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On The Arts: The world is big enough for both Zukerman and early music

Sunday, July 02, 2000

By Peter Kountz

The world of North American early music was enlivened recently by an exchange between Pinchas Zukerman, the newly appointed music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada, and Jeanne Lamon, the music director of the Toronto-based early music band Tafelmusik.


Peter Kountz is president of Shady Side Academy and a frequent contributor to the Post-Gazette.


Zukerman, a frequent guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the former music director of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, was quoted in a Toronto newspaper as saying he "hates" early music; that early music is "disgusting ... and complete rubbish, and [so are] the people who play it."

These are strong words, but not surprising coming from one of the matinee idols of "modern" orchestral music, a musician who is, in his own right, a highly regarded violinist, violist and conductor. Other modern players and conductors have said similar things, but not with Zukerman's vehemence and not always in the media.

His comments appeared in an April interview with Robert Everett-Green of the Toronto Globe and Mail. Tafelmusik's Lamon responded with an op-ed piece in the same newspaper. Lamon wrote that Zukerman's comments were "tantamount to calling computers disgusting and their users rubbish, when it is obvious ... they represent the accepted tool for doing business in today's world. Likewise, period instruments and performance practices have become today's standard for performing music of the 17th through early 19th centuries."

Lamon continued with a vigorous defense of early music, its performance standards, and what she argues is the great success of early-music interpretations.

"This is a philosophy of music making that has taken the world by storm. In the almost 30 years I have been performing baroque and classical music on period instruments, I have witnessed a revolution. We early-music types have evolved from being the beatniks of the music scene to the ones selling more CDs than groups recording with modern instruments."

As Lamon sees it, everyone has climbed onto the early music bandwagon. Everyone, that is, except Zukerman.

To be fair to Zukerman, several issues linger in early music and early music performance practices, perhaps the most important of which is competence. For a long time, there was a feeling that those players who could not make it in "modern music" would find their way into early music, only to become mediocre practitioners of an already suspect art form.

There is support for this theory, as more and more early music groups have dissolved because there are not enough great players to go around. On the other hand, Tafelmusik, a group with some of the finest performers in the business, recently lost its recording contract. So perhaps competence is only part of the story.

Another issue for Zukerman may be early music performance practices: fewer players on parts; different tempi; different colors and textures in sound; standing instead of sitting; a greater informality of venue and performance space; different instruments and instrumental techniques; and a more focused repertoire.

A compelling illustration of this point would be Christopher Hogwood's recording of Handel's Messiah from the mid-1970s. This was one of the interpretations that shaped the "philosophy of music making that has taken the world by storm." This is an austere, severe, controlled, music-centered, aesthetically pure, simple, totally unsexy, liturgically grounded performance. It also is a very "small" performance.

Having seen and heard Zukerman perform in several different contexts, I can understand how the austerity of early music performance offends him. He would ask, "Why embrace simplicity and austerity when we might risk losing our audience and when we can have big, bold and exciting?"

Early music players have a different sense of sound and voice. They both see and hear sound differently, and one is nothing without the other. Texture is an essential part of sound, as are purity, size and scale. Ensemble and section -- the collective -- are more important than the individual. Intimacy and accessibility are critical elements in performance, as are simplicity and authenticity.

There is no more revealing illustration of the differences between early music performances with period instruments and "modern" music performances with modern instruments than respective readings of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, especially No. 2. For a modern trumpet player, the Second Brandenburg is a piece for solo trumpet, whereas for the natural trumpet player, it is an ensemble piece. And the way a natural trumpet player sees, hears and realizes the trumpet part of the Second Brandenburg is radically different from the way a modern player comes to the piece.

There is a kind of modesty and clarity in early music performances that would surely not appeal to Zukerman and his colleagues. How ironic that his predecessor with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Trevor Pinnock, made his fame in early music and that many of his recordings with the English Consort, including the Brandenburg Concerti, are among the most admired in the early music canon.

Many of the more established early-music ensembles in North America -- and some of the newer ones like the Collegium in New York City -- continue to have success with performances, programs, ticket sales and funding: Tafelmusik, the American Bach Soloists, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Pittsburgh's own Chatham Baroque was voted Best New Classical Artist of 1999 by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers in cooperation with National Public Radio and Performance Today. The Pittsburgh Renaissance and Baroque Society continues to sustain an unusually supportive audience.

But the comments of Zukerman may suggest an emerging trend of negative public statements by "modern" conductors who are very suspicious of early music practices and performances and of period instruments. Is it possible, then, that Chatham College's recent decision to "unfund" the highly successful Chatham Baroque (with recordings and performances nationally) is part of this trend?

Why can't there be room for the inventive, imaginative, authentic, simple and joyous in "serious music"? Surely Zukerman has nothing over Lamon, Tafelmusik or Chatham Baroque. Differences, yes. Superiority, no. What we need is both: the music making and conducting of Pinchas Zukerman and his modern brethren, and the early music conductors and performers who see, hear and play music differently.

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