Pinchas Zukerman at 60

The following is a paragraph from Zukerman’s official biography

for this year, outlining his ambitious plans in celebration of his 60th birthday:

“Pinchas Zukerman turned 60 on July 16, 2008 and celebrates with a schedule which comprises more than 112 concert engagements and travel to 17 countries including France, India, Israel, China, Turkey, Peru, New Zealand, Austria, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. He performs orchestra, solo recital and chamber music repertoire in more than 34 cities. He spends 10 weeks teaching in his role as Director of the Pinchas Zukerman Performance Program at the Manhattan School of Music, and as Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre Summer Music Institute in Ottawa, which includes the Young Artist Programme, Conductor’s Programme and Composer’s Programme. Currently in his 10th season as Music Director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Mr. Zukerman conducts London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Moscow, Italy and Spain as well as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on tour in the United States. He performs with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra and joins the Israel Philharmonic in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Bombay and Israel, the Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France and the Gulbenkian Orchestra. Mr. Zukerman and pianist Marc Neikrug give recitals in Vienna, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago.”

It is an astounding world tour to say the least, and I was in attendance at the last concert mentioned – a recital with pianist/composer Marc Neikrug in Chicago’s Harris Theater. He performed a healthy variety of pieces, mostly for violin. With that slight instrument, Pinchas performed Mozart’s sonata, K.454, Franck’s Sonata in A, and Takemitsu’s From Far Beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog. With his viola Zukerman brought forth the brooding and pensive viola sonata of Dmitri Shostakovich. As a gentleman in front of me uttered to his wife, Zukerman made it all “look effortless.” The problem was that I wished there were a little more effort put into connecting with the audience.

For this recital, the violinist/violist wore what looked like pajamas – a flowing black shirt, like from a Chinese restaurant, some black pants and the most comfortable shoes he could find. They looked like structured socks. His accompanist, bald with a long ponytail, was a little more dressed up. The Mozart was first, and as the notes stated, the piece is to start with a grand and forceful statement in unison, as befits a piece of music written for the emperor. What I heard was a lot less forceful, almost anemic. Zukerman barely moved as he played, eyes locked onto his music stand. There was barely any communication between Zukerman and Neikrug either. Don’t get me wrong, Zukerman’s playing is flawless. As a musician who has to muscle a sweet tone out of the grouchy viola, his violin tone is rich and full, effortless. He commands a treasure-trove of skills on the violin, brought out in full measure when necessary. The only reservation is that he seems to make no connection to the music or the audience when he plays. After the Mozart was over, he immediately took off his glasses, bowed once and walked off, Neikrug right behind him, and the page turner behind him.

He bolts right out with his viola and sends us into a world we are not prepared for: Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, the composer’s last musical utterances. The piece opens with pizzicato of yet another melancholy melody. Zukerman plays with a little more passion and commitment. This music fits his performance style perfectly: constrained and inhibited. During the work’s middle movement, with all of its folksy tunes and flourishes, Pinchas lets go. It is a very convincing reading. The last movement is fascinating, and if you don’t know this piece of Shostakovich, go out and listen to it. It is an homage to Beethoven, even taking the basic outline of the composer’s “Moonlight” sonata as this sonata’s foundation. It is an eery piece and ends quietly, effectively played by Zukerman and Neikrug. The stunning contrast between the sweet violin sonata of Mozart and the brooding viola of Shostakovich left me cold. They were strange bedfellows to say the least, and really didn’t complement each other well. Again, the performers flew off the stage.

The audience was duly impressed by whatever Zukerman was giving as they proceeded to talk and chat. I was sitting behind a large contingent of Russians who waved to others and spoke softly during the performance. They were having lots of fun, although listening intently to the music wasn’t part of that fun. Twenty minutes for intermission having passed, Zukerman et al. burst forth back on stage. The house lights gave no indication that it was time to return, so everyone was still standing around as the violinist was ready to go. Takemitsu’s piece was short, as they all are, and spare. It evidenced Zukerman’s commitment to bringing a panoply of music to the audience. Unfortunately, the audience seemed disconcerted by the intermission, and so it passed without much notice.

The program concluded with Franck’s Romantic sonata for violin. In four movements, it was described in the notes as being “large.” The playing was beautiful, the violin in his hands seemed small, almost like a toy fiddle, but the sound was smooth and effortless. The playing was also uniform. The performers moved from the first to the second without notice, the break almost non-existent. The same for the third and fourth movements. Of course, this may be a matter of interpretation, creating two related movements instead of four, but it just made the piece seem rushed. The ending flourish was played hastily  and off they went again. There may have been an encore, but I didn’t stay.

Pinchas Zukerman is a world-reknown musician with due fame for his various musical gifts. I just don’t think that one of those gifts is being a live performer. I have also seen him with the CSO, and he just seems bothered by having to perform in front of others. It makes the whole affair seem condescending. His recordings play up his exceptional performing ability, whereas live performance detracts from it, as you look at this man who appears put-upon. This concert gave me that impression, and although it had a lot of variety and beautiful music making, a performance without connection is a pretty dull performance. Listen to him on CD or MP3 instead.

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