Pinchas Zukerman responds immediately, without a second’s hesitation: “My origins have influenced me about 175,000 per cent!”
It was there, in Israel, where it all began, playing at weddings and events alongside his father, a klezmer who had survived the Holocaust. From Israel, he went to New York where his development would be punctuated by some of the great names in classical music: Ilona Feher, Isaac Stern, Pau Casals, Ivan Galamian...
They were his teachers; now the shoe is on the other foot and two of his students, Jesús Reina and Anna Nilsen, have invited him to Malaga to participate in the Málaga Clásica festival.
The Israeli violinist opened the fifth edition of the classical music festival on Wednesday after giving a masterclass to around 40 young people at the Museo Interactivo de la Música (MIMMA).
We spoke to him before his performance at the Cervantes theatre.
You’re going to perform in Malaga with two of your pupils - Jesús Reina and Anna Nilsen - how do you feel now you can see what they’ve become?
(Laughs) You don’t have enough space to write that! First of all I’m so proud of both of them now being able to continue in the great tradition of being fine musicians and fine, fine violinists. I think the most amazing thing in life is when you can share the information you have. I got so much wonderful information from amazing people so to share that with young people and to see them blossom like this and continue the traditions properly... It’s like watching your children grow and become incredible people.
-The music festival, Málaga Clásica, is dedicated to gypsy music. How do you see the influence of popular and folkloric music in classical music?
-It depends how you do it. It’s always interesting to have a variety I think - it’s like a menu in a restaurant. If popular music is done well then I think it has a place in society, of course.
How influential have your origins been on your musical career?
Oh, just about 175,000 per cent! I had the best there was. My father was a Jewish klezmer; he played in cafe houses in Poland - the violin, the accordion - then after the Second World War he became a self-trained classic musician. I went sometimes with him to a wedding with a drum and he would play the accordion. So I got to listen to a variety of music. My upbringing was amazing. Then of course the rest of it was in New York where I met Isaac Stern and Pau Casals... They taught me how to listen. You can’t just play, you have to listen - listen to what’s coming from your violin, from your instrument.
You’ve said many times that the violin saved your father’s life; what has it saved you from?
The violin is an extension of my whole being. And it was for my dad too; it was how he earned a living. I can’t define it in words - it’s just part of my every hour of existence. You have to work very hard to sustain a standard. You know someone like Federer - he works every day, on his backhand, his forehand - everything to get the fundamentals working properly every day. That’s why scales are very important.
Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman and you were part of a golden generation of Jewish music. What do you think you brought to classical music when you made it on the international stage?
I have no idea! The only thing I can tell you is what I like to say always: I want to continue playing with a nice sound - sound is everything - with good intonation and rhythm. If you have those three things equal then you can continue for a long time and people will like it. It’s simple. That’s what everyone of that era did. So we happen to be very lucky to still be together as friends and play together.
Do you think there will ever be peace in your country or have you given up hope?
Well, first, I’m not a politician so I don’t know what goes on. What we have to do is make sure we don’t sway from our belief in human nature. But to build walls and to seclude and isolate people? I think that is a mistake. But what can I do about it? Absolutely nothing! I cannot do anything about what Mr Trump or Mr Netanyahu or Mr Abbas or Mrs May thinks. I can’t sway them. I can only ask them to come to the country and listen.
Can projects like the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra help to bring peace?
Of course! But we are a small percentage of the population. In 2060 there will be 9 billion people - you have 100 people playing in an orchestra - what is that? It’s nothing! But it’s important to continue to build culture because from culture comes the better understanding of human spirit and connection between people. All I can do is to teach people from around the world to play the violin better. It doesn’t matter where you come from because we all have four strings and we all start with Bach.
-When they call you a world-class violinist, what do you think of that?
-That’s their problem. I get up every morning, I look at the violin and I start practising. Fine - if they want to call me that, I have no problem with that. It makes no difference. I’m still the person I was yesterday, the day before that and 20 years ago. I only learn a little bit more - I keep my eyes and ears open and I try to help as much as I can.