Given his status as a superstar of classical music, there’s something refreshingly earthy about Pinchas Zukerman. He’s a man of passionate opinions who spews profanities freely — especially when the subject turns to politics.
“What’s happening to our country is unbelievable and a shock,” he exclaimed, pointing to the current outpouring of anti-immigrant rhetoric. “I just hear one stupid remark after another. We’re all immigrants, you know?”
It’s not surprising that such talk strikes a discordant note with Zukerman, who emigrated to the U.S. from his native Israel 54 years ago this month. He was 14 when he was discovered by Isaac Stern, who brought him to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Music. In the half century since, he has been widely renowned as a thoughtful and sensitive violinist and violist — and, increasingly, a conductor of note.
He is in his seventh season as principal guest conductor of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (LRPO), which CAMA will present at the Granada Theatre on Tuesday, January 19. Zukerman will play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and conduct Elgar’s Enigma Variations. He talked about his approach to music in a recent telephone conversation from his New York City home.
London has more world-class orchestras than any other city in the world. What is it about British musicians? There’s a particularly English quality of sound, which is really very beautiful. They’re like Shakespearean actors, who become Shakespearean actors by living in London and learning how to speak the bloody language! I have said to them many times that it’s a privilege to be standing in front of them, waving my stupid arms, as they play the Enigma Variations. It’s like listening to the Berlin Philharmonic play a Beethoven symphony.
Speaking of Beethoven, has your interpretation of his Violin Concerto evolved over the years? It’s still evolving! I practice that damn piece almost every day. I’ve played it quite a lot with the [LRPO], and we have a certain unanimity of understanding. There’s a certain give-and-take between, say, the timpanist and myself. He creates a certain sound, which I try to imitate. When the clarinet player, who is phenomenal, plays a solo passage, I’ll try to imitate her — to go with what she has just done. We don’t talk about it; we just do it. It becomes like chamber music.
So you strive for a sense of spontaneity? Yes, but spontaneity comes from discipline. Without discipline, you have nothing. If you don’t know how to do it, it’s like having a beautiful car that you don’t know where to put the key in. That’s why I teach. I teach [young musicians] how to practice properly. If you can do that for 20 minutes, it will lead to improvements in many areas, including your own bloody life. Music exerts an incredible control over your practical thinking. I wish some of our politicians would have studied music as kids. Maybe they’d talk a little more sense!
In today’s wired world, where you can call up practically any piece of music at your fingertips, what is the particular value of having people physically come together in a concert hall and hear a live concert? Thanks in part to Mr. [Steve] Jobs, listening to music today is not as much of a community experience. It’s more of a personal experience. But music needs that piazza atmosphere, where thousands of people gather and experience an incredible moment together. The experience of hearing something, seeing something, experiencing something, feeling something — that’s what it’s about. If three or four of those elements are working, well, that’s the best thing that could possibly happen to a human being, as far as I’m concerned. That’s why I keep doing it. I work at it very hard, every day. Music is an ongoing struggle, but at the same time, it’s an extraordinary friend I have lived with for a long time.
Tell me about your relationship with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. How did it begin, and how did it develop? This journey started seven or eight years ago. Ian Maclay, the executive director, is someone I have known for a very long time. He called me up one day and said, “How would you like to work with the orchestra?” I said “Sure, why not?” We had sort of a get-to-know-you concert in London. It worked very well, and everybody wanted to continue, including myself.
The orchestra travels extensively around the world, both with [music director] Charles Dutoit and me. Our American tour will feature 16 concerts in 18 or 19 days. There aren’t that many concerts in January in London, so this is a wonderful opportunity for the musicians to go on earning a living. This orchestra will jump on an airplane, go literally anywhere, and play that night. That’s how extraordinary these people are. We could be in Italy one day and China the next day. They also play all over the U.K. We just recorded an album of English music in September, where I play as well as conduct.
So touring is an important part of the orchestra’s economic base. Yes. We have absolutely no [corporate] sponsorship. We have no help from anyone. The life of an English musician is unbelievably chaotic. Some of them play three services a day — two rehearsals and a concert, with the second rehearsal for a different organization. If you play, you get paid; if you don’t play, you don’t get paid. There’s no security.
It sounds less than ideal for them, but is there an upside artistically to this arrangement? There’s a freshness in it. You don’t know who’s going to be playing first flute tomorrow morning. It could be somebody else [than the person who has been rehearsing]. You hope not, but sometimes it happens. It’s chaotic, but it builds vulnerability, which can bring tremendous results.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Pinchas Zukerman, plays Tuesday, January 19, 8 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Tickets are $38-$108. For more information, call (805) 899-2222 or see camasb.org.