Pinchas Zukerman Trades Baton For Bow in Ottawa

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Pinchas Zukerman and Yefim Bronfman
Pinchas Zukerman and Yefim Bronfman, on a joint recital tour,  performed in Ottawa, long a Zukerman artistic base.
By Richard Todd

OTTAWA – For 40 years and more, Pinchas Zukerman has been considered one of the world’s most eminent violinists. He has been involved in conducting for nearly as long, having been music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in the 1980s, among other engagements. In 1999 he was appointed music director of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra. Now that he’s held this position for fifteen years, it’s possible to take a broad look at the diversity of his contributions to Ottawa – contributions that go beyond his duties as conductor of the NACO.

Pinchas Zukerman has made Ottawa his home.  (Paul Labelle)
Pinchas Zukerman is touring with both violin and viola. (Paul Labelle)

On March 31, he was on the stage of the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall with pianist Yefim Bronfman in a recital of Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms. (Zukerman and Bronfman, who have toured this program extensively, will give their culminating performance in Berkeley, Calif., on April 8.) It was not a perfect recital but, as you would expect from artists of their renown, it was a good one.

It must be said that Southam Hall is far from ideal as a chamber music venue. Capable of seating over 2,000 listeners, it lacks the immediacy of a smaller room and, especially, the intimacy that should be at the heart of the chamber experience. On the other hand, the audience was much larger than would have been possible in a more musically appropriate venue.

NAC's Southam Hall seats 2,323.
The National Arts Centre’s expansive Southam Hall seats 2,323.

The first offering was Schubert’s Sonatina in A minor. It’s a modest work, not nearly as compelling as some of the composer’s piano music, his piano trios or certain of his string quartets. It received a sympathetic performance.

The violinist and pianist worked well together, and had a good consensus of how the music should go. Bronfman’s playing was especially nuanced. Zukerman’s was too, though he was a little uneven in some of the passage work. That would be the case a few times throughout the evening, but it was a minor annoyance.

Bronfman collaborations with Zukerman go decades back.
Bronfman’s collaborations with Zukerman extend back for decades.

The Beethoven Sonata in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2, is possibly the most intense of the composer’s ten works in the genre. Zukerman and Bronfman played it with admirable moderation but also to excellent narrative effect.  

At intermission, Zukerman traded his violin for a viola to perform the Brahms Sonata in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1. Once again the performance went right to the heart of the music and made an excellent case for the viola version alongside the more familiar original clarinet setting. The slow movement, one of the most beautiful things ever written for the clarinet, came across equally well on the string instrument.

This is Zukerman’s second-to-last season at the helm of the National Arts Centre Orchestra.  (His successor, Alexander Shelley, has already been appointed.) He is certainly leaving his mark.

Zukerman has led the National Arts Centre Orchestra since 1999.
Zukerman has led the National Arts Centre Orchestra since 1999.

The orchestra’s sound is markedly different than it was before he took over. It used to be noted for its transparency of texture and its very stylish playing of Mozart and Haydn. It now has a more generic sound – Germanic, you might say.

At the same time, formerly perennial difficulties with string intonation have been mostly resolved, and it’s fair to say that, questions of identity aside, the orchestra sounds better than before. Its repertoire has broadened to include a lot of late Romantic music. Contemporary music and especially Canadian music are in short supply, though.

Late Romantic repertoire like Dvořák and Tchaikovsky are among Zukerman’s areas of strength. His Beethoven and Brahms are generally solid too, and he has conducted a few remarkable accounts of Schubert and Schumann as well. He professes to be very fond of Mozart, but he conducts it in a way that was standard in the 1950s, plush and over-inflected. When guest conductors appear with the NACO, Ottawa audiences often get to hear W.A. instead of P.Z. Mozart, so the orchestra is still entirely capable of playing it that way.

Pinchas Zukerman teaches students all over the world from NAC's Hexagon studio. (Kevin Bhookun)
Zukerman teaches globally from NAC’s Hexagon studio. (K. Bhookun)

Despite some memorable performances with Zukerman, a very competent conductor, in recent years the most exciting concerts have usually been with guest maestros. But Zukerman’s contributions have not been limited to conducting. There have been recitals and a certain number of concerto appearances; he also collaborates now and then with some of his NACO musicians in the Music for a Sunday Afternoon series held at Canada’s National Gallery. Also, his educational activities have been noteworthy.

The year of his arrival he founded the NAC’s Summer Music Institute, which includes programs in composing, conducting, and performance, attracting more than 1,000 students over the years. The institute may well be Zukerman’s most lasting legacy in Ottawa. All in all, his tenure has been a time of growth and musical development, not to mention a lot of good music to hear.

Richard Todd has been writing music criticism since 1978 for a variety of publications. Since 1993 he has been the principal music critic at the Ottawa Citizen and writes for other publications from time to time, including Opera Canada and Classical Music Sentinel.