Talking with Pinchas Zukerman about Alban Berg's Violin Concerto is a window into the many layers of the 1935 masterpiece that he will play with the New York Philharmonic, Christoph Eschenbach conducting, March 18 _20. Although the music is missing, you can almost hear it through the passion and insights that he brings to his observations. "To play the Berg Violin Concerto, you need to understand its elegance and aristocracy," says Mr. Zukerman regarding the work that music lovers treasure as a high-water mark of the 20th century. "If you don't understand that about the Berg, don't touch it!"
Born in Tel Aviv in 1948, Pinchas Zukerman won the attention of violinist Isaac Stern and cellist Pablo Casals while still very young, and in 1962 he came to New York to study at The Juilliard School. Within five years he was a major talent, winning prizes and touring the globe. His appetite for music led him to master the viola as well as the violin. Eventually, he also became a conductor. Since 1998 he has been music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, Canada, and he is in demand as a guest conductor (he has led the New York Philharmonic, although in these appearances he is the violin soloist). Balancing the worlds of playing and conducting has never seemed a problem for him, although the current season does find him feeling a bit overcommitted. "I think this season : and I don't know how it happened : I'm busier than ever," he recently admitted to The Denver Post. "I think I had my blinders on or something. It seems like I'm playing and conducting nonstop."
Berg's Violin Concerto, the composer's last completed score, is a tightly constructed, emotionally potent work that balances the then-modern world of dodecaphony (i.e. the theory of twelve-tone composition) with the traditions of tonality. "Berg is extremely strict : more so even than Beethoven," Mr. Zukerman explains, adding that it's not nearly enough simply to follow the bravura solo part, dot by dot. Berg balanced numerically complex structure with deep-seated emotional content, and the soloist's imperative is to make structure and content speak to each other.
Mr. Zukerman reveals that he is repeatedly astounded by more than the solo part: "It will be lucky for us to have the New York Philharmonic to bring out the colors and nuances of Berg's orchestration. It's absolutely fantastic. I don't know any other score where the colors are so deep."
In 1972 Mr. Zukerman didn't know a note of Berg's music. He was introduced to it that year by Pierre Boulez, then the music director of the New York Philharmonic. Under Boulez, and with Daniel Barenboim as pianist, Mr. Zukerman learned and performed Berg's Chamber Concerto. After this introduction to Berg by one of his greatest champions (Boulez touted the glories of Berg and his fellow composers of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg and Webern, when few others did) through one of the composer's most challenging scores, he found learning the Violin Concerto relatively easy.
Only relatively, of course, but then, nothing worth anything is really ever easy. "Two different things are always hard: meter and dynamics," he explains. "The hard est thing of all is to play pianissimo with a core sound." Berg's concerto requires the violinist to do precisely that, along with virtuoso acrobatics of every conceivable sort, packed into a numerically thought out and carefully controlled form.
But this work is not just a technical exercise. The composer wrote it as a balm for his shock and grief over the death of 19-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of his friend Alma Mahler, and dedicated it to "the memory of an angel."
How does Pinchas Zukerman maintain the integrity of the concerto's structure and still convey the bittersweet beauty of its expression? A review in The Washington Post of the violinist's 2005 performance of the work with the National Symphony Orchestra gives a hint: "From the mysterious opening of the first movement, Zukerman used his sweet tone and musicality to articulate Berg's rigorously constructed phrases. ... In the alternately chaotic and solemn second movement, Zukerman brought as much dexterity to the devilishly difficult cadenzas as a feeling of rapt spirituality to the Bach chorale that Berg infused toward the concerto's closing."
All of which is to say that Zukerman's Berg is, well, elegant and aristocratic: a delicate combination of his understanding of the science behind the score's structure, and his extraordinary talent that empowers him to do justice to the poignant loveliness of the score. It's a marriage of his intellect and his artistry.
In the artist's words: "I don't ever see this music as just notes on a page, because it's so amazing."
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Kenneth LaFave composes and writes about music.