Pinchas Zukerman's secret of success: playing in tune

The legendary Israeli violinst and conductor reveals how he stays motivated by fulfilling a basic musical requirement.

By Tim Stein, May 5, 2011
Blessed with perfect pitch, Zukerman first picked up a violin at the age of seven  - he couldn't play the instrument, but he could tune it

Blessed with perfect pitch, Zukerman first picked up a violin at the age of seven - he couldn't play the instrument, but he could tune it

Pinchas Zukerman is running late. So when he picks up the phone at his offices in Ottawa, Canada, where he has been music director and principal conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra since 1998, he is saving time by simultaneously eating a "Shabbat pie" and talking to me, both without apparent difficulty.

But then multi-tasking has always come easily to Zukerman. At 62 years of age ("though I feel like 42," he says cheerfully) the violinist, violist and conductor is still at the top of all three of those games. With 21 Grammy nominations, two Grammy wins and numerous other awards to his name, he shows no sign yet of slowing down, maintaining a hectic schedule of performing and teaching.

Ask him about his lopsided work-life balance, and he just laughs. "People, you know, have trouble figuring that out, and really there's no way to explain it. Take today for example. I practised for an hour and a half this morning at home," he says, in his thick Israeli-American drawl, "now I'm doing this interview with you; then, in 30 minutes, I'm going downstairs to teach students in New York by video conference, which I have been doing for years and years and years; then, I'm flying to New York to teach those same students face to face.

"I study as much as I can all the time, without thinking: 'OK, today I'm going to sit down and study Mahler from 4-6pm.' Either I'm going to do it or I'm not."

And his impressive energy levels? "That comes from wanting to make music," he says. "And sounds…" He trails off momentarily. "Sounds are very important to me, harmonies and how they lay out. That's what propels me to do what I do, the impulse of wanting to do it, as well as doing it as well as possible. And playing in tune," he laughs.

Oh yes, his bête noire is not playing in tune. "I really hate playing out of tune, so I keep practising all those fundamental scales. Don't practise them, and you're out of the parade."

There was no question that Zukerman would become a musician (and a great one) from the moment he was born. "God, yes," he exclaims, "no question at all." He admits to being fortunate, too. "My life has been a complete and absolute life, an extraordinary journey, and I've been blessed to be both healthy and doing this."

Born in Tel Aviv in 1948 to Holocaust-survivor parents, Zukerman was five years old when he played his first musical instrument. His father, Yehuda ("a wonderful klezmer musician", Zukerman says), gave him a recorder and a clarinet before, at the age of seven and a half, a family friend suggested giving the boy a violin. "So my dad taught me a few things and, noticing I had perfect pitch and could hold a tune, sent me to a wonderful Hungarian teacher called Ilona Feher.


Born: July 16, 1948 in Tel Aviv. Parents Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe.
Family: Lives in Ottawa with wife, cellist Amanda Forsyth. Two daughters (Arianna, a soprano and Natalia, a folk-singer, writer and guitarist, from his 15-year marriage to flautist Eugenia Zukerman). Also formerly married to actress Tuesday Weld.
Training: As a 14-year-old prodigy, studied at the Juilliard School, New York. Performance debut in 1963 aged 15.
Career: Has recorded over 100 works and been nominated for 21 Grammy Awards (winning two). Appointed music director of Ottawa's National Arts Centre Orchestra in April 1998, and principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London in 2009.

"I could hardly play a note," Zukerman laughs, "but I knew how to tune. And at such an early age, that's pretty impressive. So I saw Feher for the first time and she said: 'OK, we will start tomorrow'."

The great Ivan Galamian came next, and Zukerman studied with him in New York for four years.

"With hindsight, I can say that if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be playing today," Zukerman says. "He really made my life a lot easier. He took what is a very unnatural position of holding the violin and developed a method which eases up a lot of problems. Not only does it help there and then, but it also helps much later in life too.

"He was like a medicine man, someone who came along in the 1920s, and, luckily for us, gave birth to almost three new generations of violinists. He combined various teaching schools, showing us the language of how to execute something, the language of how to do it. Everything was about being very clear, very precise, and always about proper repetition. When you hear someone tuning up, you can tell right away whether or not they are from the Galamian school."

Growing up, the violinist Isaac Stern and cellist Pablo Casals were great influences too. "I remember visiting Isaac often at his home in Connecticut for 10 days at a time from about the age of 10, listening to the likes of pianist Eugene Istomin and the Budapest Quartet, then playing for them first and then afterwards with them. That was extraordinary."

Though Zukerman took conducting classes as a student at the Juilliard School of Music, proper baton work only began around 1972. As well as his commitment to the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Zukerman has held the position of principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London since 2009.

Collaborations early on with such conducting "icons", as he puts it, as Barenboim, Mehta, Kubelik and Barbirolli, showed him what it was like to be a total musician. "As for the physical ability," he says, "there was never a question. If I thought for a moment that there was an awkwardness with my physical gestures, I would never have started to do it. I did not have a difficult time moving my arms and beating time, but of course you learn along the way. Actually, you learn what not to do. I'm very adamant about learning the score from the orchestral parts. That's my rule of thumb. You don't go to an orchestra without knowing these. If you don't know them, then you shouldn't be on that box, however great you are. Know the parts, play the parts (cello, clarinet, whatever), and decipher the bloody score."

Zukerman is clear about music's role in bringing people together, recounting an anecdote from a significant moment in recent Middle East history.

"In 1979, at the age of 39, I was invited to the White House for the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, where I found myself sitting between two admirals in the Egyptian navy. And what did we talk about? Music!

"When I tell young students now about my early experiences in Israel, and my not being able to visit certain countries because it says 'Israeli' in my passport, it is hard for them to understand this. I tell them that everyone should talk to their adversary - that, of course, as well as telling them how to play in tune!"

Pinchas Zukerman conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and plays works by Elgar and Beethoven at the Hexagon, Reading, on Tuesday May 10 (box office: 0118 960 6060) and on Wednesday 11 at the Royal Festival Hall (0844 847 9910)

Last updated: 11:56am, May 5 2011