by Julia Lockhart
It was my great delight to conduct a video interview with our esteemed friend and colleague George Zukerman in late July. George was in his home in White Rock, I was in my own in New Westminster, and we connected over Zoom.
I knew that George’s stories would be the stuff of legend, and they are.
However, I was also touched by the wonderful coincidences that emerged during the interview. George went to high school in New York in the early 1940s with Bernard Garfield, my former teacher. Amazingly, George’s first instrument that he played in those high school years, Heckel 6132, is also just one serial number away from my own instrument, Heckel 6131.
I had emailed George a few questions in advance, and this is a transcript of our video chat. I imagine that anyone reading this will enjoy and admire George’s eloquence and humour. Thank you, George, for a lovely afternoon, and above all, for the immeasurable goodness and musicianship you have given the world.
GZ: I’ve realized, Julia—before you begin—that 65 years ago, I sat in your chair. It’s unbelievable! First of all, the tenacity of the Vancouver Symphony to survive this long. Secondly, it’s the continuity of the bassoon world. I look back to when I first met Archie Camden, and Fernand Oubradous… remember these names from the distant past?
Camden was a violinist in the Hallé Orchestra, and one day Sir Thomas Beacham said “we need a bassoon player.” He was back in the second fiddles…and he said “I’ll do it.” So he went out, bought a bassoon…probably went down to Walmart and bought a bassoon for five bucks. The next week, he was playing already. And then he became THE bassoon player; he was the first one to record the Mozart, with Sir Hamilton Harty in 1926. Astonishing background, these guys. Before that, there were great players in the 19th century. We’re all connected.
What’s the orchestra doing right now- are you doing any collective playing on stage?
JL: Yes, even though the Orpheum has been closed all this time, we have been meeting in smaller groups, recording to create projects that are released online.
GZ: Hopefully it’s not going to last forever, but it’s amazing, the innovations that we’re all coming up with. Like this business of us each being in our bedrooms and recording- somebody in Dublin, somebody in Chicago, somebody in Tel Aviv, somebody in Vancouver—and they put together a string quartet, or something.
JL: I’m really enjoying this stuff. And we would otherwise never have had time to do these things, or come up with them, even.
GZ: Well, the other thing that everyone says is “does the pandemic create time for us to practice?” But you know—the pressure, the stress of what’s going on around us doesn’t really contribute to the kind of peaceful environment you need to really sit down and practice. We’re all improvising, we just grab at straws at whatever might work, and everyone’s trying many different things.
Anyhow, here’s the first question I’m going to answer for you:
You asked when I first encountered the bassoon in England.
When I was thirteen, my brother (who was three years older than me and knew everything in the world), took me to visit the school I was going to go to, where he already attended. We passed by a basement of a chapel, and I looked through some very grimy windows, and there was an orchestra playing. I had no idea what the music was, and I saw some strange instruments by the window: four long tubes….they were bassoons, you may guess. And I couldn’t hear anything through the glass, but I asked my brother, and he said “Oh, those are bassoons. It’s the annual Messiah.” That was the first time I saw the bassoon, and maybe there was something prescient about it, but years later I was suddenly playing that instrument which I had never known, and couldn’t imagine would fit in a small box.
And how did I come by it? I went to the High School of Music and Art, in New York. We had left England right after the war began. It was 1939, and my mother’s family was in New York. And it was not a question of being a musician, it was the sheer convenience of being around the corner from where we lived. And my mother simply marched me down there and said I wanted to be enrolled in school. They looked at me and said “do you have any talent?” I said that I play a little bit of piano. I had fallen in love with my brother’s piano teacher, and had insisted on piano lessons…I had reached the stage of having Beethoven’s Sonatina in G major under my fingers, which has the same melody as the Beethoven Septet 3rd movement. Anyhow, I played my party piece, and they accepted me. And I think it was partly because of my English accent and short pants; they figured I’d add some class to the joint.
A bit later at an assembly, the principal said “boys and girls, you are now an orchestra!” And it was in a gym, but instead of basketballs, there were musical instruments just lying on shelves. He said to go and take whatever instrument we liked. Now, I was very polite: English, reserved, short pants, and unaccustomed to the pushy little American kids who ran and grabbed every instrument they could recognize. And when I got there, there was only one remaining black box. And I said to the teacher, “What is this?” “Oh! You are our bassoonist.” Eighty years ago, and I haven’t looked back.
It was wartime, and you’d think about graduating and going to college, but everyone was on the threshold of being drafted. I was 16, and figured I should follow my brother into university. And somebody said “Join the musicians’ union, because there might be jobs. All the players are being drafted, so they need bassoon players.” So some contractor probably went down his list of bassoon players from A to Z, and finally got to Z and found he had a bassoonist who was free to do a job. (Even though as a kid of 16, I had no business doing that job).
And the job was a recording with an unknown conductor by the name of Leonard Bernstein.
Certainly nobody knew me, but nobody knew him either. And it was a programme of all American music…a concerto by Harvey Shapiro, and other completely unknown stuff by guys Bernstein went to school with. I don’t know if he ever remembered me, but five years later, when he was hearing auditions in New York for the Israel Philharmonic, I played my only audition in life for him. And there’s a story about that.
JL: Yes, I’ve heard that you were warming up for a long time, only to find that he had been listening outside the door!
GZ: Yes, I was ready to give up. I played every damn solo under the sun….you name it, every conceivable passage I could think of. And I had a wonderful reed, it was one of those reeds you wish could be like this for the rest of life, you know? But they don’t last that long, do they? Just was feeling good about it, but nobody came, and I thought maybe it was the wrong day, or they filled the job already. And a knock came at the door, and I figured it was the janitor coming to tell me to get out.
And there was Bernstein, with a puckish smile, and he said “I’ve been listening for the last 30 minutes. You’re pretty good, you’ve got the job.” And then he complained. He didn’t like the way I played Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. He gave me a thirty-minute lesson on how to play the melody of 1st movement. He wanted it lighter, and to move it more. All very reasonable. It was wonderful that he had taken interest, and picked on that, out of all the things I thought he would say. He liked the Copland El Salón México, which he must’ve premiered just a few months before. All new stuff, in those days.
JL: Which teacher did you work on those excerpts with?
GZ: I learned them myself, by listening to records. I had first learned the Sacre du Printemps an octave lower. Then I discovered the beauty of the high B, my favourite note on the bassoon. And you know where it gets to shine, is Villa Lobos’ Ciranda das Sete Notas (‘Round Dance of Seven Notes’). It ends on the high B, which you hold for about a minute and ten seconds and then drop down to a bottom C. It’s a magnificent moment.
JL: I also love high B that way it’s used in the solo near the end of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
GZ: It’s a wonderful note. It has a certain resonance. Tenor G is the most beautiful note on the instrument, it’s got that wonderful little edge to it. Anyway, in the early editions of Grove’s Dictionary of Music, under “melody,” they list the opening of the Sacre.
JL: Did you ever encounter Bernard Garfield in New York City?
GZ: Oh, I knew him quite well. Bernie was in high school with me, one year ahead of me, and I kept in touch with him for a long time. There were eight orchestras in our high school, and he was in the top orchestra. It was a remarkable school who turned out players who went into every major orchestra around the world. And along came Paul Hindemith to visit the school, and we went up into the tower- a gothic style rehearsal room. Hindemith was going to give a talk in this room, and students had been invited to play his woodwind quintet. So Bernie’s quintet played the Hindemith. It was only 15 years old, fairly contemporary in 1943/44. Hindemith spoke to them; he was very comforting and easy to deal with. And the horn player asked “you gave everyone a spectacular cadenza, but you only gave the horn five notes. Is that fair?” And Hindemith said “Ah, but what five notes?”
Along with Bernie, another one of my idols was Sol Schoenbach.
I think I heard Sol’s first recording with Stokowski of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. And he played so beautifully- this wonderful, round, warm, thick, what we think of as German sound.
I had also been completely enamoured by Fernand Oubradous’s playing.
Oubradou played with great beauty and polish. He was also a composer and arranger, a really interesting musician. I would try to compare his recordings with what I heard from Sol Schoenbach, which was richer and warmer, but somehow lacked an edge. I suppose everybody fashions their own sound, in the end. But I tried to fashion something that was halfway between the edgy French sound, and the beautiful, warm, rich, German sound. I’m not sure if I devised that or if it happened by accident, but I said “I like that,” and I stuck with it.
But one reality—we don’t play bassoon!
None of us. We play music. We use the bassoon to get there. That’s the essence. We’ve got to get beyond being bassoonists. We’re musicians first—we have a responsibility to the totality of the music, and we do it by playing bassoon in its necessary role.
In Bach’s time, when bassoon was much more primitive, the rumour is that Bach’s employer, the count, needed somebody to play bassoon in an orchestra, and they went and got the guy who polished shoes. Bach knew the sound of instruments, and he had a big battle with the bassoon player.
JL: Yes, I’ve heard that Bach called that guy a “nanny-goat bassoonist.”
GZ: That’s right. But every now and then Bach turned up with bassoon parts that are absolutely wonderful….in the Minuet from Orchestral Suite No. 1, the bassoon part is a contrapuntal melody in its own right. And not many bassoon players know this, but there are four cantatas that have obbligato bassoon parts. Such as “You Must Hope and Believe”, it’s a wonderful A minor aria, because there were bassoons in A in those days. There’s another wonderful G major aria, “Be Watchful, Holy Watchman”: a wonderful bassoon passage which is well worth looking up. And there’s a duo concertino for bassoon and violin, and soprano and tenor. It’s chamber music, and bassoon players could dig into Bach Cantatas. The Neumann catalogue lists all the cantatas, so you can look up their instrumentation. The index at the back will take you to 15 or 16 cantatas that have separate bassoon parts. They’re worth playing as chamber music, if you can find the right singers who are also willing to sit down and work with you. There’s so much music out there, even for our instrument.
One of the jobs of a bassoonist is to keep finding new repertoire.
And particularly in orchestra, if you get to meet the composers, (sometimes they wander around), show them what our instrument can do. Prove to them that it’s not always the comic, although that’s a perfectly legitimate use of the instrument. I’ve always stressed the upper register…we can sing out, just as well as human voices.
JL: I feel like the bassoon is one of the closest instruments to the human voice.
GZ: Well, they say the oboe is the closest. But yes. Do you know where the bassoon is like a human voice? Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, where the bassoon is the incantation of the rabbi. In that melody, I could hear the rabbi in my own synagogue. Bloch came from that milieu, he understood. But the voice of the bassoon can very often come out like a human voice- you’re right.
JL: Do you have any favourite stories of meeting famous composers?
GZ: I met Stravinsky when he conducted in Vancouver. We did the Sacre, but he was ill and Robert Craft conducted.
I did the Sacre with Stravinsky in the audience…in the first row!
It’s terrifying enough with 3000 people in an audience…you start the damn piece off with a high C. But this time, the composer’s sitting right there. I guess it went alright, and afterwards I got to speak to him. What an opportunity, where you could ask Stravinsky…he was 85, so, a relatively young man. And I could’ve asked him to write a concerto, as I was already on the threshold of nagging people to write for me. But he started lecturing me about how the French bassoon players could play the high notes so much easier. We had a nice talk- he said that he liked my solo, and he thought it was very successful. But remember, he had premiered the thing in Paris, where the French bassoon players probably told him “you can’t do this, the instrument can’t do it.” But you find some way to do it. There was my chance with Stravinsky, but I was so in awe while being told that French bassoon players did so much better than we did, that I didn’t ask him.
Okay, Benjamin Britten: he conducted in Vancouver. He came here in the early days of television, and we had Studio 41 (don’t know where the other 40 studios went), and it was an old garage on Georgia St. It’s a skyscraper building now. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears were there, and we played Nocturne, his song cycle of pieces based on poems. And the bassoon plays the obbligato role in the adaptation of Tennyson’s poem “The Kraken”: the deep sea monster that rises from the sea from its slumber, and growls away, and then slumps back down into the ocean. And it’s actually that you go up and up and up, and then drop right down again. I have an old recording of it on a kinescope, if we can find a machine that can play it.
Anyhow, I got all my courage up, and went to Britten and said “Would you be willing to write a piece for bassoon?
You know exactly what the bassoon can do—look at your Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. We’d love something from you, it’d have so much exposure, I’d play it all over the world. And he said “Yes, I’ll consider it.” The next morning, the head of music at CBC called and said “Mr. Zukerman, I hear you’ve asked Benjamin Britten to compose a piece for you. We have to ask you to surrender the rights. We have a commission arranged with him at CBC, and he can only do one.” Actually, it was a legitimate fact. The next day I went into rehearsal, and they invited us into the old conductors’ room. Britten came in, and so did the harp player. And Britten apologized. And I realized she too had asked him to write a piece, and that he had said he’d think about it, and she too had been called at 7am from Toronto to ward us off. He never wrote he piece for the CBC, so I missed out in Britten.
Aaron Copland: I knew him quite well.
Met him finally in Banff in a couple of years before he died. I said “Aaron, when are you going to write a bassoon piece?” And he looked at me and he said, “I don’t think I’m going to write anything anymore.” I said, “What a shame, the world would welcome a bassoon concerto.” He said something to me, and I’ll tell you this. He said “why don’t you take the flute sonata, and convert it into bassoon?” So I have his authority…I never did it, I think I found it too difficult. You should look at the piece one day. It might have potential, but we have the authority of Aaron Copland, two years before he died, to take his flute sonata and make it into a sonata for bassoon.
Shostakovich: in 1972, again a couple of years before he died, I had $10,000 from the Canada Council, which was a lot of money in the seventies.
You didn’t do things with Soviet composers directly, you did things through the state concert agency from Stalin’s regime, .
The arrangement was to meet with Shostakovich in Moscow on my next tour, and to ask him for a commission for the money…which wouldn’t even go to him, it went into the state system; they pocketed it and gave him $500 or something.
So I went on my next tour to the Soviet Union. I finished my concerts, came back to Moscow, where I expected to meet Shostakovich. I waited in my hotel room, and the telephone rang. “Mr. Shostakovich is ill, he will see you tomorrow.” They changed my flight, as the state organized things for you in those days. Next two days, the phone rang again. “Mr. Shostakovich is still ill, he’ll see you the next day.” On the fourth day, a telephone call came from the embassy, saying I’d better come in and talk to them. I went into the Dome, which is a plastic dome where you go when you don’t want to be eavesdropped on. And the ambassador said “I hate to tell you, Mr. Shostakovich is not ill. It’s a diplomatic illness. We are having a big dispute over sardine fishing on the Grand Banks, and the Russians have just cancelled all cultural exchanges. We’re afraid your concerto has been lost to a can of sardines.”
So, we did not get a concerto out of Shostakovich. Can you imagine? The guy who wrote all those symphonies. I’ve thought of taking excerpts from all those symphonies and rolling them into a sort of potpourri concerto. What glorious writing, and we never really appreciated it while he was alive.
Poulenc: I never met Poulenc, but I met his partner Pierre Bernac, a baritone, at an embassy event in Paris. We were all walking around the room drinking martinis, and I said to Bernac, “why didn’t Poulenc ever write a bassoon sonata?” And he said “He did write a sonata. You know the trio? Poulenc in his later years was lazy. He didn’t want to write two sonatas, so he wrote a sonata for oboe and bassoon together in one piece, the trio.”
So the result is, I went to our own colleagues. And I got us the Weinzweig, the Adaskin, the Jean Coulthard Lyric Sonata, and a few other pieces. I love John Weinzweig’s piece, I think it’s a great piece. Adaskin’s piece- he did it with such love and such affection, I do like the piece.
I’m glad I sold my instrument, but I do long to play. Not to do it in my living room for my own sake…I just want to get out there and play. Never again…life changes.
My first instrument was Heckel 6132. Made in about 1924.
The bassoon that I did my whole career on was Heckel 9174, made in 1949/1950. I went to the Heckel factory in 1949 and ordered it. It was the time when Sol Schoenbach had his first instrument stained black, so I had mine stained black with a metal ring instead of the ivory ring. And the bassoon arrived six months later, when I was playing in the Israel Philharmonic, next to Mordechai Rechtman. (It was in Tel Aviv, and rehearsals were conducted in fifteen different languages.) I got a call that morning from the personnel manager saying “Mordecai is sick, you’re playing principal today.” And we were doing Bolero. So I played Bolero on a brand new bassoon that I had never tried before! I didn’t even know if it would hit a high D flat, but it sang out beautifully! I never had a fear of a high note on that instrument in over 50 years of playing. It was a glorious moment, and I seem to remember they shuffled their feet very nicely. It was one of those lucky moments.
We’ve got time for a Mordechai Rechtman story.
In the early 1950s when he came to Israel, the string players were all virtuosos… concertmasters of eastern Europe who had managed to escape, and had gotten to Israel. Remarkable string players, you can imagine. Wind players were mainly still from the British military band tradition. Mordechai was one of the first seriously trained young wind musicians who had come to Israel. And he became a remarkable player, who really led and guided the woodwind section as it developed.
He was also a chess master. Now in those days, you played chess by mail. You sent your move to your adversary, who then sent back a postcard with their own move. Mordechai would conduct ten or twelve mail chess matches simultaneously….with opponents in Istanbul, Budapest, Warsaw, Moscow, London, New York, San Francisco, Berlin, wherever. And he would come to rehearsal with his stack of postcards, and take an extra music stand where he’d put them. He’d be playing his bassoon part, while also thinking of his next chess move. My job was to count for him, and to remind him of his entrances so he’d never miss an entrance while he was scribbling his answer to a chess player in Prague. He never lost a match, and I don’t think he ever missed an entrance either, because I was pretty good about that….I was like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.
He was a wonderful guy, one of the ones I most looked up to. Also Isaac Stern, Sol Schoenbach, Oubradous…and Simeon Goldberg, another violinist I admired. One reason I adored Isaac Stern both personally and musically was that he taught me how to trill. And how to end a trill: you make it a musical phrase in itself. Whenever I conclude a cadenza, I always imagine it’s Isaac Stern playing. I tried to make the bassoon sound as gloriously free as a soaring violin.
I’m willing to confess to the Council of Canadian Bassoonists that I never practiced enough.
I must’ve practiced sufficiently, but I faked a hell of a lot, too. If I had practiced the way Bernie Garfield practiced, and the way so many of our players today really slave away at technique, I would’ve been brilliant. I hope I compensated with musicality.
We have time for a few more questions, as Zoom isn’t throwing us off yet.
You had asked what other kind of music do I enjoy.
I really enjoy the old musicals. Paint Your Wagon, Guys and Dolls, Pajama Game, Fiddler on the Roof. I played a lot of them in the early days in Vancouver. They would come for a week, and I was the contractor for many gigs. They usually call for bassoon doubling saxophone, but I always worked out a bassoon part, since I had to be there anyway.
And I love operetta. The Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán, who has recently come back into popularity, wrote many musicals—old-fashioned romantic stories from the 1920s and 30s, with wonderful melodies. I was posted in Germany after the war was finished, repairing radios, and the commanding officer knew I had my bassoon with me. And he had a request from an orchestra in Bremen that was trying to restart their operetta orchestra, and needed a bassoon player. He assigned me to go down and play with them. The only music that hadn’t been destroyed in the bombing was Kálmán. Because, as Jewish music, it has been put in a different section from the Mozart and Wagner and Brahms and Beethoven that were constantly being played in wartime. So Kálmán, which had been forbidden during the war as Jewish, became extremely popular.
Also, so many German tenors had been killed in the war, that the bassoon played many of their tenor parts from down in the pit. The opera house had been bombed, but people were beginning to come back. So for about three months, I played all these Kálmán operettas. I played concertos every night, because the tenors on stage could only recite their lines, they couldn’t sing; so the bassoon played these wonderful melodies.
JL: It sounds like there’s a solo bassoon piece in there that could be published.
GZ: If I had the energy. I have a lot of repertoire that I would love to see published, including much of the stuff that I played in my 2,000 or so recitals around the world. It’s not widely played, but I’d love to see it published. There’s a wonderful arrangement of a Mozart rondo. There’s a set of Kodály pieces, four Glière pieces, and an arrangement of a Corelli violin sonata that works so wonderfully on bassoon. And I have ten encore pieces: little vignette pieces that are wonderful to play one by one, but they could be published in a group.
Looking at your questions again…
You asked about the photo of me playing for an elephant.
The elephant was named Cynthia, and this was in South Africa.
She was the only animal who responded to my playing. I have played for animals all over the world. Crocodiles…absolutely no response. The sheep may safely graze, but they don’t like bassoon, particularly. Cows…no. Barbary apes, in Gibraltar…I went up the cable car, and it started raining, so I put my bassoon away, as they steal everything, especially if it shines. Penguins…they seemed to like the bassoon. They hung around, and they listened.
But Cynthia raised her trunk and reached out. She was a very gentle creature. She just seemed to be smiling.
JL: Cynthia probably still remembers that.
GZ: She was a very lovable creature. I love animals- I think they’re so beautiful.
My tours to South Africa were amazing. I went at a difficult time in society, because we were split between those who said you should go to bolster up opportunities between people, versus those who favoured boycotting the regime. Whether we contributed to the downfall of Apartheid, I don’t know, It was a tough decision.
JL: How about we go to the far north of the planet now?
GZ: Yes, you had asked me what I played there. It actually never mattered what…I remember playing the theme from The Simpsons, and other stuff they had heard on television which reached them in the north. Playing music in the northern communities is nothing to do with music; it was a bridging of societies. A link between their world and ours which was non-confrontational. Most things that were sent up from Ottawa were sent as orders, and therefore became confrontational…a fight with the regime. Music was one of the few things that could come to a school, and would not be an argument. If they enjoyed it, it was a wonderful bridge, a way of building links, without in any way demanding recognition of superiority.
JL: So it was like a gift with no strings attached.
GZ: Yes. We loved it, and I enjoyed so much meeting those people and learning about what their life was like. There were some wonderful Inuit who went on and became doctors and lawyers and administrators, and changed their society. There are some who learned the new ways but respected the old ways, and found ways to make the communities lively and workable.
But, the horror—the other side of it. Even today with the Trudeau government talking so much about helping the aboriginal North, and doing more than anybody ever did, there are still towns which don’t have drinking water. And all of the other ills that come with towns with unemployment.
But it is beautiful to see the Arctic ocean, and to look out and know that it’s the North Pole. And it’s also the silence which is so beautiful. We went mostly in the wintertime. I did 42 trips. We travelled by everything- by war canoe, by single engine plane, later on by jet…the world changed in the years that I did it.
JL: A friend of mine, guitarist Daniel Bolshoy, said that he went on an Arctic tour with you, and had a great time.
GZ: Yes, the tour with Danny Bolshoy was one of the best tours. We played a version of the Rodrigo Concerto di Aranguezslow movement. We played some Mozart, and a version of Verdi’s “La Donna è Mobile”, but it didn’t matter what we played. It was just for the sake of making something in common. I think we offered something that was a little bit of change. So they could enjoy it, try a bassoon and have fun with it, and know that a musician from the south was an ordinary human being who cared and inquired about what all was happening in their village. We became part of the community for a day or two.
JL: For someone who had a dream of making a concert happen, what are the important steps?
GZ: One hint for my colleagues: it’s wonderful to dream of playing just the music that you love and think is important, whether contemporary or classical. But be aware that an audience is not always thinking the same way as you are. Audiences have to be developed. It’s a recognition of the audience, when you plan concerts. Find a church that puts you up, and go ahead and organize it, but don’t be so dogmatic that you play only what you want to play. You are the educator, the leader, but don’t think that because you believe you know something a bit more, that you have the entitlement to make that the only available product. Audience development, and recognizing that they have to want to hear what you offer. Create and develop an audience so they can accept what you offer, not to have to take it as a medicine. That’s my only advice: temper your expectations of what audiences will accept. Without demeaning them….after all, who are we doing it for? They are the ultimate arbiter.
JL: What are some of your future plans?
GZ: I’ve got a group going for a series of concerts called The Young Beethoven, which was supposed to go on the road in November, so we will reschedule. It will be fun- I’m doing the narration and script for it.
I’ll be around, listening for the bassoon part—that’s the important thing. It’s wonderful that Nadina has pulled this Council of Canadian Bassoonists together. It’s a great idea. I shall look forward to seeing what she has to say. I think Nadina probably heard me play in Prince George when she was a kid. Many people tell me they first heard the bassoon when I came to their school. To organize concerts, be patient- write many decent and interesting letters, show what you can do, send a recording, and be persistent. There are people who want to hear from you.