NAC Orchestra: It’s always back to Beethoven for Pinchas Zukerman

Pinchas Zukerman. Photo: Cheryl Mazak

On Thursday and Friday, Pinchas Zukerman will return to the Southam Hall stage and play Haydn’s Violin Concerto in C major and conduct his former colleagues in the National Arts Centre Orchestra in the playing of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and Haydn’s Symphony No.84.

It may seem as if he has never left. But of course he did in 2015 when he stepped aside from his job as the music director of NACO to ignite an almost frenetic around-the-world concert schedule that literally takes him to the four corners of the globe.

But if there is one constant in his musical life, it is the creations of Ludwig van Beethoven.

He has been Ottawa for a few days because a concert in New York was postponed because of an illness affecting his friend the violinist Itzhak Perlman. Having flown into New York from San Francisco, he got the news and hopped another plane to Ottawa where he still has a residence that he is trying to sell.

Why Beethoven?

“There are so many good composers. Elgar is pretty good and Tchaikovsky is pretty good,” Zukerman says, “but I always have thought, and still think, that every season, so to speak, should be associated in some way and in some form with Beethoven.”

It’s a good idea to cover the German composer’s output, he says, especially so for an orchestra.

“The simplest explanation is that he took Haydn and Mozart as his ancestors and created a (music) revolution. He did what Picasso did in the early 1900s and what Michelangelo had done a few centuries before.

“I think we are still living with the revolution Beethoven started 200 years ago. He created things that are exemplary and should be learned early in one’s development as a musician, as a player and certainly as a conductor.

“They called him a lunatic. He wasn’t a lunatic, he was an incredible genius. The more you study and play Beethoven the more insight you get into a lot of music.

“I just played the Second Symphony in Baltimore and they loved it.”

The Second, along with the First, the Fourth and the Eight, aren’t as prominent as the Fifth and the Seventh and the Ninth, he says.

“People seem to think they are smaller symphonies, smaller music. And they are not that. Their content is just as abundant and full as any symphony he wrote.”

For Zukerman it is “amazing” how far ahead Beethoven was.

“He is a phenomenon that we constantly need to examine. I think about some aspect of Beethoven practically every day. How would I play this phrase?

“You don’t get bored with it. How do you get bored looking at the Mona Lisa? How do you get bored looking at a sunset?

“I always find something (in Beethoven) that makes me feel better if I play it right. That’s important. I look forward to working with him again on this piece.”

After two concerts in Ottawa, Zukerman is back on the road to concerts in places such as Turkey, Italy, Germany and St. Petersburg, Russia, all before Christmas.

“I have had a resurgence since I left here. People have found me on the radar again. I was off the radar, that’s not unusual when you are a music director.

“Now I have the time and I have started going further and further. I go around the world now a couple of times a year. We stop, of course. I’m spending more time in places such as Australia and South Korea. I’m going to China again in the spring with an orchestra from Orange County, California.”

He is also looking for places where he can hang up his hat for a few weeks to help with such things as programming and fund-raising.

“I think I am more patient and knowledgable because I can sit back. It’s not my job.”

One place he goes to is Adelaide, Australia. He expects to be there even more in coming years. Places like Adelaide are growing musically, he says, something that is happening all over that part of Southeast Asia.

Zukerman says he believes his travel schedule is no more demanding than having rehearsals and concerts in one place and occasional, but regular, trips on weekends for concerts elsewhere.

“I don’t think of it as tiring. On paper it looks hectic, and I suppose it is. But you learn how to handle the travel and develop strategies. And you get used to it.

Since Zukerman left, change has come to the senior ranks of the NAC including the announcement that CEO Peter Herrndorf will step down next June.

Zukerman believes Herrndorf will be remembered as a team player who has returned the NAC to the stature it deserved.

“They have find an appropriate leader for the future and that may be difficult. When he took over there was nothing. The NAC was in trouble and now look at it. He made Canada proud of NAC again. It will need more of that.”

Zukerman says he believes technology will help the NAC achieve that and reach new audiences.

“Growing audiences is now a global mission,” he said.

Pinchas Zukerman
Where: Southam Hall
When: Nov. 23 and 24 at 8 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.