When two players of different age, nationality and temperament join forces to make music together, achieving true intimacy can be a struggle. In the case of Daniel Hope, a 29-year-old English violinist, and Menahem Pressler, an 80-year-old American pianist of Israeli upbringing, the struggle is inspiring—or so it seemed the other night when the two men opened a program of chamber music at the MetropolitanMuseumwith Beethoven’s Sonata in A minor, Opus 23. The work is often scorned as Beethoven lite—a cat-and-mouse game between the two instruments that seldom rises above sweet geniality. But with a cat like Mr. Pressler at the keyboard and a mouse like Mr. Hope on the fiddle, the game was exhilarating.
Mr. Pressler, a round cherub of a man, has been the spark plug of the world’s most celebrated chamber threesome, the Beaux Arts Trio, for half a century. (The group, whose only surviving original member is Mr. Pressler, is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary with an international tour that includes two more concerts at the Met, on Dec. 10, 2004, and April 1, 2005.) His playing—muscular, direct, bursting with expression—harks back to that of the legendary virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni, who taught Mr. Pressler’s teachers. As he enters his ninth decade, he’s still a pianist of irrepressible élan whose life has been fiercely committed to keeping vibrant the trio music of the classical mainstream—Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and so on. He’s a pedagogue with international clout, the éminence grise of the piano department at the Indiana University’s Music School, jurist at countless piano competitions and a formidable soloist in his own right.
A lanky, freckled fellow with a lion’s mane of red hair, Mr. Hope is in the forefront of a new breed of young musicians who roam wirelessly in a world without borders. He’s equally at home with Schumann, Schnittke and Shankar. (The latter two are represented on the violinist’s new multinational album for Warner Classics, East Meets West, which finds rich common ground among the Russian and Indian composers—and also takes in Ravel, de Falla and Bartók.)
Mr. Hope loves good rock. He commissions unknown composers to write pieces for him. He maintains a Web site (danielhope.com) that’s a model of friendly self-promotion. He’s a global boy-next-door. Two years ago, he joined the Beaux Arts Trio as an emergency fill-in for an injured Young Uck Kim. When Kim didn’t return, he stayed on, supplementing a fast-rising solo and recording career with the trio’s 60 concerts a year. The Beaux Arts, with its unprecedented age spread between violinist and pianist (in the middle is the superb Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses), has never been better, as they showed later in the program with a sensationally spooky performance of Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio in D major.
What Mr. Hope and Mr. Pressler demonstrated during the violin and piano sonata wasn’t so much chemistry as curiosity—a delight in each other’s differences. Where the older man was bold to the point of aggression, the younger man was delicate almost to a fault. Both got their point across. If Mr. Pressler seemed determined to project the game into the listeners’ laps, Mr. Hope asked that we savor its fleeting reflectiveness. During the intermission (following a magisterially silky performance of Beethoven’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major), a musician in the audience remarked to me that the pianist and the violinist hadn’t been “on the same page,” interpretively speaking. Maybe not, but they were on the same journey, energized by the sheer joy of crossing generations and making some kind of music together. After the concert, when I congratulated Mr. Pressler on the astonishing vigor of his playing, his face broke out in a grin. “It’s Daniel,” he said. “He has made me young again.”
A few days later, I met Mr. Hope at a press conference held to announce plans for the 2005 season (March 18-April 3) of a remarkable music festival in Savannah, Ga., of which the young violinist is the associate artistic director. The executive and artistic director, Rob Gibson, laid out a program, much of it chosen by Mr. Hope. Consider the blend of styles and periods: a violin concerto entitled Abraham that entwines the music of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, by the young Polish composer Roxanna Panufnik; a new work by the jazz pianist and composer Uri Caine for the Beaux Arts Trio; mainstream classical symphonic, choral and chamber works; music from Bali; blues and bluegrass; an 80th-birthday celebration of the jazz giant James Moody; American marching-band music. This is classical music breaking out of its ivory tower with a vengeance.
Which is exactly how Mr. Hope described his mission over lunch: “I see the Savannah festival as a great contemporary Schubertiade—a real exchange of ideas and people.”
Where, I asked, did he acquire his love of boundary hopping? “It’s in my genes,” he said, smiling. “I was born in South Africa, where I lived until my father”—that’s Christopher Hope, author of A Separate Development, Kruger’s Alp, The Hottentot Room and other novels—”was forced to leave after he wrote what was considered a seditious poem, ‘Learning to Fly,’ attacking apartheid. He was all-Irish—my great-great grandfather had settled in the Cape on an unsuccessful trip to the Galapagos. My mother’s family were Christians with a Jewish heritage. They were a wealthy family in Berlin until they were uprooted to South Africa in the 1930’s. During the war, their mansion was turned into a brothel.”
Mr. Hope told me that he was 6 months old when his family left South Africa to resettle in London. “We were about to run out of money because my father couldn’t get work, when my mother got a job as secretary to [the violinist] Yehudi Menuhin. A few years later, she became his manager, which she did for 30 years. I grew up playing with Menuhin’s grandchildren, and though I wasn’t encouraged by him, I fell in love with the violin when I was 31¼2. I immediately tried to imitate playing the instrument with a pair of knitting needles.”
Menuhin—who died in 1999—had been the most celebrated violin prodigy of the last century. He first listened to Daniel play when he was 9. “I wasn’t good, but I had a lot of energy and I loved music. Menuhin didn’t think I was special until I turned 16. After that we became very close, and during the last eight years of his life, he conducted me in 60 concerts all over Europe. He taught me incredibly valuable things: not just about different fingerings and how to work a phrase, but also about how to create on the spur of the moment—to ‘conjure up your soul,’ as he put it. Menuhin was always in perfect equilibrium with himself, and toward the end of his life he liked to say that he saw himself as an airplane, becoming lighter as he flew higher and higher. He wanted to see everything; he was always open to new things, to other people’s point of view. That’s how I am. My ears have always been everywhere. I’ll never shut them off.”