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Pinchas Zukerman on how to change the world

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates its 70th birthday in 2016 and for its commemorative anniversary booklet, I had the opportunity to interview Pinchas Zukerman, its Principal Guest Conductor. He was on fine and articulate form, and happy to talk beyond the RPO, about the current state of classical music and his optimism for the future. One of his key concepts was to create a global coalition for music education, crossing all geographic and institutional boundaries. This seems like an incredibly powerful idea, and I'm not aware of any organisations that do this. Are you? Do you have any thoughts about this? Please add your comments at the end, if so. Anyway, here are some of the ideas he discussed:

A concert hall for London

‘The early 70s were a whirlwind in London. It was an extraordinary time for all of us who are still performing and running around the world. There was a need for culture at the time. The world was full of extraordinary concerts and magnificent people. I was learning so much, experimenting and playing music of all sorts, especially English music. I went to Yorkshire and Malvern, and played the Elgar Quintet and Violin Concerto and listened to his symphonies. I first heard the Dream of Gerontius at the Royal Albert Hall in the 70s and it blew my mind. Every day was an evolution of finding something new.

‘London has had a resurgence in its essence as a great city in the last decade or so, with an extraordinary array of musicians from Europe and the Far East. It’s a magnificent place at the moment. It’s gone back to the heyday of the mid-60s and 70s. We need a concert hall, a proper place to play our music in London. We’ve been screaming about this for as long as I can remember. There are visions of what is possible – Manchester and Birmingham have beautiful new halls, and I’d love to just pick up half a dozen of the new Chinese venues and bring them to Europe. The government must come forward.’

Careers in music

‘You can’t expect to get out of the Royal Academy, Royal College, Juilliard or Manhattan School and expect a job. It’s not going to happen. Everyone who plays music today has to get realistic – both students and teachers. The Van Cliburns of the world are not going to exist any more. You can go to a competition and the next day no one is going to have heard of you. You think you’re going to get a job and you’ll be steady for the rest of your life? It doesn’t work like that any more. Over the years we’ve seen the downgrading of orchestras’ budgets all over the world, and particularly in North America. We have to look at this and try to fix it. We’re not living 60 years ago with the type of growth we had then.

‘We need to look at what’s good and discard what’s not, in a positive manner. How can we make music more viable to the whole world and to the underprivileged? I’ve just come from South America and the success stories from Caracas provide examples that the human spirit can do it. It just takes patience and perseverance. I heard a 19-year-old boy from one of the favelas outside Rio, whose brother was killed, and who decided he wasn’t going to take the crime route but that he’d play his violin. I guarantee you that he will be an example over the next 20 years of making things a little better.

‘It should start in schools. With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, I go to a lot of places, and I’m working with several organisations around the world. It’s the same everywhere. The most important component is the school system in each city. How can we bring up the standards? Let’s create global coalitions for music education, not just according to country, but bringing everyone together through technology. We’re forming all sorts of alliances, but music schools still feel isolated. One music college doesn’t talk to another. It’s enough already! In medicine, doctors share information about the same patient, but we can’t do that in music. Why are we so isolated? It is changing though. The people who are running these institutions are starting to come from the performance side. They’re no longer just administrators, and that’s good, because they understand the practical side very well.’

Benefits of technology

‘We have technology at our disposal. Communications are in their infancy of reaching millions of people in a minute. At Trieste Conservatoire they’re working on low-latency audio-visual streaming, which is an extraordinary finding. You can play, rehearse and talk over a network at the same time anywhere in the world, and there’s no delay. This is the most important evolution that will take place in the next generation. It is going to bring more people to playing. We have the physical ability to actually be together.’

Disadvantages of technology

‘Today, you have a problem identifying orchestras and even instrumentalists. One of the reasons is that we’re multiracial and multinational now and that’s good. But we also have more people creating music with systems that are absolute ‘fakerei’. It has as much to do with making sound on stage as I do flying to the moon. That’s the real problem. People want to hear that kind of sound at the Festival Hall. Forget about it! If you want to hear that kind of sound, stay at home and put your earphones on. The youngsters that are coming up want to sound like the digital recording, and the digital age has produced a clean sound. However, if you have the goods, the content you put in your music can still be recognised as yours. That’s the important part: to learn about content, architecture, paintings, the world.

Keep it real

‘Today, I tell my students, ‘Before you leave this room, I want a hug. Come up here, shake my hand and give me a hug. Then you can write me an email signed “xoxo”.’ That’s what I’m talking about. It’s good to show people that right to their face. There’s nothing wrong with “xoxo” but I want them to at least give me a feeling of who they are. Take my hand. Give me a hug. Don’t be afraid.’

Read about Zukerman’s special violin routine.

Watch him give a masterclass on sound production at the Royal College of Music:

Photo: Cheryl Mazak

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