The concert was over. The capacity audience at Roy Thomson Hall was mostly on its feet. Pinchas Zukerman came back for a last bow, then borrowed a fiddle from a member of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and played his final encore: not some flashy showpiece, but Brahms's Lullaby.
It was a smart move by the virtuoso violinist, who became NACO music director last summer. Toronto's Thomson Hall is not an intimate environment. With a few bars from a simple tune, Zukerman made the place feel cozy.
That's a useful knack for a director of the NAC's music department to have. After the thrills and spills of recent years -- huge deficits, serial resignations, a mysterious deal involving a million-dollar pledge from hockey star Alexei Yashin -- there may not be many more chances for the NAC to prove that it is a viable, national home for the performing arts. Having a charmer on the podium will certainly help.
Monday's appearance, a make-up date for a concert that was postponed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last fall, was my first chance to hear Zukerman in his new job, both in the hall and in an interview earlier that day. Both left me with serious doubts as to whether the man who can play lullabies so winningly is the one best equipped to rouse the NACO and its audiences to a deeper understanding of music.
Zukerman, who was born 52 years ago in Tel Aviv, has many talents. He's a vigorous teacher, a strong advocate of distance learning and new sound technologies, and an experienced administrator (he was music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for seven years, and runs festivals in the U.S. and Israel). He's also, of course, a famously fluent violinist, with a sweet sound and an apparently effortless technique.
He has set up house in Ottawa with the NACO's principal cellist Amanda Forsyth, 33. He is separated from his wife, actress Tuesday Weld, 56, and has two daughters, aged 27 and 24.
He has no love for his predecessors at the NAC. In his view, the place was headed for ruin before he arrived, artistically as well as financially.
"I've been cleaning up the place, it's filthy," he said. "It was basically the wrong people at the wrong time, or the right people at the wrong time, or the wrong people at the right time. It's just never been right. . . . An arts centre needs a certain amount of knowledge, of how to do certain things, not only what goes on on stage, but what one should do in the social sense. . . . It's not that hard. It's just a matter of doing it."
Zukerman has quickly pursued his agendas at the NAC. At his insistence, the centre recently installed an electronic sound-enhancement system (ACS). Last summer, he set up a young artists program, to strengthen the centre's commitment to education, and is reviving the idea of electronic touring. Last fall, he led the NACO on a tour across Canada, and recorded the tour program's centrepiece (Vivaldi's Four Seasons) for the CBC. He has also started talking with the heads of the other NAC departments about ways of combining their art forms in dynamic ways -- for instance, a touring production of Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat that could combine the resources of the orchestra with both the English and French theatre divisions.
These are all good ideas, even if the Vivaldi is an overexposed piece, and ACS is a work in progress. Some of Zukerman's other ideas are less attractive, and just as passionately held. Most performers today see some merit in trying to consider how a piece of old music -- The Four Seasons, for instance -- might have been played in its own period, even if they don't go as far as to adopt antique bows, wooden flutes and non-standard tunings. But for Zukerman, the entire period-performance movement is an abomination.
"I hate it. It's disgusting," he said. "The first time I heard that shit, I couldn't believe it. It's complete rubbish, and the people who play it. . . . Maybe one or two or a half-dozen have wonderful musical minds. But I certainly don't want to hear them perform."
Of course nobody expects a NACO music director to turn the orchestra into an antiquarian ensemble like the English Concert. Not even Trevor Pinnock, Zukerman's immediate predecessor and the celebrated founder of the English Concert, tried to do that. But one does expect a certain open-mindedness on the subject, and a consciousness that performing styles change. When I asked Zukerman how his own musical thinking had changed over the past quarter-century, about those same Four Seasons, for example, he had little to say.
"I take more Advils," he said, flexing his fingers. "But I haven't changed that much. Maybe I play a little bit louder in some moments, and in others a bit softer, but even in that I don't think there's much difference. . . . My value system is: Play in time with a nice sound. The rest is obvious."
It's not obvious to Zukerman, as it was even to John Diefenbaker, that a Canadian orchestra should play Canadian music. He accepts the idea grudgingly, as a requirement of his office.
"I have to obey the bureaucracy," he grumbled. "So I obey the bureaucracy. "[But]there's no such thing as Canadian content, or Israeli content, or Arabic content. That's all a bunch of b.s. It's either good content, or bad content. . . . If we find good Canadian music, I'll be the first one to do it. And so far, I've found a few."
He found Peter Paul Koprowski's Epitaph, which the NACO played on its tour, and at RTH on Monday. It's a well-crafted piece, and Zukerman and company performed it with clarity and a degree of conviction you don't often hear from Canadian orchestral musicians playing the work of their countrymen.
Their performance of the Vivaldi was smooth, warm and leisurely, like a good bubble bath. Zukerman responded best to the most lyrical sections of the work, attacking the rest with machine-like vigour.
His strong sense of lyricism also guided the NACO's performance of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A Major ("Italian"). He closely policed the stalking cello-bass line in the andante, and encouraged the players to think melodically through a part that can easily degenerate into so many unconnected dots. But like some other conductors who work mostly as soloists, Zukerman showed a tendency to follow the tune, leaving the supporting parts to themselves. Over time, that habit could wear on the ensemble, which has always been renowned for its precision.
Both concert and conversation left me with an impression of a charismatic leader of real technical and managerial ability who is not a very searching musician. Unfortunately, this is not a unique impression: Zukerman is dogged by his reputation as a talented, but glib, journeyman virtuoso.
"People think, 'He just goes on stage, look how easy it is, he comes on stage like he doesn't give a shit, he's even bored when he does it.' " he said. "What's the matter? I just do it easy. What am I going to do, come out like this?" And he mimed a fiercely tense face, glowering over a phantom fiddle.
We laughed. He's a charming guy, if somewhat overbearing in his opinions. The NACO may profit from his presence in the short term, gaining audience and financial support. But over the long, "doing it easy" may be the road to artistic stagnation.