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Pinchas Zukerman’s Secret — Staying Curious

Chamber Music San Francisco

2/24–2/28

In characteristic fashion, Pinchas Zukerman recounts being approached by Deutsche Grammophon about releasing a compilation of his recordings for that label and for Philips, spanning Baroque, Classical, and Romantic concertos and chamber music. “They said, do you mind if we put out 22 of your CDs, and I said, ‘Jesus, that many?’ I couldn’t believe it!” Since the box set was released in July of last year, “I don’t look at it,” Zukerman insists. “I don’t look backwards.”

Those who do are inevitably impressed by his multi-instrumental career, launched 55 years ago when, as a 14-year-old, he left his native Israel to study at Juilliard under Ivan Galamian. Two decades later, as a violinist, Zukerman shared Grammys with Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern for Best Chamber Music Performance and Best Instrumental Soloist(s). He has toured globally as violinist, violist, and conductor, and as an esteemed pedagogue, he’s pioneered high-tech distance learning for musicians.

Departing in 2015 from their permanent positions as musical director and principal cellist (respectively) with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, Zukerman and his wife, cellist Amanda Forsyth, have been spending more time in New York, as well as on their solo and combined chamber careers, which will have them concertizing in Northern California next week. Earlier this month, before flying from JFK to four European concerts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he’s principal guest conductor, Zukerman took the time to share his opinions and observations with SFCV.

When we last talked five years ago, you were in Ottawa.

Yes! How are you, are you well?

Pretty well, and pretty busy. And you’ve been busy in New Jersey?

Yes, the [New Jersey Symphony] Orchestra has a three-week festival, I played and conducted the first and last weeks, the second I only played, with Christian Vásquez, he’s one of the boys from El Sistema, in Caracas. But it’s very unusual where I just play.

And sometimes you’re conducting and playing at the same time.

Sure, I’ll be doing that with the Beethoven Concerto, next week.

Can you say something about how and why that works?

In the past, most conductors were pianists. It was more natural. But what’s really natural is to know what the strings are doing, because two-thirds of the orchestra is the strings. And when you play and conduct, it’s chamber music in large, you gotta listen to them, they gotta listen to you. There’s a kind of empathy, sympathy, a kind of collegial nuance.

Did you have any role model in a string player who conducted?

I wouldn’t cite a role model as much as I would curiosity. Curiosity is my middle name.

Funny, that doesn’t sound Jewish.

[Laughs] We can make it Jewish. For a role model in fiddle playing — forget the conducting — there was the Budapest Quartet. I was almost 12, in Tel Aviv, that was a life experience I will never forget. My god, Jeff, those guys were unbelievable! Then later, when I played with Kubelik for the first time, holy shit, I was mesmerized, in Munich. To see a rehearsal with Klemperer was like going to a museum to see one of the greatest painters of all time.

On the verge of your own 70th birthday next year, do you get a sense of what young musicians are seeking from you?

Good question. Well, not to sound egotistical —

Ah, go ahead.

[Laughs] While I’m teaching, they look at me, how the hell did you do that, just because they haven’t quite figured it out yet. It has a certain sparkly aspect. We go through a very strict first few months, like the army, the fundamentals. We take ’em apart, the emotional on one side, the practical on the other, and we make them play properly. And I share [memories] with them, like working with Isaac [Stern], who was so amazing, his curiosity. We spent three days once, just working on the first five lines of the Britten Violin Concerto. Today I’m thinking, how the hell did I do that? In the Zukerman Performance Program, at the Manhattan School of Music, I have the most fantastic lady, [violinist and violist] Patty Kopec, who works with [students] on a weekly basis.

When we first talked about it, you were working in a distance-learning format, linking from Ottawa to the Manhattan School. Are you still involved with that technology? 

Now that I’m in New York, I can go to the [Manhattan] School periodically, personally. But there’s a new generation [of distance learning] now, called LOLA, which stands for “low latency.” It was invented back in 2005 or 2006 in Italy, in the Trieste Conservatory. You can play with someone 2,000 or 3,000 kilometers away like you’re in the same room, and you can talk over it.

What’s its future? Will it work as a broadcast medium too?

It needs quite a bit of bandwidth, and we don’t have it installed everywhere, but it’ll be there in the next few years. It’s the savior of the profession: What if you could take 10,000 people, say, four times a month, and give them the ability to hear something for a dollara rehearsal, a concert.

Might that help stave off threats to the arts from our currently unsympathetic politicians?

What if Trump takes something away? It’s a pittance in the pocket of his small trousers. [Laughs] It’ll get worse before it gets better, but hopefully politicians will stay out of our lives, because any politician getting into the arts is a mistake, and we mustn’t allow it. Nobody is going to tell me how to run my orchestra.

Do you still have a connection to the National Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, and to your properties up there?

We’re keeping a couple of places available, but renting them out. They’ve given me the title, Director of Young Artists Programs/Summer Music Institute and Conductor Emeritus of the Orchestra. It’s rather long. [Laughs]

And you’re also artist-in-association with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. What’s the status of classical art down under?

It’s up and coming. I just played concerts in Sydney and Adelaide, and Amanda and I will go to Perth, where I’ll play the Berg and the Triple Concerto, with Asher Fisch conducting [the West Australian Symphony Orchestra]. They’re dedicated to maintaining the kind of education society needs. Adelaide is investing in the proper elements for social well-being. The same in Korea: when they build a new city, they build a center for the arts, with a concert hall.

So departing her chair in Ottawa has freed Amanda up?

Having 27 years of being in the hot seat is, I think, enough. She dictates herself what she needs to do, and how to do it, and I think that’s great.

And it’s also good for your relationship?

We play a lot together, and we travel a lot together. And it’s much easier to see each other, without committee meetings, a freedom I haven’t had in 35 years.

And she’s coming to California with you?

Yes.

Along with Angela Cheng, on piano. Did you hook up with Angela in Canada?

Yes, in fact she comes from the same city, Edmonton, that Amanda was raised in, and was the first recipient of a scholarship that Amanda was the second to receive. Angela teaches at Oberlin. She’s Chinese from Hong Kong — came to Canada at an early age.

[Cheng, Zukerman, and Forsyth will perform as the Zukerman Trio in a program of Brahms, Kodaly, and Schubert at the Green Music Center in Sonoma. Zukerman and Cheng will be heard in a program of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms on Feb. 25 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, Feb. 26 at the Lesher Arts Center in Walnut Creek, Feb. 27 at the Oshman Familly JCC in Palo Alto, and on Feb. 28 at Capistrano Hall in Sacramento.]

And you’ll be on violin, in these chamber configurations. But you’ll going off to conduct, tomorrow.

If I have the right people to play with, I’ll do whatever is necessary to make the right kind of music. To hear the RPO play the Enigma — I’ve said it to them twice or more, and I’ll probably say it again on Sunday — it’s a privilege! I get these looks when we’re rehearsing, what the hell are you talking about? [Laughs] But then when they play it, and know that it’s good, they get a kick out of it too. 

Jeff Kaliss has written about opera and other classical forms for the Marin Independent-Journal and The Oakland Tribune. He is based in San Francisco, and also covers jazz, world music, country, rock, film, theater, and other entertainment. The second edition of his authorized biography of Sly & the Family Stone was published by Backbeat Books.

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