An enhanced existence

Violinist, conductor and video-conferencing guru? How does Pinchas Zukerman find the time to do all that, and travel, teach and crusade against the evils of 'authenticity' as well? Michael Church finds out

Michael Church
Thursday 15 May 1997 23:02 BST

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Swimming along on the Internet's tide of propaganda is a message of eye-glazing corporate blandness. "Mastervision International Ltd is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the Arts," it intones. "By implementing high-end point-to-point and multipoint video-conferencing we provide a unique interactive mechanism for participants to be in more than one place at a time." It claims as its champion "world-renowned violinist, violist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman".

Finding the world-renowned etc in one place at one time - a luxurious Kensington hotel - I discover that he is not just a name on the notepaper. Pinchas Zukerman is Mastervision's co-founder, and he's so enthused about his creation that he can scarcely get his words out straight. "It's a fax with pictures! Imagine 12 telephone lines all connected together - not satellite, not cable, telephone, and you are on one screen, and your student is on the other - it's a mirror-image, but it's alive. It's the greatest enhancement for teaching - for human interaction - there has ever been. It's been used in medicine and the military for 20 years, now it's changing the business world, and the arts are next in line."

But what precisely is the aim? "My aim? My mission! It's 50 million people paying one dollar, for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That's what I'm aiming for." Is this a musician speaking, or what? Gradually we tease out some facts. His violin students will see themselves and their teacher on adjacent screens. "You get objectivity and subjectivity at the same time. When I saw what this technology could do, I went ballistic. Now I can teach when I'm on the road. It's the greatest enhancement... Look, I can't talk if you keep doing that!" So the incoherence must be blamed on my flashbulb.

Schools and hospitals and old people's homes will also benefit, he barks. "The same technology will bring events out of the concert hall and into the street - which can then respond. We want to provide an experience with the same reproductive quality as television, for a minimal fee. It's just around the corner, and it'll be all over the place within four or five years. You won't have to come here to interview me - you could sit at home and we could talk!" But I want the pleasure of smelling his Havana (constantly relit) and of blinding him with my flash. "OK, it's not a substitute for the real thing. But it's an enhancement." Yea, verily.

But enhancement seems the mot juste for much that has happened to this gravel-voiced bruiser. Gone is the Biblical beard he sported in the Sixties: fame and money have happened to him, plus a second starry marriage (actress Tuesday Weld replacing flautist Eugenia Zukerman). He may now have, as he modestly puts it, "a few places" in which to dwell, but you'd now assume that Hollywood was his natural home. His sound on the concert platform is still marked, as it always was, by a soaring purity, but what he radiates in person is sheer celebrity.

Interviews, however, make him edgy and pugnacious, not just because the wonky English this born Israeli learnt as a teenager in New York pool halls has never been ironed smooth. He's still the "brassy kid who put his two feet down and dared you not to like it", whom Isaac Stern spotted and sent to the Juilliard. As fellow-student Garrick Ohlsson recalls, "He was a jock, while the rest of us were nerds." Zukerman's father survived three years in Auschwitz, and his mother endured the terrors of the Lodz ghetto. He himself was born three years after the war ended, but the inherited will to survive remains ingrained in every fibre.

He regularly goes back to Israel to play and teach: five years ago he founded an annual seminar for young violinists in his home town of Holon. "It's to give them the fundamentals about making a sound. It's not state supported, and it ain't gonna be a Gstaad" (this being a reference to Switzerland's glitzier equivalent). Does he still see it, as he originally did, as a peaceful corrective to Israeli bellicosity? In reply, he echoes Auden: "You can't change anything by playing a Beethoven sonata." But it's still his dream to be able to travel freely in the Muslim world. Would he play, if invited, at the new Al Bustan festival in Beirut? "If they gave me a visa, I'd go like a flash. I've been invited to Abu Dhabi, but getting there is difficult: I can't even fly to one of those Arab countries to catch a connection. We Americans can't do things you English don't think twice about." Dual nationality like his - American and Israeli - just makes things worse.

His travel may be constrained but it's constant, and his hotel room is like any other musician's bivouac: a Beethoven score is propped on his open violin case, which has photos of his family neatly slotted inside. How much does he practise? "I go over to that box as often as I can" - waving at the case - "and I have just two aims - playing in time, and making a good sound. That box is where I live. But the most difficult thing is just opening it - it's like when Baryshnikov goes to his studio - I'm sure he has nightmares about opening that studio door, but he's got to keep on doing it."

Zukerman swims religiously, does time on his treadmill, and starts each day with exercises to release the muscles: he's acutely aware that, as time goes on, his body will require progressively more toning. And even now he's not free of nerves. "Anyone who doesn't have them shouldn't be playing. I spend a lot of time teaching people to control theirs. I get them to play standing on a chair - to escape gravity - and to learn to focus. When they get down, I say, 'Remember that feeling.' I get them doing things to lower the heart-rate: it's only a muscle, but under stress it can go berserk."

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Fifty per cent of his work is conducting, often in concerts where he is also the soloist. "I realised 25 years ago that I could do it - that I could get up there and move my hands up and down. But it's an extraordinary profession. Think about it. You're the one person on stage that's facing the wrong way. You don't sit at the wheel of a car and drive looking backwards. And how much does the orchestra need you? Very little. It's pantomime, an act. It's the greatest dilettante art of all time." Eat your heart out, Rattle.

This was all benignly said, but Zukerman's tirade against the "farce" of authentic-instrument performances is delivered in deadly earnest. "The only instruments I will accept in that light are the horn and the trumpet. We know the measurements, and we can get the original sound. But everything else is complete hogwash." Or Hogwoodery: the craze led by Christopher Hogwood and Roger Norrington is, in his view, a cynically commercial game.

"They use modern instruments, made 20 years ago, from modern materials. They claim to be creating sound from something they call antique, but it's worse than repro furniture. If these performers were pilots of a 747, you wouldn't get into it. If they were doctors, claiming to perform operations with 'authentic' scalpels, you wouldn't go under the knife. They are a mediocrity in our midst."

If a harpsichord is made of metal, he says, it's no good. He'll accept a fortepiano if it's being played "out of interest" by someone like Peter Serkin, but if it's Melvyn Tan playing a concert, it's "horrible". Why?

"Because it goes out of tune in 10 minutes. And if it's on a record, you know it's been miked - you know it's just not true.

"But this thing has paid a lot of people's mortgages. I think they should give some of that money back. They should give it to the MS charity, because there was a wonderful player who died of it. If they did that, I'd shut the fuck up." That wonderful player was Jacqueline Du Pre, with whom - plus Vladimir Ashkenazy, plus Daniel Barenboim - Zukerman cut a joyful swathe through the London scene in the Sixties. And it just so happens that the band with whom he's currently touring Britain - the English Chamber Orchestra - is the same band with which they all made their names, exactly 30 years agon

The ECO with Pinchas Zukerman play the Newbury Spring Festival tonight; Warwick Arts Centre, tomorrow; Wymondham Abbey, Sun; Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Mon; Barbican, London, Tues; Salisbury Cathedral, Thurs

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