The Zukermans: A Family Portrait

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Pinchas Zukerman

How does it feel to give your Southbank début…under the baton of your dad? Arianna Zukerman can give us a clue. On Wednesday 29th May the forty-year-old American soprano hits the Royal Festival Hall, singing the solo in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Her father, the world-renowned violinist Pinchas Zukerman, will conduct.  

‘I grew up listening to the way my father plays and the way he phrases, so I often know what to anticipate when we make music together. I aspire to speak his musical language,’ says Arianna. She frequently collaborates with her father, who, in addition to conducting the Mahler, will perform Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3 in G in the first half of the concert. Off-stage, professional and family life are carefully separated. Much of Arianna’s time is now devoted to her nineteen-month-old daughter Veronica.

And, musically, she has always maintained her independence. As a child, Arianna was encouraged to discover her musical interests by her father, and her flautist-writer mother Eugenia, but their approach was to ‘wait-and-see’. She came to singing of her own accord. ‘Singing is different from playing an instrument in that singers can never see what’s happening technically,’ says Arianna, ‘unlike violinists who can see, for example, whether their wrists are too high on the bow. So there was enough mystery in singing for my father to leave me alone.’

Temperamentally too, she and Pinchas make very different first impressions. While Arianna is very measured, Pinchas is irrepressible. When I speak to him, I’m caught up in a whirlwind of ideas and topics ranging from the relationship between technology and music to the merits of English orchestras (sense of humour; good manners). But what really gets the juices flowing, is the mention of Mahler. An Israeli by descent, Zukerman particularly identifies with the ‘Jewish’ flavour of Mahler’s music, characterised by frequent snippets of Klezmer. ‘You recognise it immediately,’ says Pinchas, ‘My father was maybe the best Klezmer player I ever heard. So that rhythm, that colour: that’s my DNA.’

Arianna has an analytical approach to the subject: ‘I wonder if all the Klezmer in Mahler’s music had more to do with his Jewish faith or the trends of the time. Because in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a trend towards exoticism. There might be more to the story than saying ‘Mahler’s Jewish. That’s why his music sounded like it did.’ And what are the challenges of performing Mahler? ‘To allow it to speak for itself. Sometimes I think, oh Arianna, just get out of the way!’ she laughs. But then, as she says, ‘simplicity is hard won’.

And one last question: in rehearsals, does Arianna call Pinchas ‘Maestro’ or ‘Dad’? Neither apparently. ‘It’s usually ‘excuse me but could we please….I’m Mr Excuse Me’ says Pinchas. ‘But ‘Daddy’? No, no. It doesn’t work like that.’

Pinchas and Arianna Zukerman perform with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 29th May.

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About Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Acknowledged as one of the UK’s most prestigious orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) enjoys an international reputation for bringing audiences worldwide first-class performances and the highest possible standards of music-making across a diverse range of musical repertoire. This was the vision of the Orchestra’s flamboyant founder Sir Thomas Beecham, whose legacy is maintained today as the Orchestra thrives under the exceptional direction of its new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Maestro Charles Dutoit.
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