Chamberfest: George Zukerman books a career for the ages

George Zukerman is the impresario who founded the Octagon Ensemble.

George Zukerman has been an active participant in Canada’s classical music scene since 1953.

“The wonderful thing about arriving in Canada, in Vancouver then,” he said, “whatever you touched was being done for the first time. It was really quite amazing. As long as you did it well you had a reason to be there.”

You could also touch things badly, he said.

“Those of us who tried made it work well. It was a choice of coming to Vancouver and starting something in a place that really had nothing or trying to reach the top in markets that were already flourishing and functioning and set in their ways.”

Just the year before, in the fall of 1952, the Stratford Festival had been founded with help from Tyrone Guthrie who brought along Sir Alec Guinness, who starred in the very first play in Stratford’s famous tent.

These years were the very beginnings, in many ways, of the modern performing arts culture in Canada. Canada was blessed by the arrival of these artists.

Zukerman, for instance, came from New York. His first trip to Vancouver had been a year or so earlier.

“I was living in New York and I had gotten a telephone call from a place I had never heard of. Would I come out to Vancouver and play for six weeks. A bassoon player had been struck by appendicitis.

“I looked at map quickly. I needed a job.”

He was at that time playing in a lot of what was called in New York City the “garbage circuit.” It included orchestras in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, Pennsylvania, Orange, New Jersey and the Vermont State Orchestra. These were pick-up bands that would hire students.

The conductor of the Scranton Philharmonic had gotten a gig on the west coast, he said. “He called desperately and asked could I come out and I said yes.”

Zukerman took a train to Toronto and then got on a DC-3 airplane and flew across Canada stopping in North Bay, Kapuskasing, Fort William, Winnipeg and more.” He said there were 13 stops in all. It was his first flight.

Of course, a music writer in Ottawa wants to know if George Zukerman is related to Pinchas.

“I’m considerably older than him and neither of us wants to accept the other as a cousin although we spell the name correctly. I have a relation in Israel who claims us both. We are probably 16th cousins,” he said, tongue firmly in cheek.

His father William landed in the U.S. in 1899 and would go on to be a newspaper man working a Yiddish paper in Chicago. He eventually became a war correspondent. He wrote for three Yiddish papers, one socialist, one capitalist and one right down the middle. He would write his stories three times with three different points of view.

While he was overseas, George and the rest of his family went to New York where they had relatives. He was enrolled in the famous High School of Music and Art.

“You had to have some talent which I don’t I had. But I did have an English accent and wore short pants so I added some class to the joint.” He met people such as Paul Hindemith and Leopold Stokowski.

“It was a hot bed of great orchestral players.”

After high school he tried the Navy and then he “jobbed around” including his first trip to Vancouver) and doing some story hunting for his father. One day Zukerman was dispatched to meet the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, which was arriving in New York for a concert tour.

“I went out to Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy Airport) as it was called in those days and found them. I met Mordecai Rechtman, my bassoon colleague and we became friends for life.”

Rechtman urged him to audition for orchestra which needed a second bassoon player. It was arranged and “I went down to Carnegie Hall and I warmed up with every piece I knew. I was sounding pretty good and I waited and waited and no one comes.”

He started packing up his instrument and there was a gentle knock on the door and it was Bernstein who said, “I’ve been listening to you for the last half hour. You got the job.” Zukerman went to Israel for a few years with the orchestra but his first wife didn’t like it there and they moved back to Vancouver to be closer to her family. And this time he stayed. He’ll tell that story, and much more in his autobiography, which will be called Concerto for Two Hats, he said, when it is published in coming months.

The memoir talks about his playing career and his role as an impresario bringing classical music to small towns and cities across the West and into Ontario to small cities such as Geraldton.

“I wasn’t interested in big cities because it was a practical reality. I was sitting in Vancouver playing in the symphony. The first thing I discovered about the VSO was that it only played alternate weeks so it was a very short season of about 26 weeks of work. (Later on he would lead an orchestra strike in the 1960s and would end up not having his contract renewed.)

“So I had a lot of time on my hands, so I started travelling around the province. I realized there were no concerts in the smaller towns.”

He said he found a fertile field and started to make plans. The model was the “organized audience.” Zukerman would go into a town and gather a committee that would organize and start raising money then bring in musicians to perform.

In all, he said, he organized committees and societies in some 70 communities from B.C. to Ontario. The very first place he went to was Nelson, B.C. He had done a tour in the U.S. where this model was used extensively with an organization called Community Concerts.

The Nelson committee started working and a few weeks later had $1,800 raised. He sent some players out to do a recital. After that it was rinse and repeat in town after town. Zukerman would often end up playing concerts to fill out the subscription series commitments.

“It was all on a shoe-string but it was immensely successful,” he said, “because it was the right time. The whole west was wide open. You had to find someone who was going to lead them.

“You name a town on the prairies and we organized it.”

These community committees became the missing link in cross-country tours filling in the gaps between, for example, Regina and Calgary. he called his organization Overture Concerts and was soon booking 25-city tours.

When asked, he said his favourite small town in Canada is Fort Smith, Northwest Territories.

“There are wonderful people. I’ve been there several times. I love the North and Fort Smith was the first one.”

In 1998, after leaving Overture, he started something called Remote Tours Canada and started taking small groups to towns in Canada’s North.

“I’ve been in every one of these little communities. I’m the only person who’s played Rigoletto in Rigolet (Labrador).”

The idea behind these tours into the north was not just about the music. It was more about “linking societies,” he said. “Music was one of the few things sent into the North that was not confrontational. Everything else was deliberately saying change your ways; live like this. Music didn’t do that.”

After he was cut loose from the VSO, Zukerman says he was liberated to pursue both hats of his musical career. His playing career started to expand and he also began a worldwide search for bassoon repertoire that he could play.

“There is a limited repertoire. That’s one of the problems of being a bassoon soloist. I dug up repertoire. I went to libraries and stately homes all over Europe looking at collections that hadn’t been catalogued.”

In all, he’s unearthed some 150 works for the instrument from places such as the Madrid Palace Library under the eye of Spanish soldiers assigned to guard the treasures as he searched. He performed in the former Soviet Union in 1969 and in China in 1989.

“In the small limited world of the bassoon,” he said, “you’ll find I’m kind of recognized as one of the pioneers.”

While some bassoonists don’t crave the spotlight, he wanted to get out front and be a soloist.

“I couldn’t conduct and I couldn’t compose, but I felt that I had something to say with my bassoon.”

The one European country he couldn’t get to was communist Albania. The symphony was waiting in Tirana, but he wasn’t allowed in.

The tours also led him to a concert Brandon, Manitoba where he met his second wife, the violinist and teacher Erika Bennedik.

“I looked down in the audience while I was playing a concert and I almost lost my place.”

He’ll be in Ottawa on Nov 24 to enjoy a performance of the Octagon Ensemble, a group that he founded in 1998. He wanted a vehicle to play the Beethoven Septet and the Schubert Octet. They don’t get played often and in Europe things were happening with octets.

“We had the soloists to do” one in Canada. So he got them together: Andrew Dawes, Amanda Forsyth, Angele Dubeau, Marty Hackleman, Jim Campbell, Rifka Galani, Joel Quarrington and Zukerman himself. And they started commissioning. As a matter of fact, the first commission went to Forsyth’s father Malcolm.

“We did seven tours and played for the governor general. Now we have a group that plays at an international level, because Canada can do it.”

Chamberfest presents the Octagon Ensemble
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Nov. 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.