stage, where the second half Faure Piano Quartet #1 would be replaced by the Dvorak Piano Quintet #2 with a different roster of players. However, after the solo Debussy, we were asked to stay in our seats for an amuse bouche, which turned out to be the third movement of the Brahms Piano Quartet in C Minor with students Noemy Gagnon-Lafrenais on violin (above left to right), Pressler on piano, Jean-Michel Fonteneau on cello, and Hannah Nicholas on viola.

The Dvorak quintet performance is something of an overplayed warhorse, but this enchanting performance made it sound as if the piece were being played for the first time, which happens so rarely it felt a bit miraculous. There were a few missed and wrong notes but they didn't matter in the hands of these musicians, and listening to Pressler help guide his fellow performers through softer and gentler playing was a wonder. From left to right above, the artists were Jean-Michel Fonteneau on cello, Paul Hersh on viola, Axel Strauss and Ian Swenson on violin, and Pressler at the piano.

The standing ovation even brought a sweet Chopin encore from Pressler, and the audience walked out happy and a little stunned by how great the evening had been.

As the Conservatory school year winds down to an end, the place is hopping, with the three concert halls packed all day long with graduate recitals this weekend and next, and the public is invited to attend them for free. Click here for the Conservatory schedule.

I can particularly recommend two recitals, having heard both performers before. First up is soprano Maya Kherani this Sunday the 22nd at 5PM in the Recital Hall. The following Sunday has Sydne Sullivan on oboe playing Ibert, a Poulenc Trio for piano, oboe & bassoon, and a Strauss concerto for oboe and small orchestra. Both of these young performers are seriously good.

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