“I didn’t like musicians,” says Eugenia Zukerman, recalling the first time 10 years ago she noticed a scraggly-haired violinist during rehearsal at Manhattan’s Juilliard School. “And I didn’t like this kid staring at me.” The kid was Pinchas Zukerman, a rough-edged 18-year-old Israeli émigré with an addiction to sleazy pool halls and a phenomenal talent not yet under control She was 21, Boston-bred, already the Juilliard orchestra’s first flutist. Once they got together, their first date was a concert. But on the second they played a duet. “I was astonished,” Genie admits today. “I had no idea he was a good fiddler.”
For the past eight years, Genie and “Pinky” Zukerman have been partners in marriage and music. Last month they dominated New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival, an annual summer event that attracts youthful performers and plays to sold-out houses. Pinky conducted and played a violin solo. Genie joined her husband onstage for two evenings of chamber music.
Eugenia’s solo talents are much in demand, but she acknowledges that Pinky is the family’s superstar. This year alone Zukerman will play 80 concerts in the U.S. and as many abroad. He commands up to $5,000 for a solo performance, and his recordings are beginning to climb the classical-music charts.
The son of a Polish violinist in Israel (both parents survived Auschwitz and fled to Israel aboard the Exodus), Pinky toyed with the recorder and clarinet before settling on the violin. While his father played in movie houses to support the family, Pinky the musical prodigy became a “sort of national hero” in Israel by age 11. “It was,” he now concedes, “very bad for me.”
At age 10 he first played for violinist Isaac Stern. Three years later Stern and Pablo Casals arranged a scholarship at Juilliard. Zukerman, who spoke no English, was soon failing in school, smoking and hanging around West Side pool halls until dawn. By 16 he was taken for disciplining to Stern, who kept Zukerman off the concert stage for two years until he shaped up. “I will be eternally grateful,” says Zukerman of his mentor. “There are no words.”
Eugenia’s background was considerably more sedate. Raised in Cambridge (her father was an inventor and research fellow at Harvard), she switched from piano to flute “because my sister was better.” Entering Barnard to study writing, she soon dropped out in favor of a professional musical career. She never completely abandoned her literary ambitions, however, and still writes poetry and fiction.
“Pinky always had the self-confidence,” she explains. “I suffered from self-doubt—and nerves.” Only recently has Eugenia corrected that shortcoming in herself. “When we married, Pinky was far ahead of me,” she says. Although she made a successful New York recital debut at 25, her career soon foundered as her husband’s took off. “I was swept away with Pinky’s success. I finally had to ask myself if I was going to go on packing his suitcase for the rest of my life. I started to play on my own—and it helped.”
Eugenia would perform onstage, then return to the dressing room to nurse her newborn daughter Natalia, now 1 year old. These days, Eugenia says proudly, “I’m getting the kind of praise I longed for.”
Although both are touring, they manage to schedule performing dates so they can be together most of the time, even on the road. They visit Europe several times a year, always ending up in Israel, where Pinky still has many relatives.
Since their marriage Eugenia has learned Hebrew (she is also fluent in French and German). Pinky has become a tennis fanatic and regularly teams up with his wife for doubles. Nonetheless, neither is away from what Pinky calls “the damned music” for long. Says Eugenia: “I find myself physically ill if I don’t play the flute for a week.”
Their closest friends are musical “competitors”—a young chamber-music mafia which includes violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Daniel Barenboim. They all live in the same apartment building in Manhattan, study with the same teachers and their spouses are close friends.
Even though Pinky “can be a very tough critic,” Eugenia contends that music helps keep them together. “I don’t think being liberated is worth it if you have to be alone,” she says. “With us, music is just another language we share.”