Feature Article

Interview:  A Talk with Flutist Eugenia Zukerman

December, 2003

Jason Victor Serinus

American classical music lovers know Eugenia Zukerman as the longtime arts correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning. In addition, she is one of the country's major flute soloists. Lauded as “One of the finest flutists of our time” by the Boston Globe and “an absolute marvel of sensitivity” by the Washington Post, her playing has graced countless venues and a number of well-received recordings.

This interview took place in April of 2003, as Zukerman was preparing to perform at Connecticut's Music Mountain Music Festival. Located in the Berkshire Foothills, the volunteer-administered venue hosts the oldest continuous Summer Chamber Music Festival in the United States.

Jason Victor Serinus (JVS): Are there many women who are professional flutists? I certainly know of Paula Robeson, whom I heard perform recently with Musicians from Marlboro.

Eugenia Zukerman (EZ): There are thousands of women flutists; they far outnumber the men, and there are many fabulous ones. Paula is the senior member of the group of American soloists, but there's only a handful because there just isn't room.

Paula and I are still very active, but there are a number of terrific younger players coming up like Tara Helen O'Connor, who won an Avery Fisher Career Grant, Carol Wincenc, Linda Chesis, and Judith Mendenhall. There are thousands more who are professionals and play with orchestras and in chamber ensembles.

What's interesting is that the superstars of the flute have always been men. Of course, there was never a solo flutist until Jean-Pierre Rampal came along. The flute was thought of solely as an orchestral instrument. Though concerti had been written for it all along, it was not considered worthy of being a solo instrument. The concerto part was always played by someone in the orchestra, while cello, violin, and piano drew the star soloists.

But just as Segovia made the guitar a solo instrument, so Rampal, who began playing as a soloist in the 1950s but first became well known in the 1960s, put a new face on the flute. Then there was James Galway, and now there's the fabulous young Emmanuel Pahud. In terms of Box Office appeal and the way the public views it, they're the real superstars. Paula and I have had high profiles, but there hasn't been a woman who has achieved anywhere near the popularity of Rampal or Galway.

JVS: Does this frustrate you?

EZ: No. I've never been interested in being a superstar. I was married to one; I wouldn't want to be him. My goal was always to play my best and to have a varied and interesting life in music. And I do a number of other things as well.

JVS: You're a writer. I'm not a TV watcher, so I've never seen you on TV, shame on me.

EZ: Why should you feel that? There are lots of people who don't watch television. I've just been very lucky for 23 years to be arts correspondent on Sunday Morning, because it's been the only show that has seriously presented the arts nationwide in any sort of long format. Doing this has become an ongoing part of my life, although they're not terribly interested in classical music anymore.

Classical instrumental music is going through a very difficult time, because there are three generations of people who never had music appreciation in their public schools. I also think that our attention span has definitely gotten shorter. When I started doing my pieces for Sunday Morning they were 12 to 15 minutes long, and now they're 7 minutes long. And as you know, the last couple of generations have been doing MTV and watching video games.

If you're going to listen to classical music, you have to have some training in sitting and being still with abstract thought for the half hour it takes to hear a big sonata or a symphony. Classical music is not for the elite, but it is for the informed. I don't mean that you have to study it, but you do have to be brought to it. That's one thing that I think Sunday Morning has done well.

The interest in classical music is unfortunately really waning, not only in this country but everywhere including, of all places, Germany. In fact, Anne Sophie-Mutter, the great violinist, has started programs in Germany to try to teach young Germans about classical music.

Here we have 600 years of some of the greatest creations that human beings have ever made, and there are kids who say “Schubert, who's that?” It's depressing to those of us whose souls resonate to this stuff, and it's sad for the future.

I'm not a doomer and gloomer. I think we're going through a phase, and there will be a time when classical music will be taught in the schools again because it's just such an important part of life. But at the moment the average American listens to almost anything but classical music.

We're in a very interesting time with music. There's so much out there that's interesting. I find rap interesting, especially sociologically. There's a lot of angry poetry going down with rap that I think is great. Everything from salsa to Indian ragas. We can now hear and play the latest Indian raga from Tajikistan. The world is our musical oyster. So there's a lot of confusion. But you look at it either as confusion or as a cornucopia. I tend to think it's a very interesting time; there's a real change going on.

JVS: I recently interviewed mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who lamented that classical music is dying. She lamented that only 500 people attended her Bloomington, IN recital, the home of the largest music school in the country. They hadn't had a professional recitalist perform there since 1997 – that was Kathleen Battle – yet the faculty told her that the students were too busy to attend her recital. This astounded Graham, who considers live performance by top professionals an ideal way to learn. The experience led her to ask what is happening to music education.

Have you had experiences similar to hers?

EZ: Absolutely. This is my 31st year before the public – I made my debut in 1972 at age 27. When I started out, colleges had wonderful concert series, and students came. But we're in a time when everyone is so scheduled up the wazoo. It's a frightening thing. Technology has really complicated our lives. We're expected to do in one day double the amount we did in the 1960s. People fax you and e-mail you, they want answers immediately, they want you to send in programs immediately. Everyone has doubled their output, and nobody thinks that down time is important.

I have so many friends with young children who are so scheduled they haven't a moment to breathe. It's happening to all of us. It's sad. And it has happened so fast. I think we're all suffering from shock.

First of all, the glut of money and opportunities in the ‘90s left us a bit complacent, thinking this is how the future would be. I don't think anyone knew how quickly the plug would be pulled. And the misbegotten war in Iraq, which is bankrupting our economy, is beyond depressing.

JVS: Could you discuss your June 22 performance at Music Mountain?

EZ: Nick Gordon is the wonderful director of Music Mountain, which was, started by his father. These concerts take place in Gordon Hall, a very beautiful converted barn on top of Capital Mountain in an especially beautiful part of Connecticut. It's a wonderful intimate setting for concerts, and it has legendary acoustics. There's always a reception afterwards that's quite lovely. I've played there many times.

Nick called me and said, “There's this fabulous young trio from Germany, the Jacques Thibaud Trio; I'd love you to do a concert with them.” He sent me their CD and I was very impressed. We were supposed to have our first concert two summers ago, but I had to cancel because of a sudden family wedding. We rescheduled for June 2002. We enjoyed each other so much that we started playing concerts together. We've done quite a number since then.

They have an amazing manager who gets them two or three tours a year in the U.S. They made their U.S. debut about three years ago at the Frick Museum in NYC, and it got such a rave review in the NY Times that it launched their career here. All of them are about 30 years of age; two of them are married with two children each. They're very mature young men who play so wonderfully together. Everything they do as a trio they do from memory. It's not because it's a party trick; it's because it's very natural to them, and they find that they can relate to each other more easily that way.

I'm just knocked out by the way they give a very different texture and feel to the literature for string trio. We played together in Washington in October and together got a wonderful review in the Washington Post. Every since then, people have wanted to hear us perform together again. Nick was so happy with our concert last summer that he asked us to return this summer.

I'm delighted it has just worked out. “Just” is the operative term, because I have to rush off to Vail, Colorado the next day. I'm the Artistic Director of the Vail Valley Music Festival, a six-week program.

Nick is terrific. He has a real sense of programming, and he loves to give suggestions and ideas. It seems he looked up old concert programs for music Mountain and found a flute quartet by an American composer named Swann Hennessy, Variations on a Theme of Six Notes. It's hard for me to remember everything, especially what's coming up, because in the last four days I've done three different concerts with three different programs. So far, we've all looked at the Hennessey. There's no recording of it, and it looks very charming. We'll perform it almost 60 years to the day after it was first performed at Music Mountain.

We're beginning with Haydn's “London” Trio In C Major for flute, violin, and cello (1794). Haydn wrote a number of charming little trios while in London, designed for any combination of instruments available to play them: two flutes and cello, two violins and cello; violin flute and cello. It sounds very lovely for flute, violin and cello, and it's very, very adorable.

Then the trio performs a String Trio by Heitor Villa-Lobos. I've heard them play it and it's spectacular. After intermission, they'll do some very beautiful Bach arrangements that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote. Then we do the brief piece by Swann Hennessey.

We're ending with Mozart Flute Quartet in A Major, K. 298 (1786), written when he was in Salzburg during a very happy part of his life. As directions for the last movement, Mozart wrote something like: Rondo allegretto, not too fast but also not too slow, a little bit with lots of elegance and maybe expression. He was being very tongue in cheek. It's a very joyous quartet.

We always do a really fun encore. The violist is brilliant at arranging things. We've done a Strauss waltz that's hysterically funny, and we enjoy doing it at the end of the concert.

JVS: Where can I find recordings of the Jacques Thibaud Trio?

EZ: Go to http://www.jtt.info/ They have a number of recordings, including Live for Lincoln Center, Live in Cleveland, and a disc of Beethoven and Schubert. They're about to release a first volume of Beethoven Trios. We were going to record the complete Mozart quartets, but the project got canceled because of the obvious reason, money. One always hopes that things will brighten up.

I want to talk about my fourth book, "In My Mother's Closet", which is causing a lot of interest. While I of course wrote the narrative, the material comes from over 40 extraordinary women who shared their experiences with me. That's why I feel I can say the book is wonderful.

I got the idea from my daughters. When you're looking through your mother's things, what are the things that you're looking for? It's a very universal thing that little girls do. By talking to women about poking in their mother's things, it opened a real door for communication of memory about one's mother.

Little girls know they'll grow up to become women, and they'll have curves and have babies, but it's all so mysterious to them. When they're young, their relationship to their mothers is often so intense and worshipful for the most part that they can't even formulate the questions they would ask if they could. Looking around through the artifacts of their mother's closet is a way for little girls to find clues to what womanhood is about and who their mother is. It's almost like going on an emotional archeological dig.

There is something very Proustian about the memories that everyone has of their mother's closet. People speak very sensually about the smells of their mother. They speak about what's always found in the closet: the scents, the feel of the material, and the feel of the shoes. But the book is not at all about clothing or possessions; it's really about connection to our mothers.

The interviews are remarkable. I have 43 very disparate women from different professions and backgrounds. I even interviewed my two daughters, my mother and even myself. The stories are absolutely unique and amazing. These women's insights, and the redemptive quality of the interviews are very wonderful.

I ended up with 20 pages of single-spaced material from each person. I decided to whittle it down to very conversational first-person narratives, working very hard to keep the voice of each woman intact.

The power of this book is quite phenomenal. It was published in April, after which I gave a book reading at a New York Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center. I had a big crowd, because men and women bought four or five of them for everyone in their family.

The subtitle of the book is "An Invitation to Remember". When I say to either a woman or man that I've written a book about little girls going through things in their mother's closet, their memories of their mothers come back in a kind of Proustian rush. We have a website, http://www.inmymotherscloset.com, which tells a lot more about the book and allows people to share their own memories.

JVS: Let's talk about the creative impulse. What is it that music satisfies for you? What is different about writing? What is this need to create and share about for you?

EZ: That's hard to answer. I think our drives are very peculiar to ourselves. My motivations and ambitions have changed over the years. When you're 18 years old and gifted, you're wonderfully innocent and naïve. You go forth with projects with a great deal of assurance. Also, I'm not a natural performer. As a child, I got sick to my stomach when I had to play in public. I've become someone who is a lot more extroverted, but it was an ordeal. Yet I loved music and I loved making the music.

I think the drive is some kind of universal want of approval. We all want to be loved. Creative people are insecure by nature. I think William Butler Yeats phrased it so well, though he wasn't even talking about artists – he was talking about politicians – when he said, “The worst are full of passionate intensity, the best lack all conviction.”

I think that's true about creative writers and creative people in general. I'm never sure that what I've written is any good. I'm never sure that what I've played is the way I want it to be. This perhaps is what drives us: the drive to be better, to get better, to find the truth in whatever it is that we're working on.

I think that the things I do use different parts of the brain. As a re-creative artist, a musician who takes the symbols on a page and recreates or interprets what a composer has created, it takes real creative energy to learn how to really make your mark on a piece of music and yet stay true to the composer. It's a very different process than facing the blank screen. And I have a need to do both of those things.

Also, I'm in my sixth summer as the Artistic Director of the Vail Music Festival. When I was first asked to do it, I said “No way. I'm just way too busy as it is.” But my husband David Seltzer, who's a film writer/director, an extraordinarily caring and nurturing person in general, and a great champion of mine said to me, “You really must examine this job offer.” I was the unanimous choice of the Board of Directors, and you don't get mandates like that every day. David pointed out that it would use all of my skills. “Think about it,” he said.

I took the job on with great trepidation, But it's been absolutely wonderful for me. It has forced me to take responsibility for something very important.

JVS: Of course, you've taken responsibility for the children you've raised, and for being truthful to the music you perform.

EZ: Yes, that's true. But I have a need to stretch, and I'm in a stage of my life where my health is good, I have a lot of energy, my children are grown and flourishing, and I'm happy in my personal life. And I know it could disappear in a minute.

I had a life-threatening disease and I'm fine now. But I think most people who have life-threatening diseases are left with a sense of urgency.

JVS: Are you in remission? I read that there was no “cure.”

EZ: That's right. But I'm never going to get it again. I've decided. I'm for taking holistic care of ourselves in myriad ways. My health is good and will remain that way.

My mother turned 89 on April 14 and went skiing last winter. She's my inspiration. I want to be running around at 89 the way she is. We danced the tango at my book party on Monday night.

JVS: Yeah!

Is there something you want to say to people about the expectations they might bring to your concert and this particular program?

EZ: I don't. I think people should come with an open mind and listen and enjoy, get lost in their own thoughts. You can't give instructions to the listener. I want to share with them the beauty of the setting, the richness of the summer.

We had a brutal winter, both physically and emotionally because of the war. This year, when there's a nice day and the blossoms are out, there's no one on the street without a smile on their face. We have to remember the basics of where we come from. This is our earth, this is nature. And the beauty of this summer concert is that it's right in that setting. So my instructions to the listener are to enjoy.

JVS: I've just listened to your recording of the Lowell Liebermann concerto. The music is very lovely, but also very tame harmonically. Did people like Berg or Schoenberg write music for the flute?

EZ: Most contemporary composers are trying to be more user friendly. But the 20th century was another Golden Age for the Flute. The instrument was rediscovered, particularly because of extended techniques. I've had pieces written for me, some of which I absolutely adore, and some which have been difficult to learn, but gratifying nonetheless.

Sure, there are lots of intense pieces in the repertoire. I recently played a piece that I found very assaultive. I did not like it. It was so written in the high octave, with lots of screeching on the flute, and I felt like oh my God, I'm going to hurt the audience. Yet the challenge of learning it was very important.

JVS: Who has written for you?

EZ: Libby Larsen, Osvaldo Golijov, a wonderful young composer named Luna Pearl Woolf who is married to Matt Haimovitz, and Jake Heggie. He's a great friend of mine and we're going to do some concerts together. What a lovely man. He's one of the dearest men I've ever met. Jake also wrote a piece for Susan Graham, myself, and him. I was in San Francisco doing a benefit for the San Francisco Opera with the two of them.

- Jason Victor Serinus -


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