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Successful Aging: A lesson in aging, set to music

Dear readers.

This week’s column is a little different from the Q & A format. While recently in Philadelphia I had the pleasure of attending a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The guest soloist was the pianist Menahem Pressler (who was recently featured in this paper), and the photograph in the program of him appeared to be of a middle-aged man.

Menahem Pressler makes his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra solo debut performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major. (Photo by Alain Barker)

The concert was memorable. As the lights went down, all were silent as we anxiously awaited the conductor and the guest soloist. After a minute or two, a man appeared on stage escorted by a tall blonde female assistant. The man could barely walk. He was bent over, leaned on his cane and relied heavily on his assistant for each step. I couldn’t figure out – who was the person on stage and why was he there?

As he took each painfully slow step, he made his way to the piano and sat down. Indeed, this man was our guest soloist.

Then a 31-year old woman came onstage wearing an orange satin tunic over black trousers. With flowing hair and a brisk walk, it was our guest conductor, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who was making her Philadelphia Orchestra debut. Gražinytė-Tyla was named music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony in 2016 and was a Dudamel Fellow with our very own Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as the associate conductor for the 2016-2017 season.

Prior to Pressler’s playing a Mozart piano concerto, Gražinytė-Tyla conducted a brief interview with him, stooping a bit in order to speak with him at the level he was sitting. We learned Pressler is 94 years old and made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of the eminent Eugene Ormandy in 1947.

Although not a music critic, I thought Pressler’s playing was extraordinary. After a standing ovation with bravos and cheers from the audience, he slowly walked to the side of the stage, placed his hand over his heart and took a bow with humility and gratitude. And then he walked slowly with assistance back to the piano and played an encore. There was a repeat – standing ovation and cheers, movement to the side of the stage, hand over heart and a bow. And then he played another encore. The audience went wild.

The program noted that Pressler underwent lifesaving surgery and recuperation in 2015. His plans are ambitious. This season, he tours Asia, Europe, the U.S. and Israel giving recitals, playing chamber music and performing as soloists with orchestras.

So why am I telling this story? It’s because it’s a story of the human potential and resilience. A 94-year old man who hardly could walk performed a magnificent piano concerto with two encores to an adoring audience. Indeed, he had limitations, which did not hold him back. I have to admit when Pressler took the hand of the conductor and gently kissed it in appreciation, I had tears in my eyes. It was a quintessential picture of two enormously talented individuals from two different generations who respected one another, appreciated one another and made magnificent music together.

Pressler reminds us that age and physical limitations are real and often painful. Yet they do not necessarily limit how we express our passions whether it is music, art, mentoring or just giving of ourselves. Regardless of age, each of us has our own music to play.

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