Interview: Pinchas Zukerman

One of the world’s greatest musicians is working to create a new generation of prodigies. And he has an idea for Mid-East peace too.


He may have just turned 60, but not very far below the surface, the international musician Pinchas Zukerman is still the firebrand enthusiast audiences all over the world have grown to know and admire since his 1961 debut as a prodigy violinist.

Now he is bringing some of that white heat to London. He has become the principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, an appointment made after the musicians of the RPO unanimously asked for him to fill the post. And for the Israeli-born Zukerman, it is something of a return — he made his conducting debut 35 years ago, with the English Chamber Orchestra.

Talking to Zukerman is entertaining — you pretty much wind him up and let him go. Speaking from his Ottowa home, where he has been music director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra since 1998, the virtuoso musician makes it clear that he has two passions — music and education. And he hopes to use his RPO posting to promote both.

“I’m extremely pleased and honoured to be part of the RPO team — and it is, in a sense, coming home. I spent half a year based in London in the early ’70s, so it’s familiar territory. But I have watched Britain change, and I think that today music has become once again a very strong element of what people strive for in their life.

“And I’m very glad to be part of it. With the orchestra [the RPO] there’s a cross-section of intellects, musicians from Britain, from overseas, that makes for a wonderful musical mix. It’s very nice — I just feel complete, somehow. I can’t say enough about the musicians and how the pulse of the orchestra manifests itself.”

What does being guest conductor mean? There is a typical Zukerman guffaw. “It means I’m a guest! It means they don’t give me dinner… Actually, of course they give me dinner!” He goes on to make it plain that his idea of being principal guest conductor is not that of other musicians. He is determined to put his stamp on the orchestra by developing its educational activities, and he admits that he has drawn deeply on his own experience as a not terribly happy teenage prodigy in 1960s New York.

Zukerman, whose Holocaust-survivor parents were both musical, was first picked out as a talent when he was still a young boy in Tel Aviv, by the violinist Isaac Stern and cellist Pablo Casals. Stern arranged for the then 14-year-old to go to New York to study at the renowned Juilliard School of Music.

He was not, he freely acknowledges, the ideal student, frequently ducking classes to roam around Manhattan. “But yes, I was brought up short, and I was told, unless you commit to a long-term discipline, it’s not going to happen. And you know what? It happened. Yes, I learned on the streets of New York. I was lucky to absorb that information, and not from a textbook, believe me. I went to more rehearsals and concerts than sitting in a damn classroom. I couldn’t sit in a classroom. I have a horrible, horrible… I really can’t stand it, someone telling what ‘2x’ means –— I don’t care. That’s not what I’m about. I failed, because I didn’t do the [curriculum] work.

“But I think that teaching today is not as good as it was when I was a teenager. I had the benefit of teachers who had tremendous patience of how to deal with an absurd brain like mine. That sort of teaching is gone — I’m sort of the torch-bearer for that old tradition.”

In Ottowa, Zukerman has created the IOS, the Institute of Orchestral Studies, which, he says, is “as far as I’m concerned, the oxygen for the next generation of musicians. It’s for the survival of the species, in the most wonderful way. It’s not enough just to audition and come and sit in an orchestra. You have to know why you’re doing it.”

His players get the unique benefit of Zukerman’s own lifelong experience of musicianship, of learning the classical repertoire, of discovering new ways to coax the best and purest sounds out of their instruments. “We have 85-90 players who come, and it’s all ages, we have 20 little ones from ages nine to 15. We play a tremendous amount of chamber music. You should see them when they first sit down. They [the children] are just babble, babble, babble. After three days they’re talking to each other like adults — ‘Why did you play that note that way?’ It’s wonderful.”

On top of the IOS four-week sessions, there are about four or five music students who get the opportunity to play with the National Arts Centre Orchestra at points throughout the year.

Now Zukerman says he is working hard to recreate something similar in London with the RPO, giving openings to students from music schools in the UK. “Part of the idea of the programme is that this way we can create the next generation of teachers. But it takes a long time and a lot of investment and work. It doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t care what anybody says, you have to have a beautiful motor inside a gorgeous Mercedes body, or otherwise the car ain’t going to go anywhere.”

Zukerman is full of these growling earthy descriptions, an enjoyable contrast to the beauty of the music he plays. After a mini-rant about orchestral players who think that “it’s all about the money”, he breaks off to recall a one-time violin student. “He just couldn’t grasp the idea of what the bow hand can and should do. I looked at him, and I said: ‘Hey, that’s your bank account!’

“And he said: ‘What?’

“I said: Yeah, it makes more money if it sounds good.’ He went, bingo! And overnight, he changed.”

To Zukerman’s own amusement, despite his spotty educational record, today he is a martinet who demands — and receives from his students — total and utter discipline. “But believe it or not, a few years ago, I met one of my old teachers, a Mrs Nerins. All of a sudden she showed up at a concert. She said: ‘Do you remember me?’

“I said: ‘Mrs Nerins, oh my God!’

“And she said: ‘Well, I see you did very well without my help.’”

Zukerman insists that he is not ambitious. “I never wanted to be better than anybody. I just wanted to be as good as I could be, every day. I was late speaking to you today because I had to finish a Bach movement, just for myself. I will play some more before I go to the office. That’s what I am, a music maker who wants to do it the best I know how, and to help young people to go on the best journey I know. If you do it properly, you can have a career of 50 or 60 years.”

Despite making it plain that “I am a musician, not a politician,” Zukerman is ready to concede that he is “really worried right now” about the seemingly unending conflict between Israel and her neighbours. “It’s nothing new — both sides have had frustrations for many, many years. The difference, I think, is time. We are now a sovereign country, I am a product of an Israeli state. I hold an Israeli passport. My identity card has a number, but it’s not an Auschwitz or a Dachau number or any little Kiev police station number. It’s Israeli. But I don’t want my grandchildren — and I’m expecting one soon, from one of my daughters — to go on living this stringent, horrible life. I don’t want that. We need to sit down, and we need to figure it out. And until we figure it out, do not leave that room! I’m not Begin, I’m not Sadat, I’m Zukerman — and the other guy is another guy called Ishmael — and we’re both from that place. We need to give each other a little breakfast, a little dinner — and maybe music will help.”

There have been, he says, no riots at concert halls because he is Israeli. “There have been places that I can’t go, and that’s sad, though I plan to play in Abu Dhabi later this year and I have played, via technology, Happy Birthday for engineers in Saudi Arabia!”

Now he is optimistic that he could take the RPO to tour in Israel. “Why not? But I will not use music as a political tool. If I’m invited to celebrate, I’ll be there.”

The life of an Israeli virtuoso

BORN: July 16, 1948 in Tel Aviv. Parents Yehuda Zukerman and Miriam Lieberman, Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe

FAMILY: Lives in Ottawa with his wife, cellist Amanda Forsyth and his two daughters Arianna and Natalia from his 15-year marriage to flautist Eugenia Zukerman. He was also formerly married to actress Tuesday Weld

TRAINING: As a 14-year-old prodigy, studied at The Juilliard School, in New York, making his performance debut in 1963 aged 15

CAREER: Has recorded over 100 works and has been nominated for 21 Grammy Awards, winning two. He has performed and toured with orchestras. Was appointed music director of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra in April 1998

Pinchas Zukerman is both soloist and conductor in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on Monday February 2 at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1. Details at www.southbankcentre.co.uk

    Last updated: 2:42pm, January 29 2009