Playing for time to save classical music
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