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Zukerman Conducts Tchaikovsky, Elgar, and Schubert

Pinchas Zukerman
Cheryl Mazak
Pinchas Zukerman

Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020
8:00 PM

In an encore broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Pinchas Zukerman is the violin soloist in Tchaikovsky's Mélodie and Andante cantabile, and leads the BSO in Tchaikovsky's Serenade, Elgar's Chanson de la nuit, and Schubert's Symphony No. 5.

Originally broadcast on November 7, 2015

This concert is no longer available on-demand.

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Pinchas Zukerman, conductor and violin

TCHAIKOVSKY Mélodie, Op. 42, No. 3, for violin and orchestra
TCHAIKOVSKY Andante cantabile, Op. 11, for violin and strings
TCHAIKOVSKY Serenade for Strings
ELGAR Chanson de la nuit
SCHUBERT Symphony No. 5

This concert is no longer available on-demand.

Hear a preview of this program with Pinchas Zukerman and WCRB's Brian McCreath:


Brian McCreath (BM) [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath. I'm at Symphony Hall with Pinchas Zukerman, and he is here for a week of conducting and playing with the Boston Symphony. Mr. Zukerman, thank you for your time today.

Pinchas Zukerman (PZ) [00:00:09] Pleasure.

BM [00:00:10] Well, I am very curious about the program, but first I want to ask you about when you are the soloist with an orchestra -- I'm only talking about violin soloist right now. We'll get to the conducting later. Do you tend to calibrate or adjust your playing or sound based on the sound of the orchestra you're with?

PZ [00:00:31] It's a wonderful question. Well, it depends on the, of course it depends on the caliber of the orchestra, how well they are listening because their listening process is obviously quite acute when you don't have a conductor. Depends on the music, of course. I try to stay away from full horns. Even though Mélancolique has full horns, it's a very limited amount of full horns. I have done things with full horns, Bruch Violin Concerto, Brahms Double. It takes a little adjusting. We need to get the orchestra to-- they do, they listen automatically in a different way.

PZ [00:01:09] Hence the immediate sound comes. It is an immediacy in the sound. The winds sometimes need an extra few minutes to get used to the fact of really listening, to hearing me, let's say, and hearing because there is no beat, so they need some kind of a support system. And mainly it's the ears, I would say, 90 percent is the ears. After that comes the concertmaster or I lead a little bit, of course, there'll be a section leader that will lead automatically, will lead. It's like chamber music.

BM [00:01:39] Well, and, you know, you play with basically every major orchestra in the world. And I just wonder how much difference you find in the character of sound, the sort of sound signature from among major orchestras around the world, and whether you might maybe change the way you articulate a particular phrase with one orchestra versus the way you might do it with another orchestra.

PZ [00:02:01] I'm not sure I would change. There is a significant difference between a German orchestra sound and a French orchestra. There is also quite an acute difference between an American orchestra, a famous good American machine like Boston Symphony and say, something like, oh, I don't know, Munich. But then you work on certain aspects of what the music requires. I know in Germany they still have some problems playing a kind of a sharp sound of Stravinsky, let's say, that we are used to automatically doing here. Where in this country, in North America, we still are getting accustomed to the Bruckner sound, that kind of inner, I call it chocolate. I think that one needs to remember where the music is from. Obviously, the Brahmses and the Schumanns never expected to be played in 2,500-seat auditoriums. On the other hand, maybe they did. We need to judge the dynamic regardless of the country. There will be certain attacks that will be totally different because of language.

PZ [00:03:17] Language is a huge difference, especially in Japan, for example. But even Japan has not gotten to a point where Bruckner is their music. It's not Japanese playing Bruckner, where 30, 40 years ago it was not like that at all. And so we have grown globally to be more flexible in fixing the style, if you like, or the color of the particular sound that we as conductors would like, or as the ones that stand for the orchestra to hear. There is no Tchaikovsky sound, but there is a wrong Tchaikovsky sound. That's for sure.

BM [00:03:51] That's a terrific statement. Yeah. Say more.

PZ [00:03:52] There is also a wrong Bach sound because you need to remember where it comes from. It comes from the church. If you don't remember a bell sound when you play, especially if you're a pianist, particularly if you're a pianist, then don't play that instrument. No, I'm serious because Rubinstein that's all he talked about is a bell sound. It's not a percussive instrument. It's a bell sound.

PZ [00:04:12] The bell has a certain vibration to it. And that's what we need to try and imitate. Always, always.

BM [00:04:19] You've put together three composers on this program, all well known, just maybe not always encountered together. So tell me about how a first half of Tchaikovsky and the second half of Elgar and Schubert came together in your talk with the BSO?

PZ [00:04:32] I don't know. You know, Tony Fogg and I talked about the program. We went through all kinds of different things. I'm sure he discussed it with certain committees they have on programing. The Mélancolique has never been played here, which is amazing. I was really kind of startled, with Heifetz being here all these years.

BM [00:04:50] And the Mélodie, too.

PZ [00:04:52] Has Mélodie also not been played?

BM [00:04:52] Yeah.

PZ [00:04:53] Well, there you go. That's one of the reasons, I suppose, why I'm doing it.

BM [00:04:56] And when it comes to the Elgar, only one performance 100 years ago.

PZ [00:04:59] That's for sure. That I knew. There's another one called Matin, which is also beautiful. So why not? And it kind of fits in a sort of ethereal way. So totally different. And yet it has a certain aspect of color that is so unique. You know, it's Elgar, you know, it's Tchaikovsky. So there's a variety there. Schubert was a kind of an afterthought. We thought of Beethoven. We thought of this. We thought of that. They don't play that much of Schubert here. So Tony said, "Would you mind doing the fifth symphony?" I said, "No, not at all." So that's how it came about. The Serenade was a given. I mean, the strings. He said, "We want you to work with the strings. We want you to play, the string section wants to play with you," blah, blah, blah. I said, fine, no problem.

BM [00:05:41] I noticed in rehearsal that you were holding your violin while you rehearsed the Serenade. You know, was that just logistical for rehearsal, or...?

PZ [00:05:47] Well, I didn't want to bring it back here to the room. I mean, I just held it there and it's not a big deal. Yeah, I just finished playing, so I didn't want to waste more time.

BM [00:05:56] Yeah. Yeah, sure. Speaking of your violin, what instrument is it that you're playing here and is it the one you tend to use pretty much everywhere?

PZ [00:06:06] Thirty five years.

BM [00:06:08] The only one?

PZ [00:06:09] I've played for 35 years on this one. I bought it in 1980 from, it was from Dushkin. Sam Dushkin, as we all know, is a wonderful violinist, arranged many pieces of Stravinsky for violin and piano. And he owned this instrument and his widow decided to sell it in 1980. So we heard about it because I'd met the instrument in 64 when I was at Juilliard. I was about 15, 16, and I just couldn't believe it.

PZ [00:06:36] And when it came up for sale, I was in London and it was already being bought by a friend of ours, Gottlieb, and he said, "Look, I can't have every fiddle on the block." So [indistinct] came over and he came back with it and that's it. The rest is history.

BM [00:06:55] So, you know, this instrument inside and out, it's inseparable.

PZ [00:06:58] Now I certainly do, yes.

BM [00:06:59] Yeah. You started your conducting career pretty early. Was that something that just sort of came organically, like you sort of evolved into thinking, I want to conduct? Or was there a particular moment that you remember when you thought, you know, I really want to try conducting for a change or to explore a different side of music?

PZ [00:07:18] Well, to be comical, I had Toscanini over my bed, when I was 16. And he said, "Conduct!" No, I did some some work at Juilliard when I was almost 16 and a half. I was at the upper school and I had two or three months of work as a conducting student. I then began to direct a bit later in 70 or so, with the English Chamber Orchestra, from the violin.

PZ [00:07:45] And in 72, they, a couple of the people in the ECO said to me, "Why don't you conduct?" I just put the violin down, and I said, "What? You're kidding." That's it. The rest, again. But I had a very good, obviously a very interested and very interesting time from the start of my life as a musician to play some of the greatest icons and to be able to play not only German music, but also as I started to play on the circuit, I played with some of the greatest conductors, greatest minds.

PZ [00:08:17] So I learned a lot. I went to libraries of orchestras to watch the parts, look at the parts, to talk to them about it. I then had wonderful friends that I played with, with Mr. Barenboim, and Mr. Mehta, etc, etc. and they were very helpful to me in the progress, in the progression of what I needed to learn. So the first, oh, five to seven years, it was, I would say, not an easy climb.

PZ [00:08:48] The hill was not not easy, but I wanted to get to know more of the music that I did not know.

PZ [00:08:57] When you, as conductor, you learn an enormous amount of music. So I was very studious. I was very earnest about it. I mark all my parts. I still do. I have over 600 pieces and my own private library. So it's been a wonderful extension of my musical being.

BM [00:09:18] Was it the volume of music and just exploring unknown territory that made it so challenging? Or was there something about the chemistry of rehearsals or the programming? What was it in those first five to seven years that made it such a tough climb at first?

PZ [00:09:34] I've always played German music since I was nine years old. I played for a year and a half and my teacher Feher started me, twice a week we would play German music. I then started playing viola when I was 14, 15. It's the interest of knowing what music has. You know, if I played only Brahms violin and viola sonatas, I would be missing an enormous amount of, even though I played the German music, Schumann and Mendelssohn and Beethoven and Mozart. And it goes on and of course, 20th century, my goodness. So also learning about the colors, the different orchestrations of certain pieces, certain composers, it enhanced my understanding of what I need to do on the violin as player. And that's a fantastic diet to be able, in fact, if you want to conduct, nobody should stop you from learning scores and marking parts and going to the rehearsals. And if you play an instrument, play it in the orchestra if you can, not just in school, but get into that stage, get to the stage of a professional orchestra.

PZ [00:10:43] It's a shock of a lifetime. Just the sheer amount of sound that comes out, and what happens, camaraderie-wise or none. You know? So all these aspects, I think, make you a much rounder, bigger person, more knowledge. The more knowledge, the more information, the better you are. So. The rest is just a musical impulse of of wanting to really understand better what music has.

BM [00:11:13] You have had a career that has just encompassed--

PZ [00:11:16] It's not over! You don't need the past tense!

BM [00:11:18]  Let me rephrase! You are having a career that includes just anything that someone in your position could possibly do. You conducted major orchestras. You were the music director of orchestras, of quite a few orchestras. You've made well over 100 recordings.

PZ [00:11:37] That's nothing. That's-- all of this is rubbish. You're reading biography stuff now. What is important to know about all this is the fact that number one, every day, and I mean, every day you go back to that violin case and you open it up. In my case, the violin. And you start playing those scales and you make sure that your fundamentals are working and scales are very important. You play some Bach. You then, of course, practice the pieces you have to play. It could be sonatas, it could be duos. It could be trios. It could be any number of things. German music is essential. Of course, writing and studying the scores, and you need to study a score. Not knowing the score, don't get in front of an orchestra, because they know it within 20 seconds. So these are all essentials for the intellect to really grow in time. That's it. Now, what I try to do is I work with orchestras. I also try to do classes in the cities.

PZ [00:12:37] I try to bring people together from schools and performing institutions. That's my next 15, 20 years of work, which I'm going to be doing. And I started already. I've done it all basically in Ottawa, Canada. And I'm continuing there with the Summer Music Institute for three weeks. We have a very intensive course of violin, viola, cello, piano, German music, orchestral. I mean, conducting, some voice, with Benita Valente. Hope to grow that into a much bigger institute so it can go into the winter season. We have, we started something called the IOS, which is a side by side, but it's much more complex than just side by side. We have usually five string players that apply every year from different parts of the world, and they play after 10 weeks with the orchestra and tours and so on.

PZ [00:13:31] So they learn right away what it's about to be a professional. And that's my, well, if you like, that's my DNA. That's what I do. That's what I'm going to do, it's what I've been doing and I'll do it all over. I was just in Brazil. We had Amanda give classes on cello. I did on violin. In fact, one of my students, former students, is now teaching there. Wonderful. And it goes on like that. It's in China. It's everywhere in Korea. And you name it, it's there. So and it's good to have that. I mean, over 25, 30 years. I have a lot of students, former students that are playing everywhere. They're leading orchestras to play German music, teaching very good teachers. And that's good. That's what Galamian, my teacher at Juilliard, taught us: to teach. And it's not difficult if you put your mind to it.

BM [00:14:20] Pinchas Zukerman, thank you for your time today.

PZ [00:14:22] Pleasure. Thank you very much.