Music

A white knight hits the road

Pinchas Zukerman helps reinvent the National Arts Centre

John Geddes October 18 1999
Music

A white knight hits the road

Pinchas Zukerman helps reinvent the National Arts Centre

John Geddes October 18 1999

A white knight hits the road

Music

Pinchas Zukerman helps reinvent the National Arts Centre

John Geddes

Pinchas Zukerman silences the 46-member National Arts Centre Orchestra with a frustrated wince. The musicians’ rehearsal of Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. l0 in B minor, which they are preparing to play at a fund-raising concert featuring Itzhak Perlman—Zukerman’s old friend and one of his few rivals among living violinists—has hit a rough patch. With a pained expression, Zukerman croons the troublesome passage, waving an arm limply to signify the offending flaccid rhythm. Then he sings it again, this time the way he wants to hear it, his conductor’s baton blurring like a hummingbird wing in his right hand, while his left snatches note after imagined note out of the air. The orchestra tries it once more. As he conducts, Zukerman leans forward with an arched eyebrow and the beginning of a smile— hey, not bad—that makes the handsome 51-year-old maestro look like a willful boy who is finally getting his way.

Imagine such a cajoler in front of a classroom. Now

imagine the classroom stretching across Canada. That is what an ambitious new management group at the National Arts Centre has in mind. After years of financial woes and chaotic, revolving-door leadership, the 30-year-old Ottawa institution is trying to reinvent itself as not merely a showcase for the performing arts, but also a driving force in the training of promising young musicians, actors and dancers from across the country. And the NACs first bid to refurbish its tattered image is Zukerman’s inaugural tour as its music director, with 14 concerts this month in 11 cities from Vancouver to Halifax. What is happening between shows, though,«nay be even more crucial for the NACs long-term revival strategy: a hectic schedule of more than 40 teaching “outreach” events, from a Zukerman-led class for talented teenage musicians in Calgary to a string quintet concert for Grade 4 pupils in Kingston, Ont.

But playing to kids sitting cross-legged on gym floors is only the start of the NACs education thrust. A slick teachers’ resource kit, including a free CD of Zukerman’s first record-

ing with his new orchestra, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, is being sent to 4,000 public schools. The idea is to get kids writing poems and painting pictures based on the music. There are classroom guides for social-studies lessons on Antonio Vivaldi’s 16th-century Venice, and even for connecting his changing seasons theme to todays global warming worries. The NAC has also set up a tour Web site aimed at kids and their teachers, and Zukerman will conduct a master class live on the Internet from Vancouver on Oct. 22, then answer high-school students’ questions in a second “Webcast” from Fredericton slated for Oct. 29.

The NAC’s new management insists all the effort to get their music and musicians into classrooms is more than a gimmick for the current tour. David Leighton, who took over as the NAC’s chairman last May, and Peter Herrndorf, who became its chief executive officer last month, see education as the long-term key to making the centre mean something to Canadians. And Leighton adds it may also be the best strategy for safeguarding the NAC’s approximately $20 million in annual federal funding. “The NAC has really been seen as a government-supported institution mainly for the benefit of people in Ottawa,” he says. “Our ability to play a national role is going to be in the education and youth area, where Pinchas Zukerman already has a very strong reputation.”

When the centre announced it was hiring the New Yorkbased violin and viola virtuoso last year, attention focused on his clout as a top-rank performer—and the badly needed boost to ticket sales and corporate sponsorships that the financially strapped NAC was surely praying he would generate. Outside serious music circles, however, few realized the NAC was also getting a dedicated teacher,

with his own program at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. And as a teacher, Zukerman is a technological innovator, a pioneer of video-conferencing as a way to reach his students in distant cities. One of his first initiatives at the NAC was to launch a summer teaching program to bring promising young Canadian classical musicians to Ottawa. “Performance is the last thing I think about,” he declares. “I can play, I can conduct, but teaching is another form of listening, which is what I am always saying to myself—listen, listen.”

With Zukerman’s devotion to teaching as its starting point, the new regime at the NAC is aiming partly to fill a void in an era when school budgets are tight and music is often dismissed as a costly frill. “We understand that we are going into a school environment that is straining to maintain an arts presence at all,” says orchestra manager Chris Deacon. But Amanda Montgomery, president of the Canadian Music Educators Association, argues the climate is now changing for the better, as widely publicized studies credit music with spurring childhood intellectual development. “We’ve been in a bad cycle the last five or six years,” she says, “but now we’re on an upswing.” The NAC’s new chief executive, former head of TVOntario Peter Herrndorf, is counting on his star fiddler to command a national role for his orchestra in that hoped-for renaissance of music education. “Pinchas Zukerman is not only a brilliant musician,” says Herrndorf, “he’s a larger-than-life figure.” But is a longtime New Yorker who needs to spend no more than three months a year in Ottawa fulfilling his NAC obligations the right front man for the job? Zukerman, who officially took up his duties as music director on July 1, says he understands those who wonder if his heart will really be in Canada—and vows to erase those doubts with hard work. “There is a paranoia here, and rightly so: America is a very big animal.” Zukerman, whose two adult daughters remain in the United States, points out that he has a house in Ottawa and now calls the city home. And his bond to the NAC is not new; it was forged back in 1990, when he led its orchestra on an acclaimed European tour. “If I go to little towns in Canada, or I go to Vienna or Berlin,” he says, “I ain’t any different, I can assure you.” Zukerman carries the weight of great expectations lightly. Born in 1948 in Tel Aviv, he was recognized as a prodigy when he was still a very young boy. In 1962, with the support of Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals, no less, he moved to New York to study at the Juilliard School. His teacher

Zukerman seems to convince young students that there is no substitute for feeling good

there was the legendary Ivan Galamian—fondly referred to as “Mr. G” by Zukerman. “He made you practice properly, he made you listen properly, he made you work properly,” Zukerman recalls. But for all Galamian’s stern insistence on “patience and perseverance,” he instilled more than faultless technique. “Mr. G said something that in a nutshell makes it so simple,”

Zukerman says, reciting: “ ‘When it sounds good, you feel good, and when you feel good, it sounds good.’ ”

Watching Zukerman put his orchestra through its paces leaves no doubt about his passion for making it sound good. But what he seems to convey more vividly to the young students he encounters is that there is no substitute for feeling good. Zukerman exudes a sensual appreciation for life. He is, after all, famous for his links to beautiful women; one of his two ex-wives is Tuesday Weld, the bombshell ’60s movie star. Around Ottawa, Zukerman’s romantic attachment to the NAC orchestras striking blond cellist, Amanda Forsyth, is no secret. His zest for living large adds to Zukerman’s magnetism as mentor. Jessica Linnebach, a gifted 16-year-old violinist from Edmonton, studied with him during his summer Young Artists Program at the NAC. While she raves about the sumptuous sound of his violin, her recollections of long conversations with Zukerman are strangely devoid of tips on bowing and fingering. “We didn’t really talk about music much,” Linnebach says. “Just, I don’t know, cigars, food—he really likes that kind of stuff.” In fact, for Zukerman, there seems to be no dividing line between “that kind of stuff” and music. So to play French composers, one must “go to Paris and taste that croissant at 7 o’clock in the morning,” he insists, closing his eyes to call up the flavour or the melody. Maybe both. In music, the Italian word for sweet, dolce, is used as a direction for soft, smooth playing. But Zukerman says he only came to grasp its subder meaning by eating a pastry during his first trip to Italy back in 1967. “I went into a coffee place and somebody said, ‘Have a dolce,’ ” he remembers with a delicious smile. “That means a sweet, but not the way we mean sweet. A dolce is a very small little thing with a fine crust and the most extraordinary cream-like stuff inside. Since then, playing dolce is a totally different story for me. I’m not joking.”

All his talk about food and music and feeling good might be dismissed as so much thick symp if it were not for what pours out of his violin. At the gala with Perlman, a sold-out black-tie event on Oct. 2, the two master fiddlers delivered a riveting rendition of Bach’s D minor Concerto for Two Violins.

Critics reach for adjectives like radiant to describe such playing. And when Zukerman put aside his instrument, a 1742 Guarneri del Gesu worth millions, he remained a charismatic presence as conductor. (He looked pleased with the orchestras outing on the tricky Mendelssohn Sinfonía.)

The question is whether Zukerman’s stage mastery can translate into a tangible impact in places where he and his orchestra will rarely set foot. This fall, at least, music teachers report a growing buzz. At Calgary’s Mount Royal College, where Zukerman is scheduled to conduct a class on Oct. 19, music teacher Bill van der Sloot says excitement is running so high that he plans to hold off until the last minute before revealing which students have been picked to play for the great man. “I just want them all to keep practising this hard,” he says. At Fredericton High School in the New Brunswick capital, Elliott Braganzas, 15, a talented pianist who also plays the cello, knows exactly what he wants to ask Zukerman in the planned Internet question-and-answer session on Oct. 29: “I’d ask him what it takes to be great.”

Most kids, of course, will not be so captivated. At an NAC orchestra rehearsal open to Ottawa high-school music classes recendy, the majority of the students slouched out as soon as their teachers let them go. “It kind of, like, dragged,” explained one 15-year-old boy as he headed for the exit. Zukerman regards such a response as normal. “There will always be four to seven per cent of the people who like classical music,” he shrugs. “But that’s a lot of people.” Count Joanna Pay, 18, who plays viola, and her friend Yanaya Shree, 18, a violinist, among the devoted minority. They hang around the rehearsal long after they are allowed to leave. Pay is “just blown away” by Zukerman’s playing. Shree adds that music class is always the high point of her day. “When I come out,” she gushes, “I just feel better.” Like Zukerman’s mentor said, when it sounds good, you feel good. And now the NAC is waiting to find out if a coast-to-coast tour, with a concert-hall-to-classroom twist, can make that good feeling spread. EH