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At 90, pianist Menahem Pressler as busy as ever with concerts, recording, teaching

Menahem Pressler couldn't be much busier these days.

After the German-born pianist gives a recital this weekend for the Candlelight Concert Society, he'll head off for engagements in Europe. He'll be back there in November, then again in December, when he’ll play with the famed Berlin Philharmonic just a couple of weeks after his 91st birthday.

In between concert trips, Pressler will be home in Indiana, where he has been on the faculty of Indiana University Jacobs School of Music since 1955. That was the year he helped to launch the Beaux Arts Trio; he was the sole founding member to remain in the highly regarded chamber ensemble for all of its 53 years.

Pressler takes his longevity in stride.

"I'm a lucky man," he says. "You know, it's just the lottery of the genes, something we have no control of. My doctor told me, 'They have forgotten you upstairs.' I hope I don't remind them."

Since winning the Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco in 1946, Pressler has never really left the spotlight. After the disbanding of the Beaux Art Trio, he has enjoyed a steady stream of fresh experiences as a soloist.

His Berlin Philharmonic debut, for example, only came about in January — 75 years after the pianist fled Germany with his parents and siblings in 1939 to settle in what would become Israel (other relatives did not escape the Holocaust).

Pressler almost didn't make it to that Berlin gig. The trip "was something you can usually only find in a storybook," he says.

There was a wild car ride on icy roads in 14-below-zero weather from Bloomington to Chicago, where his flight was delayed because it took extra time to warm up the de-icer. When he finally arrived in Berlin, all went well.

"I played a Mozart concerto with the conductor Semyon Bychkov, and when I came offstage, Simon Rattle, the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, was standing in the wings. He told me, 'I envy my friend Bychkov.' I told him, 'You can have me, too,'" Pressler says with a laugh.

Rattle took the pianist up on the offer, engaging him to play another Mozart concerto with the orchestra during the last few days of 2014, including New Year’s Eve.

"I was bursting with pride and pleasure at the offer," Pressler says. "It is a miracle of miracles to be playing with the Berlin Philharmonic."

The affable, witty pianist has also been adding to his discography.

"I just got back from Paris, where I recorded Mozart sonatas," Pressler says. "That was a pleasure. I truly surprised myself."

Mozart will figure on his Columbia recital, too — the Rondo in A minor, a work of bittersweet, multilayered beauty.

"I loved the Rondo when I was a student [in Germany], but my teacher said I was too young to play it," Pressler says. "When I was between 25 and 30, I studied with Eduard Steuermann [in New York], and he said, 'Menahem, you are too young for the Rondo.' So I put it aside. When I became 80, I decided no one can tell me I am too young for this."

Mazurkas by Chopin and pieces by Debussy will also be on the recital, along with a work written for Pressler by eminent Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag.

The biggest item on the pianist's program will be Schubert's Sonata in B-flat major, one of that composer's last and most profound creations, which provides "strong consolation for the soul," Pressler says.

Such a recital would challenge a pianist half his age.

"I am happy to make music," Pressler says. "And I'm one of those crazy specimens who even loves to practice. I tell my students that my religion is music; the concert hall is my temple. And when I am in good form, the happiest listener is me."

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