Conductor-violinist Pinchas Zukerman; Servant of Sound
Washington — It began like a waterfall high in the mountains, the sweet, crystal clearness of the music sluicing down on the audience, bathing it in the loveliness of Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. At the end of the second movement, conductor-violinist Pinchas Zukerman paused for a second or so, then lifted his bow and began the downbeat, signaling the start of the third movement to his St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Suddenly, as the notes started to flow, a musical rube at stage left began clapping in the loud final way audiences do at the end of a concerto or symphony. Mr. Zukerman stopped, turned in profile, and, like a matador delivering the final thrust, impaled the clapper with a steely glare. Then he turned back to his orchestra and let the music soar. It was the sort of thing conductors never do. For the 2,000 people in the Kennedy center concert hall that night, it was a rare glimpse of the fierce perfectionism that has made Zukerman one of the great musicians of his day.
When we sit down to talk in his hotel room a few days later, Zukerman shakes his head about the clapping incident. ''That I still am amazed at. That was sheer ignorance.'' Zukerman has described in various interviews the importance of the initial downbeat to him as a conductor. ''How that person could have clapped, I don't know. . . . It shocked me, only because it's so completely out of place.''
Zukerman is pressing for perfection in his newest role, that of conductor, although he is already a virtuoso violinist as well as an accomplished violist. Newsweek, describing his ''gloriously burnished, passionate tone,'' calls him ''one of the great violinists of his generation.'' He is even boffo in Variety as the winner of three Grammy awards. One of the growing number of conductor-performers, he decided to develop his talent with his own orchestra as a base. It is the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the only major chamber orchestra in the country. With the drive and dynamism of Zukerman behind it, the orchestra is building a reputation to be watched.
Zukerman strolls into his hotel carrying his own suitcases and unwinds after a difficult trip: a one-hour delay on a La Guardia runway, followed by a brief dust-up in Washington between his airport cab and another car. In 90 minutes he will be onstage playing Stravinsky.
He sinks back in relief on the leather sofa in the hotel lounge. The lounge pianist is playing ''Ebb Tide.'' Zukerman sighs. It's life on the road, one of 50 concerts a year he plays on tour from his home base in New York in addition to 70 in St. Paul. When the piano tide rushes in too loudly, the interview is adjourned to the quiet of his room. A member of the orchestra brings in a bouquet of yellow roses; Zukerman agrees to join the group downstairs for supper , a few fast oysters, after the interview.
They call him Pinky, a nickname that suggests an easygoing casualness. And indeed there is much about his apparent extrovertism in the press clippings about him. Fans wouldn't speak of Arturo Toscanini as ''Arty'' or Vladimir Horowitz as ''Vlady.'' But in spite of the clips and the relaxed nickname, Pinchas Zukerman has been speeding like a silver-tipped arrow toward success ever since the age of 7.
It was then that he was given a half-size violin by his father, Jehuda Zukerman, a member of the Warsaw Symphony, who survived a concentration camp with his wife, then fled to Israel. At 10, Pinchas was playing duets professionally with his father. A child prodigy, he was a student at both the Israel Conservatory and the Academy of Music. When cellist Pablo Casals and violinist Isaac Stern heard him play in Tel Aviv, they applauded his talent by arranging for the American-Israel Cultural Foundation to bring him to the United States for a scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music.
At 13 he arrived in New York, trailing his reputation as the wunderkind of Israel like Linus's security blanket. He was alone in a strange country where he didn't know the language, and according to him the Juilliard attitude was ''You're not good enough, baby.'' His parents, unable to find work in New York, had moved to Canada and arranged with him to live with the parents of pianist Eugene Istomin. Zukerman says that it was a tough time for him, a troubled period when he hung out in pool halls and played hooky a lot.
People called him a brash kid because he thought he was the young Jascha Heifetz. But, he says, ''I think I knew all along that I had music as a guide, a guideline that I had to obey. I've always known that, from the age of 9. So I never had any doubts (about myself). See, that's where the brashness comes out. . . .''
Isaac Stern, who became his mentor, heard about Zukerman's problems and shook him awake to the talent he was neglecting. Under Stern's direction, his career bloomed again: He won the 1967 International Leventritt Competition (along with Kyung-Wha Chung). When Stern had a bout with illness in 1968, he asked that Zukerman fill in for him as soloist with several orchestras. Zukerman's career took off like a kite in high wind. For the last 10 years he has been considered one of the world's major violinists; ''a world-class violinist,'' as the New York Times put it.
That phrase makes him growl. Or perhaps it's the question before it: Is it your goal to become as celebrated a conductor as you are a violinist? He pauses, then says, ''I think somebody will (say) that 'someday this man will be a great conductor,' I suppose, like they said I'm a 'world-class violinist.' What does that mean, 'world-class'?'' He growls again, in a minor key. ''How do we classify anybody world-class? Some people like a particular chocolate better than others. . . . We have a saying in Hebrew that on taste and smell there is no discussion.''
Last spring, New York Times critic Donal Henehan suggested that ''Mr. Zukerman has some distance to travel before mastering his alternate craft,'' but noted this year that Zukerman ''had made progress in many areas, his conducting now radiating considerably more confidence and technical finesse than in his novice days.'' Recently, Washington Post critic Joseph McLellan wrote that the St. Paul orchestra's Stravinsky performances were ''a carefully controlled riot of instrumental color, directed with a firm and knowing baton by conductor Pinchas Zukerman.''
Zukerman says he knows he can always do it a little bit better; that phrase is one of the keys to his intensity as a musician. His attitude was evident one muggy Saturday as PBS taped a tribute to Stravinsky's 100th anniversary, to be aired in January. The taping was being done in the music room at Dumbarton Oaks, a place where Stravinsky had been a frequent guest (he named his ''Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in E flat'' after it). It is a regal room with pink-beige walls, matching marble wainscoting, a towering white stone fireplace, medieval art and tapestries, and a photo of Stravinsky just behind the grand piano. The TV camera stalks him like a big black cat over several retakes as he painstakingly polishes a violin passage in Stravinsky's ''L'Histoire du Soldat'' with his ensemble until he is satisfied. ''We do it till we get it right,'' he says with a taut smile and a rap of his bow.
Even under the harsh TV lights Zukerman looks surprisingly young, this man in his mid-30s who a couple of years ago was being described as portly and bearded. But a 40-pound weight loss and a fast five minutes with a razor have changed all that.
He has but the faintest of blue shadows on his jawline now, hazel eyes behind silver-rimmed aviator's glasses, a thick head of black hair, and strong, determined features. A tallish man, he stands planted like an oak tree as he plays.
For the Saturday taping he wears a navy blue double-breasted jacket, gray flannel trousers, off-white shirt, navy tie. He holds his violin on his left shoulder as a teen-ager holds a portable radio, as close to his ear as possible. As he plays there is no trace of the razzle-dazzle of some performers, nor of what Isaac Stern has described as ''the trance'' of the music. His face is restrained; only the dark, winged eyebrows, rising like exclamation marks at a particularly moving passage, betray his emotion.
His wife, flutist Eugenia Zukerman, sits quietly at the back of the hall with their two young daughters, Arianna and Natalia. They met at Juilliard, where he pursued her until they married in 1968. This particular night she will appear with him as a soloist in a Bach-Stravinsky program with the St. Paul orchestra. There is a special harmony between them on stage: Swaying to the music, she looks like some feminine version of Pan in a chiffon gown of dappled blue and green.
Mrs. Zukerman is a slender, intense blonde who seems to have analyzed her husband as closely as any piece of music she has piped on her flute.
He took two months off last summer from a whirlwind schedule, she says, to assess what was going on in his life. ''It was a very good time to be introspective . . . artistically he's coming into his real prime. . . . He lost the weight first, then he wanted to come out from behind the beard. In some ways he was inaccessible. . . . Now he shows his true self.''
Zukerman says, ''I grew the beard (10 years ago) because she was pregnant with the first (child). I said if she can grow something, so can I. . . . I think also I was hiding for a while. From what? Who knows? Life, I suppose. . . .'' Zukerman says he's not shy, but insists he's not the extrovert so often portrayed in the press, either. (Among those stories casting him as uninhibited is the one about the time he put his baton in his beard to catch the orchestra's attention.)
''He has not been etched properly by the press,'' Eugenia says. ''They've made him out to be the Fonz of the fiddle world. He's not the big 'life of the party' bear. No, he's not. He knows more about music than any of the musicologists. . . .'' She describes her husband as ''ebullient, enthusiastic, omnivorous, gregarious. . . . That is his external side. But there is a deep profound part of him that he does not share with many people, a thoughtful side.''
In this interview he deflected the less-serious questions, devoting much of his time to discussing musical philosophy and complex tonal concepts, teaching as he talked. He explained, for instance, how he feels that Mozart's music is never unresolved. It is so perfect and logical, he says, that it creates a complete, content feeling in the listener.
His wife, who is a novelist (''Deceptive Cadence'') as well as a renowned musician, talks about his modesty as a performer: ''He doesn't butter up the audience,'' she says. He doesn't smile a lot, or suffer on stage as he plays the violin, or flail around as a conductor. But his playing ''is always highly charged, electric . . . a source of wonderment and endless inspiration to me,'' she says.
When his career first began, Eugenia says, he used to give everything in a single performance. If he played the Tchaikovsky first violin concerto (his recording debut), he would be completely used up after the performance. ''Now he's changed as a person and changed as a musician. He's grown enormously in every way. You can hear it in his playing. It's more refined now, there's a deeper sense of the construction of the work . . . a distillation has taken place musically.''
Her husband sits in an orange chair talking about the months, sometimes years , of work that go into a performance. The brilliant concert you hear on a balmy Saturday night at Kennedy Center is supported by a huge unseen foundation of preparation.
For 2 1/2 months this summer he has concentrated on the ''basic training'' of his musicianship, marking and studying the 26 new pieces he will do with his beloved St. Paul Chamber Orchestra next season. ''Everybody has his own way of 'de-composing' a symphony or piece for orchestra,'' he says. ''As conductor . . . I personally keep the score nearby, but I usually play the string parts, all the string parts, not just the violin, and I bow and I mark, bow and mark them, according to what I think it should be, and that takes time.'' A Beethoven symphony, for instance, would take two to three weeks. ''A lot of things stay in your memory because you've simply put it down on paper. . . . It's a painful kind of work, but it's the most constructive element of putting something in your head, that stays with you forever. . . .''
He explains that what the public hears at a performance is the culmQnation of elements like this which the musician has lived with anywhere from two weeks to six years. ''Consequently, your study is endless.''
In his dual career as violinist and conductor there are a few conflicts, such as how to be a constant conductor without taxing your bowing arm as a violinist. ''There is a physical demand,'' he says. ''When you are conducting lengthy pieces you do tend to get arm-weary, only because you're holding your arms up for an extended period of time, not just 20 minutes or half an hour . . . to go and play (the violin) shortly after that is almost impossible.''
Next season, when he plays an all-Beethoven concert with his chamber orchestra, he'll need the intermission between the first half's overture and symphony and the second half's ''fiddle concerto'' to recover for his role as violin soloist.
Zukerman sighs and says, ''It's not to say that we go and exercise and go to spring training as baseball players do, because that of course is completely physical. . . . Nevertheless, we have to have a physical makeup, a rather good constitution . . . otherwise you'd disappear off the face of the earth, because it is very hard.''
But which does he enjoy most, performing or conducting? ''They're both interlocked. It's music. I enjoy making music.'' Pause. '' 'Enjoy' may be the wrong word. I'm a servant to creating and re-creating sounds that are put down by the composers through the last 300 years, and doing it to the best of my ability, and continuing to do it. And it doesn't get easier.''
At one point in our conversation Zukerman the conductor breaks into the Mozart melody popularly known as ''Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'' to illustrate what a conductor can choose to emphasize. ''What you do with it is something else,'' he says. ''You can go - '' He bursts into a tweedy baritone and sings: ''bumb bumb bumb bumb BUMB BUMB bumb . . . Or, if you prefer: BUMB BUMB bumb bumb bumb bumb bumb,'' followed by several more variations. ''It's your choice, '' he says. ''You're the one who brings the music alive.''
His friend from childhood, pianist Eugene Istomin, says, ''Pinky has evolved into a much better person than he was as a child. He was always a tremendously gifted kid, but (now) he has become a deeply responsible and very serious musician. At the same time he's kept his tremendous ebullience, his joie of making music, the enthusiasm, the sheer joy of showing his talent and sharing it.
''He's not just a showoff now; he has seen the light and heard the sound and is pursuing that for the rest of his life. It makes him one of the most important musicians in the world.''