I caught Pinchas Zukerman for a chat when he was in town giving masterclasses at Cadogan Hall not long ago. He is a mesmerising person on stage, holding forth to the audience and students alike with his memories and anecdotes about the great musicians with whom he studied, and the youngsters who were playing to him seemed to be lapping up his every word. The violin's history is aural, in more ways than one: this is how its traditions, secrets and marvels are passed down most effectively. “My teacher, Ivan Galamian, used to say
that if it sounds good, you feel good,” Zukerman told us all. “I’d put it the other way too: if it feels good, it’ll sound good.” He's back in the UK with his NAC Orchestra this week and I have a short piece in today's Indy about what they're doing, where and why...
After the outbreak of World War I, some 30,000 Canadian troops came to the UK and underwent military training on Salisbury Plain. Now a Canadian orchestra is following in their footsteps – at least as far as the town’s cathedral. Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra plays there on 29 October, part of a tour in which they celebrate the links between the two countries. At the helm is their music director Pinchas Zukerman, one of today’s most celebrated violinists and a dab hand, too, with the conductor’s baton.
Zukerman, 66, started out as a child prodigy in his native Israel, where the influential violinist Isaac Stern spotted him and encouraged him to study in New York; he rose to stardom during the 1960s-70s. Today, though, there is still a pugnacious energy about him, an unshakeable determination to forge ahead with big ideas. I catch him after a masterclass at London’s Cadogan Hall and find him still afizz despite a long day’s work.
“Canada feels very passionately about this anniversary,” Zukerman declares. “One of the high points for the orchestra is of course performing at Salisbury Cathedral, and with my connection with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra [he is its principal guest conductor] it also seemed the perfect idea to do a concert with both orchestras together at the Royal Festival Hall.” In that concert on 27 October, the ensembles combine for Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, which concludes with the ‘Ode to Joy’.
During his 15 years at the NAC – this is his final season – Zukerman has shaken up the orchestra, expanding it to more than 60 players and implementing a pioneering programme of education and outreach work, including experiments in video-conferencing and distance learning.
“When you are lucky enough to have the kind of education I had and the kind of exposure to the great figures of music, then if you’re capable of it, you have to give back what you received,” he says. “I was fortunate to encounter the greatest musicians, not only as mentors and teachers, but also as players: Isaac Stern, some of the Budapest String Quartet’s members, the list is huge. You absorb information that you can’t really write down. You have to show, you have to play, you have to exhibit yourself, so to speak, to the youngsters – and they eat it up.”
Nor are his efforts restricted to advanced students. He recalls an occasion when he played the Brahms lullaby to a children’s music class taken by a former pupil of his wife (the NACO’s lead cellist Amanda Forsyth, his third marriage). “Afterwards one little boy said: ‘I’m on fire!’. God, that was fantastic.”
And he has encouraging words for those struggling to keep music education alive. Teaching effectively and transforming a pupil “takes time, proper teaching and follow-up,” he says. “We need to create coalitions, work together and share information. But we’re not only teaching them to be good players. We’re teaching them to be good people.”
Pinchas Zukerman and the NAC Orchestra perform with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on 27 October at the Royal Festival Hall (0844 875 0073), and at Salisbury Cathedral (01722 320 333) on 29 October