One would have to think back quite a way to remember a New York Philharmonic season that did not feature the amazing gifts of Pinchas Zukerman, who has graced its programs for six decades. This month, June 6 _9, he returns both as violin soloist and as conductor and marks his 100th engagement with the Orchestra, a milestone that has taken the tall, handsome, legend-in-his-own-time by surprise. Caught between laughter and tears as he realizes that there is truth in the old adage about time flying when one is having fun, he says, "The Philharmonic is like family, and while I am always at ease with them, I'm also always amazed. That continuous depth of unbelievable sound they produce remains unchanged."
Zukerman reflects: "Through all the years : the different music directors, players coming and going, acoustical adjustments : the Philharmonic has maintained the secret to that fabulous, unmistakable sound." The prospect of melding that sound with his own inimitable velvet tone in an atmosphere of mutual respect, friendship, and admiration delights him. In fact, his repertoire choices for this month's appearances were guided by anticipation for what he and his colleagues will enjoy playing, discussing, and exploring.
"With the Violin Concerto in A minor," explains Zukerman, "Bach helped evolve the genre: he created something new and more complex than his predecessors, that as a violinist I find so beautiful and well put together. Now, Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 has some very wonderful and famous sections and a very operatic sense of drama; after this Fifth Concerto he wrote to his father that he would no longer write violin concertos. He went on to make others handle all his diffi cult violin music : in chamber music and symphonies : which led me to put Mozart's Symphony No. 39 on this program."
This takes us to the works that Zukerman is leading from the podium. "I've always wanted to do the Mozart symphony with the Philharmonic," he says, with relish, "because, temperamentally, I feel we would handle it so well together. And the Stravinsky is so beautifully and imaginatively written : challenging to play; something from the 20th century for a smaller group that provides great contrast."
Pinchas Zukerman has performed with the New York Philharmonic under 17 conductors, including some of its very diverse Music Directors, about whom he has a unique perspective. "My 1969 performance," he recalls, "was my Philharmonic debut, and also my first experience with Lenny Bernstein. What most people don't realize is the degree to which his kindheartedness guided his every decision. I was this boy just out of Juilliard, and he was a guiding light of support for me. He was such a mensch!"
The virtuoso credits Pierre Boulez with instilling in the Orchestra a sense of the "composer's mind at work." He recalls: "Boulez intellectualized the piece as if he'd composed it, but palpably, so you could see and hear that : it was extraordinary." Zukerman cites Zubin Mehta's tenure as having provided technical clarity: "His hands and body moved so perfectly, yet there was never a single extraneous motion; whether it was 18 people or 18,000, his beat never changed. He knew and conveyed so much, yet he made it look so seamless.
"And, of course," says Zukerman, "I must speak of the present and future : of Alan Gilbert. I have worked with him, both as his soloist and his chamber music colleague, and I think he's a terrifically dedicated artist, one who seeks to progress as a musician, not just a careerist. I admire that tremendously."
Born in 1948 in Tel Aviv, Pinchas Zukerman came to the United States in 1962, attending The Juilliard School and winning the prestigious Leventritt Competition in 1967. He was only 20 when he made his New York Philharmonic debut as soloist, playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, one of four works he has recorded with the Orchestra.
Over the last decade Zukerman has garnered acclaim as a conductor, and is currently both music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa and principal guest conductor of London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He is also a world-class chamber music player, performing with such distinguished colleagues as Yefim Bronfman and Itzhak Perlman and with his own group, the Zukerman ChamberPlayers. His incomparable sound can be heard on a vast and distinguished discography as well as on film and documentary scores, while his generosity and innovation have made him a beloved pedagogue and passionate arts advocate.
Zukerman dreams of using real-time technology to cultivate the arts in American society beginning with the earliest level of education, and he feels that the New York Philharmonic is in a rare position to achieve this aim. "We've been blessed with this rare, iconic orchestra that forever maintains its virtuosity," he says. "To bring that to youngsters beyond the four walls of Lincoln Center is a wonderful opportunity indeed."
Robin Tabachnik is a New York _based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.