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Interview with Pinchas Zukerman

Pinchas ZukermanEarlier today I had the opportunity to interview Pinchas Zukerman for WGMS' "Classical Conversations". This follows an interview with Ivan Fischer and one with Leonard Slatkin (due to go up in December).

This Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Pinchas Zukerman will step into the void that Rostropovich’s cancellation of his series of Shostakovich programs with Maxim Vengeroff and Martha Argerich left (Yo-Yo Ma is still scheduled to perform). He will do so with an entirely new program – The Vorspiel to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, Bruch’s über-gorgeous Kol Nidrei with cellist Amanda Forsyth as the soloist, conducting as the soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5 and closing with Beethoven’s Second Symphony.

The question for the ticket holders that were looking forward to Vengeroff, Argerich, and Rostropovich’s Shostakovich must be, why no semblance to the original program was preserved – especially since the concerts were advertised as such until the day the cancellation was made public. Zukerman’s answer sheds light on that question: He was not asked to substitute for “Slava” (“You cannot replace Mr. Rostropovich”) but to fill a gap while the NSO management is trying to preserve the Rostropovich/Shostakovich festival in its integrity, to reprogram it at a future date when (if) Rostropovich is again fit to perform. (WPAS apparently helped out with the last minute substitution.) Washington ‘is an old friend’ to Zukerman; almost like a second home (Zukerman knows the NSO for almost 45 years) and feels warmly embraced by the audience, so he was happy to jump into the breach since he had an available free week. He reminisces at length about his memories of playing in Washington (at the Kennedy Center, at Dumbarton Oaks) over the last three decades and about his musical friends in this town.

Zukerman on Ionarts:

Jens F. Laurson, Itzhak Perlman: A Star Flickering, Not Shining (April 2006)

Jens F. Laurson, Raff Time for Bach as Zukerman Heralds Harold (October 2005)

Jens F. Laurson, Shostakovich Postponed, Zukerman to the Rescue (November 2006)

Zukerman in Washington:

NSO Performance of Wagner, Bruch, Mozart, Beethoven (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, November 2, 3, 4, 2006)

WGMS Recital at Strathmore with Bach, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich (Friday, December 1, 2006)

Zukerman Chamber Players in Mozart & Dvořák at the Terrace Theater (Friday, March 4, 2007)

On the question about the difference between conducting and performing he reveals that, although he has been conducting since 1972, it has taken ten to fifteen years to feel comfortable on the podium. Now it is an expansion and extension of his music making; almost like playing enlarged chamber music, except that he happens to be beating it, instead of playing it. He has no plans, however, to expand the conducting vis-à-vis playing; dividing between his conducting and soloist duties in the same ratio as he always has.

Since the featured cellist Amanda Forsyth is his wife, I ask him if he ever feels that listeners or critics might conclude “Nepotism!” before having giving the performance a chance to proof itself. Zukerman is not too concerned with that, stating up front that if he did not think she couldn’t do it and stand on her own two feet, he wouldn’t program her. “If I didn’t think she was a phenomenal player, believe me, she wouldn’t be playing! That’s about honesty to the music... I’ve been this way with wives – and it’s the same thing with my daughter, who is a singer [Arianna Zukerman, reviewed on Ionarts last December], or friends.” Their relationship – professional and personal – is one where both can and do tell each other the flaws they hear in the other’s playing, Zukerman claims, which he extols as a particular pleasure in cooperating with another musician.

Since there have been some remarks about ‘HIP’ music-making by Zukerman (Charles has commented on them, reviewing Victoria Mullova’s second to last CD on Onyx), I can’t help but probe a little. His Bach Viola da Gamba Sonatas performance for WPAS (December 1st) is just the way to do it – and hearing him go off with conviction and passion on the “garbage” that is the theory of vibrato not having been widely employed until after the second world war is the interviewer’s equivalent of hitting the jackpot. After saying “let’s not get into it, too much”, he speaks a solid five minutes about his reasoning.

“I call it a slight furuncle… it’s like a diseased little aspect of what we are as a society – and hopefully we will find real medication for it to go away in the future. And I can’t believe it will last very long. It can’t.”

When a composer of merit says “non-vibrato”, it’s a specific indication to the practitioner for a specific color they want in that particular spot. Like a ‘forte’ or ‘piu mosso’ or ‘ponticello’. No composer, nobody, wrote ‘non-vibrato’ for the sake of being ‘authentic’. “That’s a fact – a theoretical fact, but also a composer’s fact. Ask any composer of merit and they’ll tell you that. And if they don’t, their music is not listenable.” “Non-vibrato is like making a picture without ever taking the pencil off the paper. What kind of picture would you be getting!?”

We’ll be able to look forward to getting the picture with vibrating Beethoven et al. on Thursday.


The audio file of the WGMS interview can be downloaded as an mp3 or Windows Media Player file at these links.


Garth Trinkl said...

Thanks for your excellent work, Jens!


..."Non-vibrato is like making a picture without ever taking the pencil off the paper. What kind of picture would you be getting!?"

I don't really get this point. If he had said line drawing _without shading_ I might have better understood him.

And if he had made the comment that writing 12-tone music was like drawing without ever lifting the pencil from the paper I might have more immediately understood what he was hinting at.

Thanks again.

jfl said...

Thanks for the comments... - perhaps you find he makes a better case if you listen to the whole interview...? I was just paraphrasing parts of a ~16-18 minute interview.

Anonymous said...

FYI, the link for the mp3 is coded as the same as the link for the WMP file.


Anonymous said...

Wait, seems as if one is the Zukerman wma and one is a Norman Scribner wma.


jfl said...

Will fix that. Thanks for pointing it out.


Scott said...

I think he is completely missing the point of the non-vibrato theory. If vibrato was not a normal part of the performance tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries, then the composers would have no reason to indicate "non-vibrato." Pinchas would make a better argument that modern ears expect vibrato, thus that is the authentic performance. I think labelling performances as "authentic" or "inauthentic" is impossible. Instead, I regard HIP as an interesting alternative, one that can reveal different aspects of a piece than contemporary performance practice.

Michael De Sapio said...

Anyone who has played on gut strings knows that full, luscious vibrato does not sound good on them. By contrast, metallic strings, which lack the natural resonance of gut, require vibrato to prettify the sound. This is why the switch to metallic strings after World War I was accompanied by a switch of vibrato being a consciously applied expressive device to being a mechanical habit. One can only conclude that Zuckerman has either never played on plain gut strings, or he is willing to ignore historical realities for the sake of his personal viewpoint.