While We Still Have The Chance
I blew it! And I’m reminded of it from time to time.
In 1992, I heard that the Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva was going to perform in Chicago. I had come to know of her from the 24 Preludes and Fugues by Dmitri Shostakovich, which he composed around the time of the 200th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1950. He’d been one of the jurors at the first International Bach Competition of Leipzig that year, Nikolayeva won the top prize in the piano division. And Shostakovich decided that she was the pianist for whom he was going to write the pieces.
At the time, I’d been listening to selections from two of the recordings which Nikolayeva made of the works. I was excited by the prospect of hearing her perform them live.
Nevertheless, I didn’t make the trip. I’ve forgotten why I decided not to go, but I remember thinking: “These are her pieces. And because she’s touring with them, there’s a good chance that she’ll be somewhere in the area playing them again in the near future.”
Just over a year later, on November 22, 1993, Tatiana Nikolayeva passed away, nine days after she suffered a brain aneurysm while performing Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues in San Francisco. I was shocked when I heard about it. And I regretted that I hadn’t gone to hear her when I had the chance.
It taught me a lesson. No, I haven’t dropped everything to attend concerts all over the Midwest since then. But I make sure to consider “the present moment” as well as “some other time.”
This past December 15, the eve of Beethoven’s birthday, I was reminded that pianist Menahem Pressler would be celebrating his 99th on the same day as Beethoven’s 252nd. I’d had the chance to interview him a number of times and to hear him in concerts with and without the Beaux Arts Trio. He was the Trio’s only pianist during its 53 years of performing.
A voice in the back of my head suggested that the following December, his 100th birthday, would be the perfect time to send birthday greetings. But I was reminded of the lesson I learned 30 years before. And I knew that I wanted to wish him a happy birthday.
I actually had attempted it the year before. But my message came back to me. I was disappointed. Not the most resourceful person when it comes to computer correspondence, I gave myself credit for at least having tried.
I tried again this past December, hoping it might reach him. In the message, I thanked him for all the years he shared his musical gifts – and his words. I assured him that we continue to enjoy his recordings as well. I sent it off. And it didn’t come back to me. That was a good sign, I guessed.
I received a reply – on his birthday! He thanked me. In fact, here are his words: “I am so touched to hear from you and to know that you remembered me on your program. Thank you so much for your greetings.” He also sent me pictures of his 99th birthday celebration, which had taken place days earlier in London.
I didn’t share that story with listeners back in December. I did share it a couple of weeks ago, the day after I learned that Menahem Pressler passed away on May 6. I was a little late in finding out. But I’m glad I persisted in wishing him well at 99 and thanking him for all that he gave us.
There are more stories about him in the online tributes, many of which he told in interviews over the years. Those include his escape from Nazi Germany with his immediate family, as well as the loss of other family members in the Holocaust.
He was so passionate about music. That came through in the way he talked about the pieces he was performing and in his playing. From all that I’ve read about him in articles published during the past two weeks, he inspired generations of audiences, musical colleagues, and students.
Menahem Pressler’s passing came two days after Tatiana Nikolayeva’s 99th birthday anniversary. Just over two weeks later, we remembered the Polish-born American pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who died 30 years ago: on May 22, 1993. He was a month shy of his 101st at the time. And this past Tuesday marked the centennial of the birth of Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, who died in 2009.
In the midst of these centennial and near-centennial commemorations, I’m in awe. I feel close to all of those performers just from introducing them to listeners for decades. And I’m glad I had the chance to thank one of them, while he still was with us.