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Beaux Arts Trio to say goodbye to Tanglewood

The Beaux Arts Trio in 2008.Columbia Artists Management

This article was originally published Aug. 15, 2008.

What will the music world be like without the Beaux Arts Trio?

Not every ensemble merits this question when its demise is in sight, but this one undoubtedly does. The trio played its first concert at Tanglewood in 1955, and it will play its final American concerts there next week. In the intervening 53 years, it has taken its place as one of the 20th century’s foremost chamber-music groups, and has set a standard for trio playing that will persist well after the group’s end.

The Beaux Arts Trio was formed by violinist Daniel Guilet, cellist Bernard Greenhouse, and pianist Menahem Pressler. The only remaining member from that lineup is Pressler, who has played with five different violinists and three cellists over the years. Yet the trio still plays with the searching intensity, fierce commitment to the score, and sheer brio that characterized its artistry from the start.

That is largely due to the 84-year-old Pressler’s commanding yet joyous presence. Once the trio’s youngest member, he is now the bearer of its institutional memory and the fount of its artistic wisdom.


Speaking by phone from Toronto, where he’s just played at a chamber music festival, Pressler explains why he felt it was time to wind up the trio’s long run. Daniel Hope, the current violinist, told Pressler and cellist Antonio Meneses that his burgeoning solo career was endangering his commitment to the trio’s busy schedule of 75-to-80 concerts a year, and that he would have to leave the group. “For me, to bring up another violinist - I felt, no.”

“If it has to end, I want it to end on a high note,” he continues, stressing his deep satisfaction with the performances of this iteration of the trio. “I want that which started by accident and which grew into something which was quite meaningful to many people - I wanted it to finish in that way.”


Far from being melancholy about the trio’s imminent cessation, Pressler happily revisits his trove of memories from the ensemble’s early days. Unable to land a record deal with a major label, the group made its first recording - trios by Mendelssohn and Dvorak - for the tiny Geneva-based Concert Hall Society label. “The man told us, `You’ll have three hours, and I’ll give you a nice dinner. No money,”‘ Pressler laughs. “Three hours - you have barely enough time to play it through once!”

Eight months later, he got a telegram informing him that the recording had won the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque. Shortly after that, the trio signed with Philips and began making the recordings - more than 60 CDs worth - on which much of its fame rests.

“But without that record we made in three hours, nothing would have happened,” he says.

There was also incessant touring. “The pay was so low that unless we could drive to these concerts, we couldn’t make ends meet,” he says. They even had to stipulate that the distance between gigs could be no more than 500 miles. “Imagine playing in one town, driving 500 miles, and playing the next night. We did it many times.

“The driving motive was, you looked for a way of expressing yourself,” he says, sliding from reminiscence into artistic philosophy. “You felt that there must be more to life than making a living. What you wanted was inspiration, and there’s no guarantee that you will get it. The only thing that you can guarantee is the caliber of the performance should be a level high enough that one could say `This is mine.”‘


It seems that those early years made him into a true road warrior, for Pressler maintains a schedule that would break a musician half his age. Two nights before our conversation, he had performed in Maine with the St. Lawrence Quartet. The following morning, he took a car at 5 a.m. to Logan Airport and flew to Toronto in time for a three-hour master class. After a quick dinner he led a four-hour rehearsal for the following night’s performance. (“They had to throw us out at midnight!”) And during one particularly frenetic five-day stretch in June, he racked up some 3,500 miles of travel while shuttling between concerts and rehearsals in Tanglewood, Bloomington, Ind., and Huntsville, Ala.

Asked how he can keep up such a demanding pace, he replies, “I can only answer with one word that I know: It is love. I was always hungry for music, hungry for music-making. And it has never left me. So even now, it is what drives me and what actually makes me feel alive.”

So worry not that Pressler will be idle after the trio bows out for good in September; he and his irrepressible brand of music making are likely to be around a while. “I can’t see myself retired and sitting down in front of a television set, or trying to get a little ball into a hole,” he says with much laughter. “I just can’t see doing that.”


Wednesday and Thursday at Tanglewood; 888-266-1200, www.tanglewood.org

Maverick to Dallas

Over the past 10 years, George Steel has made Columbia University’s Miller Theatre into a cauldron of audacious programming and a prize venue for new music. Boston audiences are familiar with Steel’s work through the Miller’s series of Composer Portraits, a few of which have been imported to the Gardner Museum during each of the last several seasons.

So there will likely be widespread disappointment at the news that Steel is leaving the Miller to become general director of the Dallas Opera, beginning Oct. 1. If he can do for Dallas what he’s done for New York, America will have another highly skilled, adventurous opera company on its hands. But there’s no question that he’ll be sorely missed in the Northeast.