Few would quibble with legendary pianist Menahem Pressler, who likes to refer to Dr. Virendra Patel as “Dr. Miracle.” But by all measures, Pressler, the soon-to-be 93-year-old, is a miracle in his own right.
For more than six decades, the German-born Israeli-American was the constant presence behind the Beaux Arts Trio that set the gold standard in chamber music until it disbanded in 2008. To the delight of his fans, Pressler, then 85, embarked on an age-defying, globe-trotting career as a soloist. A beloved and influential teacher, Pressler has been on the faculty at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington since 1955.
But nearly two years ago, in January 2015, Pressler underwent unexpected surgery to repair a life-threatening aneurism in his thoracic aorta. The highly specialized operation was done at Massachusetts General Hospital by Patel, a vascular and endovascular surgeon and one of the few who performs the relatively rare procedure.
Pressler did not miss a beat. Six months after surgery and disciplined rehabilitation, the nonagenarian was back on the world stage, from London’s Wigmore Hall to the Rockport Chamber Music Festival and, notably, last August at Tanglewood, where he made his debut as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Dutoit. A few weeks later, he returned to Israel where he performed at the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival.
Later this month Boston audiences have the chance to hear Pressler in three BSO concerts at Symphony Hall (Nov. 22, Nov. 25 and Nov. 26), where he’ll perform Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 27 in B Flat,” conducted by Moritz Gnaan, the BSO’s assistant conductor, who is making his subscription series and Symphony Hall debuts.
“It’s pretty rare for a 91-year-old to go through what he’s been through and get back to traveling the world,” Patel said in a recent phone conversation. “He is a person on the rare spectrum of recovery. He is so driven.”
Pressler and Patel shared the remarkable story of his surgery in a touching conversation recorded on video for Mass General Hospital to support Patel’s trailblazing work.
In July, the 45-year-old Patel and his family traveled to London as Pressler’s guests to hear him perform with baritone Matthias Goerne in a concert of Robert Schumann Lieder, Pressler’s first concert following his recovery.
“To see him on stage and the joy he gave to the crowd, what he exudes all the time, it was inspiring,” Patel said.
Patel also attended Pressler’s concert with the Parker Quartet at last summer’s opening of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival at the Shalin Liu Performance Center.
He is impressed with how Pressler pushes the envelope and learns new repertoire, even at his advanced age. It’s a lesson he is grateful to share with his three children. “Even people at that level are driven to better themselves,” he said.
The admiration runs in both directions.
“For me, to be able to continue the way of life I love—to be an artist and perform—is such a gift,” Pressler said in the article accompanying the Mass General video. “God gave me the gift of music, and he gave Dr. Patel the gift of healing. The world is a better place for having a man like him in it.”
Pressler first began performing at Tanglewood in the 1950s, but always with chamber groups. For his debut as a soloist, Pressler could hardly contain his enthusiasm.
“Am I excited? And how!” Pressler said in a phone conversation last August, a few days before his milestone appearance at Tanglewood, where he performed Mozart’s “Piano Concerto in A Major.”
It was the stuff of dreams—“a gorgeous concerto, the world-famous conductor Charles Dutoit and the BSO, one of the great orchestras of the world,” he enthused.
The Mozart concerto is one of his most beloved pieces of music.
“The adagio is unique in its beauty and unique…in its ability to move people to tears. It goes right to the heart,” he said.
He admitted that it has that effect on him as well. “Indeed, it does” move him to tears. “It always did,” he added, recalling that he learned the movement as a child. In conversation, Pressler’s European-accented voice sparkles with warmth.
At Tanglewood, Pressler received a standing ovation.
There was a palpable sense of warmth and affection that resonated through Koussevitzky Music Shed, according to Brian McCreath, who hosted the live radio broadcast of the concert for WCRB, Boston’s classical music radio station that is part of WGBH.
“What was truly astonishing was the encore” as Pressler made his way back on stage to constant applause to perform a Chopin nocturne. “It was a remarkable performance, as assured as any pianist, and frankly incredible for one who’s 92 years old,” McCreath wrote in an email.
When the energetic Pressler took the stage in Jerusalem in September, he returned to a place where he feels deeply rooted.
“In my heart, I still live there,” he said. Pressler’s family settled in Palestine after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 when Pressler was a teen. “In a way, I was reborn,” he recalled.
He and his Israeli wife, Sara, maintain strong connections with Israel, including supporting many philanthropic programs.
In a lifetime of performing, Pressler revealed he is always searching for that elusive something, “that which we call inspiration,” he said. “It’s a privilege, a pleasure and in a sense, a duty. It is my life.”
For more information and tickets, visit bso.org.