I was very much looking forward to watching a master class with world-famous violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman as the last event in the virtual Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies, hosted by The Juilliard School last week. Unfortunately, following Friday's master class, the video had to be withheld and apologies issued because Zukerman used "insensitive and offensive cultural stereotypes" during the course of the class.
I did watch the virtual class unfold live, and I can attest that this was the appropriate course.
First, a little background: Zukerman's list of accomplishments over his five-decade career is long and distinguished, with hundreds of performances with world-class orchestras and collaborations with some of the most prominent musicians of the 20th century, including Isaac Stern, Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman and many more. For more than 25 years he has served as chair of the Pinchas Zukerman Performance Program at the Manhattan School of Music and taught at prominent institutions throughout the U.K., Israel, China, and Canada, among other countries.
On a personal level, as a young violinist I found Zukerman's early recording of Mozart Concerti to be revelatory, a real cornerstone in opening my ears to the expressive possibilities of the violin. I've followed his career and long admired his playing.
With this impeccable resumé and reputation, it's easy to understand why Zukerman was invited to teach at Starling-DeLay, and why participants were anticipating his master class with great expectations.
At issue was his interaction with a set of young sisters, both born in New York and with a long set of accomplishments. They opened the master class with a performance from Spohr's "Duo Concertante." Symposium participants were given video of their performance in advance, so I actually watched that video before the master class. I noted that they "sounded like sisters singing together," their sound matched so beautifully as sisterly voices often do. They were playing by memory and had really mastered this complicated music and created a lot of great moments in their interactions, smiling at one another and truly playing as one. "I could listen all day," I wrote.
They played again live, at the beginning of the master class. "It's almost too perfect, I mean that as a compliment," Zukerman said. "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."
They played some more, and he still wanted more expression.
"Too boxy - have fun!" he said. "The violin is a singing instrument, not a stringed instrument. There is nothing wrong with vibrato, there is nothing wrong with sliding. In fact I recommend it."
"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 how wrong it is, that in Korea they don't sing.
One of the sisters spoke up, "But I'm not Korean," she said.
"Then where are you from?" he barked.
She began to explain that she's of half Japanese descent, then he interrupted, "In Japan they don't sing either." He mimicked a sing-song vocal style that has been stereotyped as Asian. "That is not singing. Violin is not a machine."
At this point the smiles had melted from the sisters' faces.
He went on to talk about telling a story with one's playing, but it was hard to listen after this. This was a virtual event, but if I'm honest, if it had been live I would have stood up and walked out of the hall. Instead I lay down on the couch next to my computer and put my hands over my face as the class continued.
At the end of their segment he bid them goodbye and added, "I hope I can see you one day in person so I can give you a big hug."
I did listen to the rest of the master class. At the end, as Zukerman answered questions from the participants, but he returned to the topic:
"In Korea they don't sing," Zukerman said, "It's not in their DNA."
Over the next day I wondered how I could possibly write anything about this master class. Zukerman did offer musical insights, but they were overshadowed by the way he treated these young artists. People born in New York City are from America. Professional musicians, even classical ones, should know about K-pop, which is hardly the only musical gift from Korea.
On Sunday, Starling-DeLay Violin Symposium Artistic Director Brian Lewis and Juilliard Director of Lifelong Learning John-Morgan Bush issued a joint statement:
"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."
Certainly, this was a painful and disappointing episode. I don't know how many music students of Asian ethnicity have endured this kind of aggressive treatment from those who would be their mentors. But it's undeniable, especially when it takes place in such a public setting, with some 150 witnesses.
If anyone says, "This is no longer acceptable," I'd like to remind everyone that it never was acceptable. No matter how famous or accomplished the speaker.
I am relieved that The Juilliard School agrees.
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