Life & Culture

Israel needs peace - and music can help

As Pinchas Zukerman, one of the world’s greatest living violinists, turns 70, he talk to us about Israel, religion and the power of music


Born in Israel in 1948, Pinchas Zukerman is the same age as his native land — technically, just two months and two days younger —  and celebrates his 70th birthday in July this year. Often thought of as one of the world’s greatest living violinists, he is much more besides, equally known as a conductor, viola player and inspirational teacher. He rose quickly to fame in the 1960s, not least playing chamber music with the likes of Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman and Jacqueline du Pré, and his distinctive violin sound, strong-centred and full of intensity, remains unmistakable to those that know and love it. 

His own birthday, he says, is not a big deal— “It’s just a number,” he says — and rather than celebrating with any giant concerts, he plans to spend the occasion in well-earned peace and quiet with friends and family, including his grandchildren. But the birthday of Israel is a different kind of landmark. “After 70 years,” declares Zukerman, “we need peace.

“I come from there, I was born there, I have a passport, I have an identity, I’m an Israeli of Jewish faith. We have Israelis of non-Jewish faith, many, many denominations. We need to experiment with all denominations a little bit better on the human side and give them a little more respect.   

“The government of Israel should really look itself in the mirror every day and say: ‘Show respect, for God’s sake!’ Stop doing what you’re doing and just talk to them. 

“After 70 years now, we need a piece of paper that calls for peace. I don’t care if you call it two states, three states, four states — we need peace. We need something that says: ‘I respect you as my neighbour. Let’s sit down, then, and start talking about it on equal grounds.’ 

“You’ve got to stop this occupation: it is wrong. It is wrong for the people who live there. That doesn’t mean that one will have this and the other will have that. Just let’s have one document that calls for peace signing or a peace treaty of some sort: the place could just blossom no end. These are extraordinary peoples that live there. 

“I hope I could still see and experience this in my lifetime: that I could be in Arab countries, not just Jordan and Egypt, but many others, where I could play. There are some fantastic talents from the Arab world whom I have met over the years in Canada, in America, in London and so on — I would like to see that in Tel Aviv. And we in turn could go to places in the Arab world and play and enjoy our art form that we are so blessed to have. It’s time. Seventy years is enough!” 

Zukerman’s parents were both born in Poland and survived the Holocaust. His father, a multi-talented klezmer musician and more, did so, according to Zukerman, not least by playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto — a work that is one of the centrepieces of the forthcoming Pinchas Zukerman Summer Music Festival that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) is staging in London later this month. 

“The Mendelssohn concerto itself, symbolically speaking, was the survival of my dad,” Zukerman says. “He played it in Auschwitz; then he played it in trains going to Palestine in 1945, so that particular violin concerto was a hallmark for him to survive. The Germans wanted to hear music. So he played.”

Zukerman, principal guest conductor of the RPO, is focusing the festival on Mendelssohn, Mozart and Haydn, in six concerts at  Cadogan Hall, with orchestral performances in the evening and chamber music at lunchtime. 

He and the orchestra are joined by soloists including cellist Amanda Forsyth (aka Mrs Zukerman), pianist Angela Cheng and violinist Viviane Hagner. Fumiaki Miura is the soloist in the Mendelssohn concerto, which Zukerman conducts.

Idealistic words have been spoken by many individuals over the past decades about the power of music to help bring about peace, yet looking at today’s world, it can sometimes be hard to keep believing in that. Zukerman, though, remains convinced music can play a vital role. 
“It’s a force,” he says. “It’s a power. There’s no question that music has a power to bring people together, to have an evening or concert, an occasion of music being played. 

“Anyone should come to a place where we perform and we’ll see what happens afterwards! We know it has this power that can unite people. We need to do more of it. 

“We are doing it. We can only hope that the political aspect, that secondary road, follows the path of the arts rather than strife. That’s all.” Let us hope he is right.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Pinchas Zukerman Summer Music Festival is at Cadogan Hall, London, June 26-30.

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