Thursday, May 18, 2006


Once in a while something really strange appears even on the classical music scene. Among the recent top candidates is the situation in Ottawa, Canada's capital. A wonderful violinist (-turned-conductor), Pinchas Zukerman, is having a hard time with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, of which he is the music director, for seemingly unusual reasons.

Although he had initially warmly welcomed the arrival of their associate concertmaster Olivier Thouin, a couple years later he had threatened to veto this violinist’s tenure. What could be the reason? He doesn’t like the way the Mr. Thouin holds his left thumb on the back of the fingerboard.

I must assume that the associate concertmaster held his thumb the very same way when he auditioned for the job, so it is difficult to imagine this to be the sole reason. If Pinky doesn’t like Thumbkin, does it also mean that Thumbkin doesn’t like Pinky? Where do Pointer, Tall Man and Ring Man stand in all this?

If you read the article in the Globe and Mail (it requires registration), you also learn that the actual concertmaster Walter Prystawski is retiring after this season, and that Mr. Zukerman has just returned from a self-imposed unpaid leave of several months. So, obviously something else is going on here, especially when you read a follow-up article, in which it is exposed that the orchestra members are required to sign a sweeping confidentiality agreement, not to talk to press or anyone else on the outside; a gag order in other words. There is a straight-to-the-point comment on the paper's website:

Stude Ham from Outremont, Canada writes: It's time for NACO to part company with Pinky. He's very clearly overstayed his welcome, and in truth, is not the world's greatest conductor. No organization should have to deal with this kind of prima donna behaviour from any of its contracted performers. It's that type of thing which severely hurt the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, almost crippled the Toronto Symphony, and did damage to many other orchestras around the world..

Is it possible that the conductor likes pretty young women and would prefer to be surrounded by them in the orchestra? After all, his present wife is the orchestra’s principal cellist. This would be perfectly understandable, and a sign of a healthy, youthful heterosexual male. It is confession time: during my decades in orchestras there have been numerous times when I have voted and spoken for such candidates myself. These young ladies probably got their jobs based on their Cuteness Factor, as others in the audition committee, and the conductor, who had the final say, felt the same way. Sorry guys, you don’t seem to be as much fun to be around with. Is this morally right? Of course not, and many of the people in question have proven to be disappointing professionally; even the cuteness disappears quickly. But it is part of human nature.

Mentioning which, check out the article in today’s New York Times, or the BBC News, on how humans and chimps probably interbred for a long time, producing hybrids. The theory and facts presented might be a bit difficult to swallow, even to the most hard-line evolutionists. Perhaps this explains why Igor Stravinsky once said, in an interview with the Observer: “My music is best understood by children and animals.”

Now I’m hungry for a banana.