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THE SCOOP | Renowned Violinist Pinchas Zukerman Under Fire For ‘Offensive Cultural Stereotypes’

By Anya Wassenberg on June 28, 2021

Pinchas Zukerman (Photo: Cheryl Mazak)
Pinchas Zukerman (Photo: Cheryl Mazak)

Internationally renowned violinist Pinchas Zukerman has come under fire and apologized for racist remarks made during a recent online master class for The Julliard School.

An editor at Violinist watched the online 11th Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies in real time, and described it in a blog post. A video of two sisters performing Spohr’s Duo Concertante began the master class. Then, the pair played for Zukerman.

At several points, Zukerman interrupted their playing to make race-based remarks.

“It’s almost too perfect, I mean that as a compliment,” Zukerman said at one point. “Think less about how perfect to play and to play together, and more about phrasing. A little more vinegar — or soy sauce!” he laughed. “More singing, like an Italian overture.”

Later on, he commented further. “Sometimes if you have a question about how to play it, sing it,” he said. “I know in Korea they don’t sing.” He went on to talk about the idea that there is no singing in Korean tradition, a contention that is factually untrue.

The sisters are 14 and 17 years of age, were born in New York City, and are Japanese-French by background. Both are students at The Julliard School. One of them spoke up to mention that they were not Korean. As she explained their mixed heritage, he interrupted again.

“In Japan they don’t sing either.” He then went on to mimic a singsong vocal style that is seen as stereotypically Asian. “That is not singing. Violin is not a machine.”

After the performance, as he answered questions, he circled back to Korea. “In Korea they don’t sing,” he repeated. “It’s not in their DNA.”

“Unfortunately, we will not be posting the video of Friday’s final master class with Pinchas Zukerman, who in the course of the class used insensitive and offensive cultural stereotypes.”

Starling-DeLay Violin Symposium Artistic Director Brian Lewis and Juilliard Director of Lifelong Learning John-Morgan Bush issued a joint statement in response to the incident, which was viewed in real time by about 150 participants.

“Unfortunately, we will not be posting the video of Friday’s final master class with Pinchas Zukerman, who in the course of the class used insensitive and offensive cultural stereotypes. Those remarks did not represent the values of the Symposium or The Juilliard School. We have addressed this issue directly with the students involved and with Mr. Zukerman himself, who was a guest engaged for this symposium and has offered his apologies. On behalf of the Symposium and the school, we sincerely apologize to all attendees and again extend a personal apology to the recipients of those comments.”

Pinchas Zukerman as an educator

  • Zukerman is considered to be one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th century.
  • He was born in 1948 in Tel Aviv, and migrated to America in 1962.
  • Zukerman also studied at The Julliard School under Ivan Galamian.
  • Alongside his performing career, he has taught at prominent institutions all over the world.
  • For 25 years, he has served as chair of the Pinchas Zukerman Performance Program at the Manhattan School of Music.
  • He was recently appointed by the Dallas Symphony as Artistic & Principal Education Partner for two seasons.

Zukerman at NACO

From 1999 until 2015, Zukerman served as the Music Director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) in Ottawa. While his tenure was praised for many reasons, including taking NACO on international tours, there were also troubles during his tenure. Some of them stemmed from his romantic relationship with Amanda Forsyth, at the time the NAC Orchestra’s Principal Cellist.

In 2006, Zukerman cancelled all his concerts mid-season, at the same time that Foryth went on an indefinite medical leave. While the maestro’s agent cited fatigue as the reason, the couple played together in Baltimore during the leave of absence, and Zukerman’s schedule was packed with guest appearances across the United States and Europe.

The move came at a time that rumours flew about bad blood between the orchestra members and its power couple. And, despite his star power, subscriptions were falling, and NACO’s attendance figures were stuck at 65 percent.

Zukerman’s salary at the time was rumoured to be in excess of $500,000 USD.

“I am glad to know that Juilliard reacted swiftly to remove the class from view and I hope these wonderful young artists will manage to put the experience behind them.”

A message of support

Pianist Menahem Pressler posted a comment in support of the sisters on the Slipped Disc blog.

“It has been my very great privilege and honour to teach the two girls in question over several years at the Musica Mundi chamber masterclasses in Belgium and I have followed them closely ever since. They not only sing like angels but move me to tears each time I listen to them.

“Apart from their great artistic gifts they are highly cultivated civilised multilingual human beings, mature beyond their years. I am glad to know that Juilliard reacted swiftly to remove the class from view and I hope these wonderful young artists will manage to put the experience behind them.”

An apology

After the statement was made on Sunday, June 27, Zukerman made his own statement of apology on Monday the 28th, as quoted in The New York Times.

“In Friday’s master class, I was trying to communicate something to these two incredibly talented young musicians, but the words I used were culturally insensitive,” he said in a statement. “I’m writing to the students personally to apologize. I am sorry that I made anyone uncomfortable. I cannot undo that, but I offer a sincere apology. I learned something valuable from this, and I will do better in the future.”

The Times interviewed violinist Hyeyung Yoon, founder of Asian Musical Voices of America. She said that Zukerman’s attitude “dehumanizes a group of people without actually getting to know who they are.”

“It’s so prevalent in classical music, but also prevalent in the larger society,” she said.

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