A life playing the bassoon
George Zukerman, who retired his bassoon in 2012, will be honoured on April 27 with a tribute concert at Bell Performing Arts Centre. (photo by Lauren Kramer)
George Zukerman well remembers the day he was first introduced to the bassoon. It was 77 years ago, and he was a new arrival from London, England, attending New York’s High School of Music and Art.
“One day they told us, ‘Boys and girls, you’re becoming an orchestra!’” he recalls. “All the pushy kids grabbed the instruments they recognized and I picked up this anonymous black box, the only thing that was left. I said, ‘Excuse me sir, what is this?’ Our teacher replied, ‘Oh, you’re our bassoonist!’ And I never looked back.”
That moment launched Zukerman, 90, on a lifelong journey wherein he became an international bassoon virtuoso. He conducted 40 world tours and was frequently the first bassoon soloist ever invited to tour with the national symphony orchestras in which he played.
But Zukerman is nothing if not extremely modest. Of his musical ability before he picked up the bassoon, he declares during an interview in his White Rock home, “I played a little piano but I wasn’t really musically talented.”
He didn’t even take to the bassoon at first, he says, “until I decided to practise. Then I got work because it was a time of war and other bassoonists were getting drafted for the war, which meant I had some amazing opportunities. Four or five years later, I didn’t know how to do anything else, so I decided to become a musician.”
Vancouver left a deep impression on Zukerman’s life when he first visited in 1950. The Vancouver Symphony’s bassoon player was unwell and Zukerman received a desperate call from a conductor he knew, asking him to come and play. Just 23, he flew into the city to perform for six weeks. During that time, he met Abe Arnold, then editor of the Jewish Western Bulletin (the Independent’s predecessor).
Arnold introduced Zukerman to a social worker at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver who encouraged Zukerman to audition for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He recalls practising for the audition at Carnegie Hall, alone in a room. No one arrived to hear him and he was about to leave when Leonard Bernstein entered. “You’ve got the job,” Bernstein informed him. “I’ve been listening to you practise for the past half hour!”
Zukerman spent 18 months with the Israel Philharmonic in the early 1950s, when the Jewish state was still brand new. “Back then, members of the orchestra were admired as some of the most prestigious people in the country!” he recalls. By 1953, he had accepted a position with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and relocated to Vancouver.
It was a bittersweet time for a performer in the small city of 300,000, he says. “Musically, whatever one did in 1953 in Vancouver was being done for the first time, so I was able to have an influence on musical activity and life around here. But, the orchestra was half amateur, poorly financed and not well-supported, so it performed a season of alternate concerts.”
In his spare time, Zukerman formed a concert service called Overture Concerts, with the goal of arranging performances by other artists in small communities throughout Canada. He knew ticket sales would be an impossible way for the concerts to stay afloat, so his idea was to sell subscriptions.
“Basically, we ran a membership campaign, raised the money and then figured out who we could afford to bring in. It worked wonderfully in small towns and it became very successful, with up to 500 performances in 74 towns across the country,” he explains.
Zukerman was fascinated by life in small towns and was thrilled to bring high-quality musicians to their halls. “We sent tenor Ben Heppner to Swift Current, Sask., the Canadian Opera Company to Nelson, B.C., tenor Richard Margison to Prince George, and pianist Anton Kuerti to Merritt, B.C., and Medicine Hat, Alta. Almost any small community would have enjoyed concerts by major Canadian and non-Canadian artists.”
The artists didn’t just perform – they also talked to their audiences about themselves and their music. “It gave a humanity to the concerts and it’s one of the reasons we could succeed at this,” says Zukerman.
His career with the VSO came to a close in 1963 after he led a strike campaigning for more work. “The symphony was running on 23 weeks of pay and we wanted at least 35 weeks, so we were asking for more opportunities to play,” he says. The VSO board refused the demand, settled with the other musicians and did not renew his contract. But, looking back, it was all for the best, he says.
“I became a soloist and, because I had my little business operation with Overture Concerts, I had the potential to get some engagements for myself,” he notes. “I suddenly found myself with the chance to play repertoire that no one knew existed, and I became known as ‘the High Priest of the Bassoon’!”
It would be years before Zukerman would begin to understand the extent of his influence on others. In 2007, while on tour in South Africa, he met several young bassoonists with the symphony of that country and was gratified to learn they’d taken up their instruments after listening to recordings of him performing.
White Rock Concerts was one of Overture Concerts’ first ventures and it flourishes to this day. It was founded on two principles, Zukerman says. “The first is quality attractions, and the second is a refusal to sell tickets, only subscriptions.”
The subscription policy is key, he explains. “The minute you sell tickets, you’re obligated to cater to the common denominator, and classical music is not geared for the common denominator. Good music survives because it’s an elite enjoyment and pleasure, and thank goodness for that!”
While Zukerman retired his bassoon in 2012, he remains active and instrumental in the world of classical music. This spring, his efforts are focused on bringing classical concerts to Parksville, Port Alberni and Agassiz. He’s toying with the idea of writing a book and is excited about an upcoming tribute concert in his honour at the Bell Performing Arts Centre April 27.
If he has one regret, it’s that he never became a father. “I traveled so much I never felt able or willing to have children,” he says sadly. “It’s one of the failures in my life. But, in a way, as a result of the influence I was able to have on a new generation of bassoon players, I’ve had thousands of children.”
White Rock Concerts’ Tribute to George Zukerman is on April 27, 8 p.m., at Bell Performing Arts Centre, and will feature the Elmer Iseler Singers, the Borealis String Quartet, clarinetist James Campbell and the Bergmann Piano Duo. For tickets ($30), visit bpac.stage.digitalshift.ca/event/a-tribute-to-george-zukerman-w or call 604-507-6355.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.