So what is Pinchas Zukerman's standing among the leading violinists of the day? Just ask the people who will be performing with him Monday evening in Symphony Hall.
"I think he is the greatest violinist in the world today," declares violist Quintin Ballardie, founder of the English Chamber Orchestra, with which Zukerman will be appearing on this April 15 program. "And he is certainly the greatest viola player. It's really quite incredible.""Pinky is one of the few violinists of this era who has a truly personal style," says Utah Symphony music director Joseph Silverstein. "That's the beautiful thing about his playing - it sort of takes us back to the time when one could recognize a violinist by three or four notes."
"He was perhaps one of the greatest discoveries of the century as a violinist," adds the ECO's leader, or concertmaster, Jose-Luis Garcia. "Since then of course he has matured - he's no longer a whiz kid but is now a very great artist."
The nickname "Pinky" goes back to the whiz-kid days. The terror of Juilliard, so the story goes, even at the age of 13 when, newly arrived from Israel, he was introduced to a group of other young violinists with the words, "This is Pinchas Zukerman. He's a genius."
Terror, genius or maybe a little bit of both - the fact remains that he has seldom been reluctant to share that talent, or the spotlight, with his colleagues. Whether joining violinist Itzhak Perlman in a tribute to their mentor Isaac Stern or the similarly prodigious Midori (who made her recorded debut with him), Zukerman is as often on view as a partner as he is a solo performer.
A case in point: Monday's program with the ECO, on which Silverstein and Garcia will be joining him in Vivaldi's Concerto in F major for Three Violins. Then Silverstein returns as soloist and conductor in Bach's Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra, followed by Zukerman in the same two roles in Hindemith's "Trauermusik" for viola and strings. Finally Zukerman will lead the orchestra in Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor.
"Any musician looks forward to sharing the stage with any other musician they respect," Zukerman comments. "Otherwise it would be an awfully lonely existence."
It hasn't been a lonely existence vis-a-vis the ECO. Indeed this is the orchestra with which he not only made his conducting debut in 1970; he also made his Carnegie Hall debut with them the year before, with Daniel Barenboim conducting.
Even then, according to Ballardie, "he showed an incredible musicality, even though his conducting experience was minimal." Most important, the chemistry was right, paving the way for 20 years' worth of return engagements, and the present tour.
"The nice thing about a long-term relationship with such an orchestra is that you grow up together," Zukerman reflects. "We always knew we enjoyed working together, but now it's especially nice to spend so much time together."
But his experience the ECO hasn't been Zukerman's only long-term relationship with an orchestra. Between 1980 and 1987 he served as music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, sharpening its international reputation and his conducting talents. In fact the parting of the way reportedly came as a result of his efforts to expand both the orchestra and its performing agenda.
Ballardie says he and his colleagues have never had that kind of problem with Zukerman. "I find him extremely easy to work with, and I always have. I'm really quite perplexed at a lot of the things I hear to the contrary. He hit it off with us from the very beginning."
Perhaps part of the problem is some of the more outspoken interviews Zukerman has been known to give. (A recent one in Fanfare, on the state of the record business, would not be wholly printable in this paper.) That and his concert demeanor, which some critics have characterized as remote, maybe even disdainful when it comes to the audience. (I still remember the glowering look he gave a half-full hall at Weber State some years ago when he stopped by for a concert with the St. Paul orchestra.)
"I don't understand this stuff at all," Zukerman says of such complaints. "There is no way on Earth that I could play a note or sound or phrase or rhythm at a distance from music.
"What is rather sad is that people seem to want more from my appearance and cannot separate that from what is heard. They mistake my concentration and intense listening as being somehow at a distance. The whole reason for this concentration is for the music. If anyone has ever watched a Brendel, a Pollini, a Serkin and Heifetz, there are no audience shenanigans going on. I can be boisterous - offstage maybe. People feel my seriousness onstage is somehow aloof and also some of my colleagues perform with more facial gestures and outer movements than I do."
As a performer who is likewise not given to extraneous gestures and/or facial expressions, Silverstein agrees. "Despite the dark quality of his sound, he has a very lyrical approach to the instrument," he says of Zukerman's playing. "One is not terribly conscious of any real technical difficulties."
Garcia feels the same quality carries over to Zukerman's conducting. "In such a case one does not expect a conductor of great technical ability or anything like that," he says. "But I think with a group like ours that is perhaps less necessary. What you need is a person with musical abilities and ideas, and he has always had that."
Garcia himself joined the ECO 22 years ago, not as concertmaster but, in Ballardie's words, "as No. 4 second violin. But he wasn't there very long." Currently the orchestra plays around 120 concerts a year as well as broadcasts and a large number of recording dates. Indeed its discography currently numbers more than 800 works from all periods, albeit with an emphasis on the baroque and classical eras.
"The only full-time chamber orchestra in London," Ballardie calls it, explaining that that averages out to around 5.2 days per week, including nine months at home and three on the road. Membership likewise averages out at around 29 players, depending on the demands of the music. What Salt Lake will be hearing is a complement of 16 violins, four violas, four cellos and two basses, along with flute and two each of oboes, horns and bassoons - "a Schubert-sized orchestra," Ballardie says.
But make no mistake, the ECO is not a period band, although some of its members moonlight from time to time in such orchestras.
Ballardie says he doesn't mind that, if they have the time. "But I must be honest and say I don't like the sound. To start with, you must have something that is in tune. If not, why bother? But it's a very subjective thing. I like warmth and beauty in music - that's what it's really all about - and I don't think you hear much of that in those performances."
At the same time both he and Garcia are proud of the ECO's flexibility, vis-a-vis both conductors and repertoire. Says Garcia, "Where other orchestras have perhaps a more individualistic style and find it very difficult to go from one way of doing things to another, the English Chamber Orchestra has always been able to switch its way of playing, if you like, according to who is at the helm."
Zukerman, he says, tends to approach the music they play together more freely than the ECO's principal conductor, Jeffrey Tate. "Maybe because he is a great virtuoso, he allows particularly the first-violin section, which has more melodic material than anyone else, a little more freedom. But, thank goodness, that's one of those things that can be enjoyable in different ways."
And Monday, at least, from a variety of conductors and soloists.
Tickets for Monday's concert, which begins at 8 p.m., are priced from $10 to $29, with student tickets available for $5. For information contact the Utah Symphony box office, 533-NOTE.