Zukerman's gift keeps growing

Music: It's always interesting to see how a musician develops over the years.

Fine Art

July 06, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

One of the interesting things about growing older is watching people develop.

In my business that means keeping track of promising musicians. It's usually (and sadly) the case that great talents do not necessarily mature into great artists. A celebrated example is pianist Van Cliburn, whose playing began to decline precipitously before he was 30.

At least Cliburn had some genuinely great years. For every Martha Argerich, Maurizio Pollini, Lynn Harrell, Nathan Milstein or David Oistrakh who continues to develop artistically as he or she grows older, I can probably name four to five musicians -- each of whom was comparably talented -- whose name you've never heard or probably forgotten.

Sometimes, however, talent develops in gratifying ways that I wouldn't have predicted. This came to mind last month during the appearances of violinist-violist-conductor Pinchas Zukerman in his last season as music director of the Baltimore Symphony's Music SummerFest.

Back in the middle 1960s, Zukerman and his slightly older friend and fellow Israeli, Itzhak Perlman, emerged as 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.

What's most interesting, however, is how all this wide-ranging activity seems to have fostered Zukerman's growth as a violinist.

Music critics tend to be prognosticators and they like to fit musicians into complementary categories. When the young Perlman first appeared, his beguilingly beautiful tone, lyrical instincts and violinistic and personal charm made listeners think of David Oistrakh. Zukerman -- with a huge sound that cut through orchestral textures with laser-beam-like intensity and uncannily accurate intonation -- recalled Jascha Heifetz.

But it was Perlman who turned out to be like Heifetz -- or, more accurately, a lesser Heifetz. Like Heifetz, all Perlman has done for the last 30 years or so has been to play the violin. Unlike Heifetz, however, his playing has not maintained its youthful perfection. He still makes records, still earns an enormous fee -- something on the order of $100,000 per concert -- but he's no longer the presence (as well as the violinist) I expected he would become.

It is Zukerman who has developed along the lines of Oistrakh, who became a great violist, an outstanding conductor and perhaps the greatest teacher of his generation. In his BSO performances last month of a Mozart Sonata and Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," Zukerman's sound was so beautiful, so subtly shaded and so stripped of obtrusive show-boating that I was reminded again and again of his great Russian predecessor.

As Zukerman himself once remarked in another context, "having a gift for music is only the start of a long, long journey."

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