No one has ever accused Pinchas Zukerman of being a shrinking violet.
"I bring more than one thing to the table, and the possibilities can be presented in a number of different ways," Zukerman said by way of introducing himself to an invited audience last spring, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced the famed musician's appointment as artistic director of Summer MusicFest, the BSO's summer season in Meyerhoff Hall.
"I'm a violinist, I'm a violist, I'm also a conductor," Zukerman continued. "I also play a great deal of chamber music, and this raises another set of possibilities for using your orchestra's musicians."
The BSO, whose musicians have been playing without a contract since September, can use some of Zukerman's confidence. It can also use his sense of focus.
Ever since music director David Zinman left the BSO's summer season two years ago for new challenges at the larger summer festival of the Minnesota Orchestra, Summer MusicFest has lacked the energy and definition that Zukerman promises to bring to it. If he receives enough cooperation from the orchestra, Zukerman, 48, is sure he will succeed. For 30 years he has been recognized as one of the world's greatest violinists. Within a few years of achieving fame as a violinist, he took up the larger viola, bringing that much-maligned instrument to theretofore unknown
heights of popularity. And before the end of the 1970s, Zukerman had added conducting to his arsenal and has since led major orchestras all over the world.
"We needed a vital force to strengthen MusicFest's artistic identity," says BSO executive director John Gidwitz. "Pinchas Zukerman is not only one of the world's greatest and most popular musicians, he also commands a tremendous amount of repertory suitable to a summer festival that starts with Mozart and takes off from there."
Although he will conduct and perform as violin soloist at MusicFest's inaugural concert Friday, Zukerman doesn't actually take over as artistic director until next summer. But when he does, listeners should be prepared for him to take the orchestra in unexpected directions.
A few weeks ago in Toronto, where he was guest-conducting the Toronto Symphony, Zukerman smoked several Cohibas, a handmade Cuban cigar that costs a little more than one-tenth as much as his $400-a-night suite at the posh Four Seasons Hotel, as he discussed programs that might unconventionally combine symphonic music with chamber music. And he waxed enthusiastic about the possibilities of using technology to extend the range of the BSO's educational activities as well as its concerts.
"All American orchestras below the level of the Boston-New York-Chicago axis are in deep trouble," Zukerman says, waving his Cohiba for emphasis. "We need to say, 'Come and hear this music, and you'll get something for free.' "
He puts down the cigar, picks up one of the hotel's thick-napped white towels and recounts a conversation he had more than 25 years ago with Isador Sharp, the Toronto-based entrepreneur who founded the Four Seasons hotel and resort chain.
"When Izzy told me about his plans to expand worldwide, I asked him why he was sure he'd succeed," Zukerman says.
" 'People will come if you offer them something for free,' Izzy said. 'See these really nice, fluffy white towels -- I'll put them in every room, and then I'll charge the folks $30 extra!'
"We have to ask ourselves," Zukerman says with a smile as he relights his Cohiba, "Do we want this music or don't we?"
Zukerman emerged, along with his slightly older friend and fellow Israeli, Itzhak Perlman, as one of the two most talked-about violinists of their generation. But while Perlman remained strictly a violinist, repeating and recording the same concertos year after year, Zukerman flouted expections by ranging far and wide musically.
He played an enormous amount of chamber music, not caring a whit if he played second viola in a Mozart string quintet. He became a conductor; he explored new music and new ways of presenting music; he helped to nurture extraordinarily gifted children such as the violinists Midori and Sarah Chang; and five years ago he began yet another career teaching violin, viola and chamber music at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
"Having a gift for music is only the start of a long, long journey," Zukerman says.
A prodigy's beginnings
In 1960 a group of distinguished musicians -- including the legendary cellist Pablo Casals, his young cellist wife, Marta, violinist Isaac Stern and pianist Eugene Istomin -- visited Israel to hear an 11-year-old Wunderkind.
"I still remember it vividly," says Marta Casals Istomin, who married Istomin several years after Casals' death and is president of the Manhattan School of Music. "He was a very bright-looking boy, with a very winning smile, and his playing was incredible. He had Casals, Isaac and Eugene in tears. Everything coming out of the violin was like a blossom flowering."
But the boy's tender core was protected by a hard shell. Isaac Stern remembers Zukerman as "a brassy kid who put his two feet down and dared you not to like it."
Stern arranged for him to study at the Juilliard School of Music with Ivan Galamian. He arrived in New York without his parents, who could not afford to follow him, as a 12-year-old who could not speak English and who was too proud to ask for help.
"He was very defensive -- very, very Israeli," says Eugene Istomin, with whose parents the boy lived for several years. "My parents adored him, but they were more like grandparents and they spoiled him terribly."
Without parents to guide him, Zukerman had a difficult time adjusting to a new language and milieu. He dropped out of high school, becoming a habitue of midtown pool halls, where he spent more time than he did in Juilliard's practice rooms.
Patinka Kopec, now his teaching partner in the Manhattan School's Pinchas Zukerman String Program, had known both Zukerman and Perlman since their childhood in Israel, and she remembers the new arrival's first years at Juilliard.
"Even though Itzhak had been left disabled by polio, he came here with his entire family and had an easier time than Pinchas," she says. "He was very, very wild, he was brash and he was arrogant. Today when he tells students that 'Your best friend is your violin,' I feel a pang of sadness because I realize that in his early years here the violin was his only friend."
In retrospect, Zukerman says, his wild adolescence was probably a necessary stage in his learning process.
"I was in a new world, and I wanted to find out all about it," the violinist says of the years in which he seemed to major in cafeteria, cutting classes, chasing girls and playing pool.
Aside from indulging his taste for expensive cigars, Zukerman now seems to have few vices.
With his full head of dark hair -- only lightly flecked by gray -- his handsome face with its Roman nose and Mediterranean-blue eyes, and his muscular physique, which he maintains through regular exercise, he seems younger than 48. He takes good care of himself; the bottles of imported brandy stocked in his mini-bar at the Four Seasons are for dipping Cohibas, not for drinking.
But the curiosity evident in his teen-age explorations of New York's gaming palaces is equally apparent in the way he explored the world of music. His interest in conducting, he says, inevitably evolved from childhood interests.
"Ever since I can remember I've always had the urge just to listen -- to lots of different kinds of music, to myself, of course, but especially to other musicians," Zukerman says. "I have tremendous respect for those, like Itzhak [Perlman], who concentrate on the fiddle, but it was never enough to satisfy me."
His first years on the international circuit coincided with the last years of the golden age of conductors, and he had the opportunity to work with Charles Munch, Sir John Barbirolli, George Szell and Eugene Ormandy.
"To work with such people for even a few days was a life experience, and the only thing you had to do was let it unfold in front of you," he says.
"As Isaac [Stern] loved to say, 'Be a sponge, be a sponge, you gotta be a sponge.' And I was -- I just ate it all up."
By the middle 1970s he became more and more involved in conducting, at first leading orchestras while playing violin concertos, and later from the podium. He raised eyebrows, however, in 1980 when he became music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Zukerman's admirers worried that the job, which included administrative duties, would diminish his powers the violin, a jealous taskmaster that does not tolerate neglect.
But his conducting only seemed to add new depth to his violin playing. And no one could deny his salutary effect on the orchestra during his eight-year tenure. He inherited a 26-member orchestra with severe financial problems that played in high-school auditoriums. When he departed, he left a 34-member ensemble in the peak of financial health that played in a new, 2,000- seat theater, one of the most attractive and acoustically vibrant in the nation. Moreover, he brought the orchestra to world renown, polishing its string sound to perfection, bringing it prestigious recording contract and taking it on several national and international tours.
It came as something of a shock, therefore, when he announced in 1986 that he would leave St. Paul at the end of the 1987-1988 season. Zukerman departed because of disagreements with a board that was reluctant to follow his ambitious plans to expand the orchestra's size by 18 players and to enlarge the scope of its repertory to include annual cycles of the Beethoven symphonies.
"I expected it to last forever," Zukerman says of his musical marriage in St. Paul. "But to be a music director today can be an exercise in frustration. The board could not look ahead five to 10 years, and I did not have the time or energy to argue."
His decision to leave came at what must have been a turbulent time in his life. His longtime marriage to flutist, author and television personality Eugenia Zukerman was ending in divorce, and he was about to marry actress Tuesday Weld.
"Carnegie Hall," Zukerman answers when asked how he met Weld. She went to a concert there in 1982 at the invitation of her ex-husband, actor Dudley Moore, who was performing the solo piano part in Beethoven's Triple Concerto with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under Zukerman's baton.
"We had this little party afterwards," Zukerman continues. "I just saw this woman there, and she knocked me on my ear."
For the generation of men who grew up watching television in the late 1950s and early '60s, Tuesday Weld, now 52, is an enduring blond fantasy. In her teens and early 20s, she specialized in portraying cherubic-faced, often predatory nymphets. But although it was understandable that Zukerman was attracted to her, it seemed odd to many people that one of the world's great musicians would leave his wife and family for the star of "Sex Kittens Go to College" and "Return to Peyton Place."
The truth is that Weld and Zukerman had much in common. Like him she had been a child prodigy -- at the age of 3 she had become the sole support of her widowed mother and two siblings by working as a child model. And like him she had been a loner as an adolescent. She became an alcoholic, had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide -- all by the time she was 13. Moreover, she was as intellectually brilliant as she was beautiful -- even though her considerable gifts as an actress were largely neglected by the studios and ignored by journalists, except for the gossip columnists who saw in her free-wheeling, independent lifestyle a "menace" to the morals of the film industry.
Although she eventually won an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress in 1977 for "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," by the time Zukerman met her she had become a reclusive cult figure who was almost as famous for the starring roles she had turned down ("Bonnie and Clyde" among them) as for those she had played.
"She's one of the most honest, brilliant and unpretentious people I've ever known," says Zukerman, sounding, almost 15 years after meeting her, as if he still can't believe his good luck. "I've learned a lot from her -- that's all I can tell you."
Their relationship, friends agree, has made Zukerman a much happier, more relaxed man.
"Even though he's a performer, Pinchas is really a very private person -- and Eugenia loved the limelight," Patinka Kopec says. "In Tuesday he's found someone he's comfortable being alone with. They have homes in New York, in Montauk and Santa Fe, but he's happy anywhere he can be with her and have a score to study."
Zukerman has become an accomplished conductor who is now as comfortable leading a complex score by Boulez as he is performing a Paganini caprice on the violin.
"When he started to conduct, he was primarily a violinist leading other string players," said Michael Sweeney, the Toronto Symphony's principal bassoonist. "Now he's a real conductor; he knows the danger spots for all the instruments; he doesn't waste time; and there are no airs -- none of this phony maestro stuff. It's always a treat to have Pinky here, but we respect him because we learn from him."
At dinner later in his favorite Chinese restaurant, when someone tells him how fine a conductor many Toronto players think he's become, he roars with laughter.
"After all these years, I should hope so!" he says.
"I was lucky that there were people like Casals, Stern and Ormandy for me to learn from," he continues. "That's one of the reasons I started to teach at Manhattan."
Into the future
Zukerman's concern about music's future led him to a technology called video conferencing. Video conferencing, or long-distance learning as it is sometimes called, is a method of transmitting, through telephone cables, video and sound anywhere on earth. Four years ago, the violinist formed his own company, MasterVision International, to create high-quality video with CD-quality sound so teachers and students, separated by thousands of miles, could see each other's hand, arm and finger movements on huge monitors.
"I didn't know anything about it," Manhattan's Marta Istomin says. "But when he showed me a demonstration, I was quickly convinced."
She obtained a $175,000 gift to buy the necessary hardware, making Manhattan the first school of music to offer interactive long-distance learning.
"Neither Pinchas nor I think this technology can replace person-to-person contact," Istomin says, "but it will be a major enhancement to music education in this country. We can now have a master class in Manhattan and have interactive situations in Minneapolis, Dallas and Seattle. And we can offer master classes to people in places where master teachers would never be able to go. The possibilities are endless."
Pinchas Zukerman would like to bring some of those possibilities to the Baltimore Symphony.
"Do you have any idea how many facilities Johns Hopkins [University] already has for [long-distance learning] in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area?" he asks. "I've looked into it -- it's hundreds. Instead of busing children into Meyerhoff for school concerts, we could reach 20 schools at the same time and save the city a bundle."
The BSO is already "very interested" in education, says executive director John Gidwitz. "We'll have to see how [Zukerman's] ideas fit in with our plans."
But Zukerman, typically, is already confident, focused and ready.
"I'm concerned about more than merely giving concerts in Baltimore," he says. "I'm interested in the big picture."
Pub Date: 7/07/96