Budapest Festival Orchestra
Interviews February 07, 2014



One of the world's greatest violinists, Pinchas Zukerman, is in Budapest! The legendary artist arrived with his cellist wife, Amanda Forsyth, also a brilliant musician. The violinist-conductor made time for a conversation that began a long time ago...

Please allow me first to go back in time. In 1969, a legendary recording was made of one of the most famous chamber music performances of all times: Schubert’s Trout Quintet. The quintet included, in addition to you, Itzhak Perlman, Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta. I know that a good friendship can be a great help to cooperation, but what is the secret to chamber music, and why was that joint musical performance so sensational?

To truly answer that question we need to go back in time even more, not just to 1969. This is because World War II had ended only 25 years before, leaving immeasurable chaos in the world. Back then people were making the utmost effort to bring their life back to normal once again. It was like that everywhere: in Europe, America, in fact, anywhere in the world. And music – as in everything – played a substantial part in that effort.

All of us were children of that chaotic period with a rather difficult family background at that.  There was Itzhak, Daniel and I, then Zubin with his ancestors from India, but Jackie has had his cross to bear.

World War II turned the whole world entirely upside down, so music had to find its ordinary route to people again, in order, finally, not to be used only as propaganda. And this played a vital role in how we ultimately came together. In fact, we met accidentally, but I would still say it was not by chance at all. And then there was Christopher Nupen, a phenomenal film director, who made a film of the rehearsals and concerts.  He also came from a rather problematic part of the world, namely South Africa.

These burdens that we carry due to our roots made it clear somehow that we needed to play Schubert’s music, the Trout Quintet in particular.

I don’t quite know if anything I said makes sense, but I still feel this way.


And what happens if you meet musicians for the first time and you only have a few days to create the harmony and balance required for playing together?

Some form of ideal collaboration must be established; we need to experience the chemistry of the place and the people, which I immediately sensed in Budapest the first time I came here. All this happened before the change in political regime. I knew I had musical roots here in spite of the fact that I officially don’t belong here. This is because Bartók didn’t come from Budapest but from someone representing an old tradition, called Bach.  But I could mention other great Hungarian composers too, such as Liszt, Kodály and Weiner. Or my previous master, Ilona Fehér, who herself was the child of that tradition, and kept saying novice musicians had to be raised and educated in harmony with traditions. These are shared traditions.  The only difference is that they spoke Hungarian, whilst I only wish I could. However, we all equally understand the language of music because we all have the same musical DNA so to speak.

If I want to answer your very important question I say that regardless whether conducting or playing my instrument, my aim is to create grandiose chamber music.  It doesn’t really matter if I have two, four or a hundred people around me because everything comes down to us to pay attention to each other, whichever version we opt for. Music is nothing other than the process of paying attention and “listening closely” to each other.  And chamber music is the essence of paying attention to each other.

Whenever I play chamber music, I pay attention to my colleagues. So when I pay attention to what I play, it means I play chamber music. We truly play music only when we have a very profound understanding of the piece, and turn to music with immense curiosity. This is what formed in myself very quickly because I was barely 9 or 10 when I participated in a chamber group’s work.

The repertoire is gigantic and knowledge and skills increase along with continuously improved practice.  And it is not such a complicated task if you stand before an orchestra as a soloist and also a conductor.Onlyconducting requires different knowledge and skills, practice sessions and rehearsals because I need to know as accurately as possible what the sheets contain. I cannot skip that learning process.

But there is something else too. My musical route has not come to an end yet, but this year is, nevertheless, the 52nd anniversary of my musical career. And today I have a much easier job than before because the more I repeat something, the more I play a particular piece, the more confidently I can avoid mistakes.  I have learned, or at least I always try, to avoid mistakes.

That I get to know and listen to, and what’s more see, more and more pieces, and I truly live my life, well, this results in an entirely new level of understanding.

To give you a example:  Chelibidache was a wonderful person. He kept saying everything was secondary, but you had to have knowledge and skills! Mediocre people must be shunned, and you recognise them by their lack of genuine knowledge and skills.   And mediocre people are dangerous, they must be avoided as much as possible!

And he was very much right in this, the situation is genuinely simple. I strive to avoid mediocrity.


Still talking about friends and ideal colleagues... if you work with them, you can obviously say and ask for things much more naturally and with more confidence because you know they will understand what you want to communicate. How much more is there to this when you are working with your wife? Amanda Forsyth is an excellent cellist and a superb musician, but how do you rehearse?  Does everything come about simply, without words?

Our relationship started off as being musical friends, and it later evolved into a personal friendship and followed by our love relationship.  Nonetheless, our musical friendship has not changed ever since. We work, rehearse and talk to each other just like before. All this changed nothing in our musical professionalism, and our aim is still to give the best we are capable of, and this has nothing to do with us being a married couple.

We recently played Brahms’ Double Concerto, eight times in succession. And the members of the accompanying orchestra understood everything very easily because we have already worked on this piece so many times that all of our signals were totally clear. Musicians had an easy job even when playing without a conductor because we reacted to each other so naturally that it was instantly understandable to everyone what we wanted.

It resembles the case of a truly great artist.  He doesn’t always need words, it is enough to pay attention to his gestures, and then we can accurately see his character.

And let me return to conducting a bit. This is because I need to know exactly how I want to conduct. This is a requirement which, as I see it, is often misunderstood today. If someone is a famous soloist, it doesn’t mean they will be good conductors when 160 eyes are fixed on them. And this would only mean an orchestra with eighty members. Dangling your arms up and down doesn’t mean you will be a good conductor, and the fact that you are otherwise an excellent soloist doesn’t entitle you to be a conductor either. This is a truly big mistake, an immense error, which is why I say you have to learn conducting.

And you must not ever underestimate the orchestra’s musicians. There are eighty to one hundred people sitting in front of you and you must know - although they don’t speak much - that they find out in seconds whether or not you are up to your task. They are really amazing! As if you were visiting your doctor. You enter the surgery room and a truly good doctor does not have to examine you because he knows your illness just by looking at you. Orchestra musicians work very similarly. They observe the conductor walking up to the stand. And they react in two different ways: “Weeell...” or saying: “He is the one!” That’s it. Perfect. And there is nothing in between. This is magnificent, isn’t it? And all this teaches you one thing: no-one can become a genuine conductor unless they go through the learning process.  It can take years. Sometimes it requires a whole life. And then it is too late.

The bottom line is to make those many musicians on the stage believe that they are able to play much better than they think. I cannot tell you how to achieve this. This is what is generally thought to require talent. I wouldn’t know. However, I do know when I am good and when I am not. The orchestra wants the conductor to improve them. It is really awful when musicians say “why doesn’t he just go, he is getting in our way”. And I can only avoid this if I learn.

When we are talking I am still in New York. I will travel to Monaco tomorrow and then to Budapest. I will play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and will conduct Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in Monaco. I have not seen that orchestra for ages, but I will still have to talk to them about Schumann.  And I will use even the tiniest bits of my knowledge to make them trust themselves that they can do what we came together for. But I will not keep telling them how excellently they play, oh, no. I want to work out what Schumann wanted, or what I think he wanted. This is like driving. If you drive well, you can drive fast or slow, but you must always know what speed you need at a given point to be safe. And if the car is incapable of something, don’t push it too hard. You must avoid accidents. And this is what’s important in music too. Besides everything else, naturally. And then there is the audience, waiting to get something. And if they do, they bravo you and keep clapping, signifying they feel better. This is what music is for. It ought to make you feel better!


You have been a model for younger generations for years, and young people seem to be important to you as well, since you teach and help them. What are your experiences? Are there any real characters, or is globalisation a threat to music too?

Am I a model? I don’t know. I’d rather mention names such as Oistrakh, Menuhin or Isaac Stern. The important thing is that I really like talent. Because talented people make me think, and signal that anything is possible. I want to provide much more information and help to talented people than I could possibly give. Because talents are like the horizon – there is no end. Then there are those exceptional talents who are born every seventy years. Rubinstein, Horowitz or Heifetz, Ysaÿe, Bartók, Beethoven or Mozart. They shone out due to their knowledge and talent. Or Picasso, who created a new “language” of painting. I really like talent. And I also like globalisation. Why, what does it mean? It means that we travel faster. The drawback is that we do not talk to each other as much as we should, but write text messages on our phones instead. Well, that just doesn’t work in music, because you have to hear the sounds. And at this very moment the whole globalisation doesn’t matter anymore. It is one viewpoint anyway. We shouldn’t deal with it too much, or too little either.

I started video teaching 20 years ago when I realised it comprises everything I need. I can see the student, wherever he is in the world, I can see the sheets of music, they are in front of me, and I can hear the sound; so everything is in place for teaching. That’s one advantage of globalisation. You have to utilise it wisely, that’s all. The same holds true for technical innovations. You can download anything you want on your phone; so it is much easier to learn languages, for instance, if you use your tools wisely. You can even make yourself understood in countries whose languages you don’t understand. We were in China recently. We went into a restaurant, and our order was taken with the help of a telephone app because it displayed and uttered the meals in Mandarin. This is magical I think. Could we possibly have imagined this barely ten years ago? This is development. I think we live in an amazing time. And I consider every improvement as part of our life. We have to learn to live with these innovations, since this so-called globalisation only exists for about ten years. I think it’s alright that more and more people watch and listen to music on their computer. The Festival Orchestra enables school pupils to watch rehearsals on webcameras. Like in a fairy tale! Could we ever think a decade ago that there would be something like this? Children, at school, watching our rehearsal. Genius! Think about it. These children go home, let’s say there are a hundred of them, and tell their parents that they watched the orchestra’s rehearsal. One minute later 300 people already know about it. And some two hundred people may even decide that they will go to a live concert. This means we have already done a great deal for music.

And finally, just for the fun of it, if you could establish a chamber orchestra, let’s say a string quartet, who would be the members? You can choose anyone in music history.

Come on, that’s not fair! That’s absolutely unfair! – he argues laughing. – And I cannot answer it even just for the fun of it. Because a situation like this is not just about musicians, but also about individuals. Not to mention that I would be unable to play in a string quartet for longer than ten minutes. For me, it would require too much discipline to play together with three other people.  I could follow them, but I would be unable to sit there three hours a day and rehearse everything necessary for a good quartet. Because a string quartet is not just about the sound, it's also about behaviour. Chamber groups like this must have very special members in order to be really good. The reason why I cannot answer this question properly is that I’m not sure whether those people I wanted to mention would be suitable beside me, or vice versa. This kind of collaboration cannot be immediately successful. It takes a lot of time to experience how it works, and how it works well. It only happened to me once that working together was, strangely enough, perfectly natural. That was when I started a trio with Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim. It was a special gift. And although I had pleasant chamber music encounters after that, they just didn’t last long.  Yet such collaborations aren’t just for two days. They often continue for a lifetime.

You see? There are things I think about seriously. But in fact, I love to have fun. I’m always joking with everybody, including myself.