Leading The Way Music: The new artistic director of Summer Musicfest promises to bring his superstar confidence and focus to the BSO's sultry season.

July 07, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

No one has ever accused Pinchas Zukerman of being a shrinking violet.

"I bring more than one thing to the table, and the possibilities can be presented in a number of different ways," Zukerman said by way of introducing himself to an invited audience last spring, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced the famed musician's appointment as artistic director of Summer MusicFest, the BSO's summer season in Meyerhoff Hall.

"I'm a violinist, I'm a violist, I'm also a conductor," Zukerman continued. "I also play a great deal of chamber music, and this raises another set of possibilities for using your orchestra's musicians."

The BSO, whose musicians have been playing without a contract since September, can use some of Zukerman's confidence. It can also use his sense of focus.

Ever since music director David Zinman left the BSO's summer season two years ago for new challenges at the larger summer festival of the Minnesota Orchestra, Summer MusicFest has lacked the energy and definition that Zukerman promises to bring to it. If he receives enough cooperation from the orchestra, Zukerman, 48, is sure he will succeed. For 30 years he has been recognized as one of the world's greatest violinists. Within a few years of achieving fame as a violinist, he took up the larger viola, bringing that much-maligned instrument to theretofore unknown

heights of popularity. And before the end of the 1970s, Zukerman had added conducting to his arsenal and has since led major orchestras all over the world.

"We needed a vital force to strengthen MusicFest's artistic identity," says BSO executive director John Gidwitz. "Pinchas Zukerman is not only one of the world's greatest and most popular musicians, he also commands a tremendous amount of repertory suitable to a summer festival that starts with Mozart and takes off from there."

Although he will conduct and perform as violin soloist at MusicFest's inaugural concert Friday, Zukerman doesn't actually take over as artistic director until next summer. But when he does, listeners should be prepared for him to take the orchestra in unexpected directions.

A few weeks ago in Toronto, where he was guest-conducting the Toronto Symphony, Zukerman smoked several Cohibas, a handmade Cuban cigar that costs a little more than one-tenth as much as his $400-a-night suite at the posh Four Seasons Hotel, as he discussed programs that might unconventionally combine symphonic music with chamber music. And he waxed enthusiastic about the possibilities of using technology to extend the range of the BSO's educational activities as well as its concerts.

"All American orchestras below the level of the Boston-New York-Chicago axis are in deep trouble," Zukerman says, waving his Cohiba for emphasis. "We need to say, 'Come and hear this music, and you'll get something for free.' "

He puts down the cigar, picks up one of the hotel's thick-napped white towels and recounts a conversation he had more than 25 years ago with Isador Sharp, the Toronto-based entrepreneur who founded the Four Seasons hotel and resort chain.

"When Izzy told me about his plans to expand worldwide, I asked him why he was sure he'd succeed," Zukerman says.

" 'People will come if you offer them something for free,' Izzy said. 'See these really nice, fluffy white towels -- I'll put them in every room, and then I'll charge the folks $30 extra!'

"We have to ask ourselves," Zukerman says with a smile as he relights his Cohiba, "Do we want this music or don't we?"

Zukerman emerged, along with his slightly older friend and fellow Israeli, Itzhak Perlman, as one of the two most talked-about violinists of their generation. But while Perlman remained strictly a violinist, repeating and recording the same concertos year after year, Zukerman flouted expections by ranging far and wide musically.

He played an enormous amount of chamber music, not caring a whit if he played second viola in a Mozart string quintet. He became a conductor; he explored new music and new ways of presenting music; he helped to nurture extraordinarily gifted children such as the violinists Midori and Sarah Chang; and five years ago he began yet another career teaching violin, viola and chamber music at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.

"Having a gift for music is only the start of a long, long journey," Zukerman says.

A prodigy's beginnings

In 1960 a group of distinguished musicians -- including the legendary cellist Pablo Casals, his young cellist wife, Marta, violinist Isaac Stern and pianist Eugene Istomin -- visited Israel to hear an 11-year-old Wunderkind.

"I still remember it vividly," says Marta Casals Istomin, who married Istomin several years after Casals' death and is president of the Manhattan School of Music. "He was a very bright-looking boy, with a very winning smile, and his playing was incredible. He had Casals, Isaac and Eugene in tears. Everything coming out of the violin was like a blossom flowering."

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