NAC Re-signs Controversial Conductor

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 4, 2006

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 4, 2006

NAC Re-signs Controversial Conductor

What makes someone a good music director for an orchestra? Veteran orchestra administrator Henry Fogel, formerly with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, says there are lots of factors: "Box office is an issue; relationship with the community is an issue; relationship with donors is an issue; willingness to understand the needs of the institution, even if they may not always totally jibe with the conductor's career aspirations." All of these things, plus a good relationship with the musicians themselves, make for a successful music director.

And then there's Pinchas Zukerman, music director of the NATIONAL ARTS CENTRE Orchestra in Ottawa, which starts a new season in September. Zukerman has been leading the orchestra since 1998, during which time he's been fighting with the members, abruptly cancelling concerts, and making remarks that NAC management called "intemperate."

And so, of course, the NAC recently extended his contract through 2011.

The big news came last year when Zukerman abruptly walked off the job, cancelling his NAC concerts and taking a previously unplanned "sabbatical" for five months. But there were flare-ups before that. There was the story of his romance with and eventual marriage to the NACO's principal cellist, Amanda Forsyth (he was once married to actress Tuesday Weld), and speculation that he was showing favouritism to her. Robert Everett-Green, music critic of the Globe and Mail, talked about the perception of "an alarming sense of entitlement on the part of the orchestra's power couple." There was Walter Prystawski, the NACO concertmaster, who retired after 37 years without Zukerman offering any good wishes in public.

Zukerman hasn't been known for making public appearances on behalf of the orchestra; when he does give interviews, he often says something that increases the tension. In an interview with the Orange County Register, Zukerman alleged that all the trouble was being caused by a sort of orchestral fifth column. "In every orchestra, in every institution that has climbed to prominence quickly, there's always going to be a few rotten apples," he said. "And they have created an atmosphere that has to be eradicated, quite frankly."

Even in a more conciliatory interview with CBC's Eric Friesen, Zukerman couldn't help taking a shot at rank-and-file musicians, saying that some of them take jobs in orchestras "as a last resort" after failing to make it as soloists. "Mr. Diplomacy strikes again," observed a poster on

Chris Deacon, the manager of the NACO, insists that the problems, though they exist, have been overblown by the media coverage: "The tensions are real; the media reporting was sometimes surreal." He says that Zukerman is just a tough boss which "does not win you popularity contests, but it may win your team the prize of excellence and success." But while the tension gets reported on in the media, the press coverage isn't even having the usual side effect of drumming up interest in the orchestra. Everett-Green's article pointed to the most recently available numbers: "The orchestra's subscription-ticket sales dropped by almost 10 per cent between 2002 and 2004."

So with attendance dropping and tension mounting, why did the NACO renew his contract? Rob McAlear, who was the NAC music administrator for the first three years of Zukerman's tenure as music director, has a theory: "The National Arts Centre is a young organization, and I think they crave the legitimacy that can only come with many, many years [of existence]." Zukerman is a Name, the biggest one the NACO can get right now. And in the world of classical music administration, a Name can be very important.

Previous music directors of the NACO, like co-founder Mario BERNARDI, were all but unknown outside Ottawa. In 1991, the NACO shook things up by engaging Trevor Pinnock, a Historically Informed Performance (HIP) specialist who'd made a series of bestselling recordings. The management of the NAC hoped that Pinnock would, as McAlear puts it, "unlock the door to the world of internationally released recordings." But they didn't have good luck: Pinnock's recording contract petered out around that time, and he never made a recording with the NACO.

And so when Pinnock left, Zukerman came in (after the orchestra's first choice, Keith Lockhart, opted to take a job with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City instead), another big-name musician for an orchestra that wanted big-time recognition. True, Zukerman wasn't best known as a conductor. He'd become famous as a violinist, part of a generation of young Israeli musicians like Daniel Barenboim and Yitzhak Perlman. But Zukerman had gained some conducting experience with a stint as music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. And he'd made many recordings for the big companies, including one recording with him conducting the NACO in a program of Haydn symphonies.

Another hoped-for advantage in hiring Zukerman was that he might use his connections to bring in other well-known people to perform with the orchestra. That's the way it was back when he started his career; Isaac Stern, the famous violinist, was known for using his influence to get engagements and contracts for Zukerman and his other young colleagues. Why couldn't Zukerman do the same for the NACO?

It didn't work out that way, though. With the classical recording industry falling apart due to slowing sales, Zukerman wasn't able to get the NACO - or even himself, as a violinist - on any more big label recordings. As for Zukerman's famous friends, only Perlman occasionally came to play in Ottawa. McAlear says Zukerman couldn't deliver the artists the NAC was expecting: "[Vladimir] Ashkenazy still hasn't shown up at the National Arts Centre. Barenboim hasn't shown up to conduct that orchestra. Zubin [Mehta] hasn't shown up. All the names that I'm sure were bandied about in the negotiation process - the promised land - it was all a mirage."

Without much recording work or publicity (except for the times when he was caught feuding with the musicians), Zukerman had to rely on his skills as a conductor. And here's where the problems started to show. No one in the business denies that he has great talent, or even that he can get along with an orchestra when he needs to; as a guest conductor he had what McAlear calls "great chemistry" with the players. But as a full-time music director, something became apparent that hadn't been clear when he was a guest: he didn't conduct that many pieces, and didn't have time to learn more.

McAlear says Zukerman had a "really standard repertoire ... I don't think he knew all the Beethoven symphonies, even." Others, like Deacon, insist that Zukerman has expanded the orchestra's repertoire by adding some later music to the mix: "Before Pinchas, the orchestra's centre of gravity was Bach to Schubert," Deacon says. "Under Pinchas it has become Bach to Tchaikovsky." He adds that "Pinchas has deepened the colour and weight of the string sound, producing a warmer sound in the romantic and modern orchestral repertoire that the NACO performs."

The other thing that became a point of controversy in Zukerman's repertoire selection was his unwillingness to perform Canadian music. Soon after Zukerman was appointed, John Burge, president of the Canadian League of Composers, fumed that Zukerman wasn't adding new Canadian works to the schedule even after meeting with CLC representatives. McAlear recalls that he gave Zukerman some scores of Canadian works to take home and study, and he's not sure if Zukerman read them. "Once I put a tiny piece of Scotch tape over the middle clump of pages of the score, just to see if the tape would be disturbed when he brought it back," he recalls. "And it wasn't, [confirming] my suspicions about the fact that he probably wasn't even cracking open these scores. And he would bring them back after a day or two and say, 'This is all shit.' "

And yet, Deacon and others argue that the complaints are overblown, a relic of Zukerman's early years with the orchestra. Deacon points out that through Zukerman "the NAC has commissioned three Canadian composers - Denys Bouliane, Gary Kulesha and Alexina Louie - to each create new works." And though Zukerman hasn't been able to pull in most of his famous friends as guests, he does have the ability to attract a few A-list stars: famous guests for the upcoming seasons include pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Gil Shaham. Deacon makes it clear that one advantage of having Zukerman in Ottawa is that he spends quite a bit of his time performing outside Ottawa, drumming up connections for the orchestra. "When he collaborates with major talents, young or established, he invites them to his orchestra back home in Ottawa," Deacon says. "He's proud of Canada as the country that welcomed his parents from Israel and he brags about Canada and Ottawa to the musical world wherever he travels. Canada benefits." Except when he's complaining about Canadian musicians in Orange County.

There have been other signs of a mellowing musician. Zukerman used to be known for bashing musicians from the Historically Informed Performance movement. In an interview with Fanfare magazine, he said that period-instrument orchestras sounded "like cats puking," and to the Globe and Mail he said that HIP was "complete rubbish." Jeanne Lamon, the director of the Toronto period-instrument orchestra TAFELMUSIK, wrote a Globe and Mail article where she declared: "I would like to challenge Mr. Zukerman and his NACO orchestra to a musical duel." But while Zukerman still doesn't have much respect for HIP practice, Deacon says there's a sort of truce: "Pinchas continues to invite renowned baroque specialist Trevor Pinnock to conduct the NAC Orchestra because he respects his musicianship."

Zukerman's defenders also point to his work as a teacher; he's used the NAC's resources to locate, train and promote young musicians. Zukerman, Deacon says, "has created an annual summer institute for young players, composers and conductors at the NAC, and has led a kind of 'education revolution' at the NAC Orchestra." On the other hand, others argue that the educational work is something of a distraction from his main job. "He's not conducting new repertoire," McAlear says, "but somehow the organization was letting him get away with teaching people and charging people and imagining that that was some kind of performance."

That's the status of Pinchas Zukerman: a musician who delivered somewhat less than the NAC hoped for, but somewhat more - in terms of guest artists, cachet, and NAC-sponsored programs - than a lesser-known musician. And if a greater number of controversial comments or personnel problems go with Zukerman's celebrity status, Chris Deacon has the answer for that: "There are workplace issues that are being sorted out with the assistance of professional facilitators."


Maclean's September 4, 2006