Masterclass shut down by Juilliard school after top violinist uses ‘offensive cultural stereotypes’

28 June 2021, 12:57 | Updated: 29 June 2021, 10:19

Juilliard shuts down Pinchas Zukerman’s ‘offensive cultural stereotypes’ made during violin masterclass
Juilliard shuts down Pinchas Zukerman’s ‘offensive cultural stereotypes’ made during violin masterclass. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

One of classical music’s biggest names has apologised after using “offensive cultural stereotypes” towards two young musicians during a Juilliard School masterclass.

New York’s prestigious Juilliard School has been forced to withhold a virtual masterclass with internationally acclaimed musician Pinchas Zukerman, after he used “offensive cultural stereotypes” towards two young artists.

Zukerman has since apologised to the students, saying: “I will do better in the future.”

The renowned violinist and conductor was leading Friday’s masterclass as part of Juilliard’s Starling-DeLay violin symposium, and it was time for two young New York-born sisters to play for the musical great.

“It’s almost too perfect, I mean that as a compliment,” Zukerman reportedly told the two musicians, after they played Spohr’s ‘Duo Concertante’. “Think less about how perfect to play and to play together, and more about phrasing.

“A little more vinegar – or soy sauce!” he laughed. “More singing, like an Italian overture.”

They tried again, but according to editor Laurie Niles, who was watching the masterclass live and blogged about the events at Violinist.com, Zukerman was reportedly still dissatisfied.

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Pinchas Zukerman used "insensitive and offensive cultural stereotypes"
Pinchas Zukerman used "insensitive and offensive cultural stereotypes". Picture: Getty

“Too boxy – have fun!” said the conductor, who has been chair of the Pinchas Zukerman Performance Program at the Manhattan School of Music for a quarter of a century. “The violin is a singing instrument, not a stringed instrument. There is nothing wrong with vibrato, there is nothing wrong with sliding. In fact, I recommend it.

“Sometimes, if you have a question about how to play it – sing it,” he said. “I know in Korea they don’t sing.”

According to Niles, Zukerman began talking about how wrong it is, that in Korea people don’t sing. One of the sisters finally spoke up, “But I’m not Korean”. Replying briskly, Zukerman asked: “Then where are you from?”.

As she began to explain that she is of half Japanese descent, Zukerman allegedly interrupted, “In Japan they don’t sing either.”

It is reported that Zukerman then mimicked a singing style that has been widely stereotyped as Asian. “That is not singing,” he then said. “Violin is not a machine.”

At this point, the girls were no longer smiling. Zukerman reportedly continued on his line of explaining how to truly tell a story through your instrument. Finally, at the end of the two musicians’ segment, he bid them goodbye and added, “I hope I can see you one day in person so I can give you a big hug.”

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Towards the end of the masterclass, Zukerman reportedly returned to the topic, saying: “In Korea they don’t sing. It’s not in their DNA.”

On Sunday, Starling-DeLay Violin Symposium Artistic Director Brian Lewis and Juilliard Director of Lifelong Learning John-Morgan Bush issued a joint statement, saying the virtual masterclass would not be made available to watch online afterwards.

“Unfortunately, we will not be posting the video of Friday’s final master class with Pinchas Zukerman, who in the course of the class used insensitive and offensive cultural stereotypes. Those remarks did not represent the values of the Symposium or The Juilliard School.

“We have addressed this issue directly with the students involved and with Mr. Zukerman himself, who was a guest engaged for this symposium and has offered his apologies. On behalf of the Symposium and the school, we sincerely apologise to all attendees and again extend a personal apology to the recipients of those comments.”

Zukerman has since apologised for his remarks, saying in a statement: “In Friday’s master class, I was trying to communicate something to these two incredibly talented young musicians, but the words I used were culturally insensitive. I’m writing to the students personally to apologise. I am sorry that I made anyone uncomfortable. I cannot undo that, but I offer a sincere apology. I learned something valuable from this, and I will do better in the future.”

Korea has a rich history of traditional music and is home to one of the 21st century’s breakout genres, K-Pop. But it also has a deeply impressive classical music and opera offering, boasting world-renowned ensembles from the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra to the Korean Symphony Orchestra.

As for its singing culture, in 2021, Korean baritone Gihoon Kim was crowned Cardiff Singer of The World, for which the hugely successful Korean lyric coloratura soprano, Sumi Jo, is often on the jury. Jo, who has been praised by the likes of Herbert von Karajan, is one of the best-selling classical singers in the world.