By Stephanie Chase
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA

Eugenia Zukerman is rightfully called a Renaissance woman. As a distinguished flutist, the New York Times has noted that "her musicianship is consummate, her taste immaculate and her stage presence a sheer pleasure," and her career spans performances as soloist with orchestras that include the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Minnesota Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington, D.C.), and almost innumerable recitals and chamber music performances throughout the world. She has recorded a wide range of repertoire for labels that include Sony, CBS Masterworks and Delos.

As an author and journalist, she has written two novels – Deceptive Cadence and Taking the Heat – as well as articles published by the New York Times, Washington Post, Esquire and Vogue, among others, plus a book on the side effects of prednisone and an anthology of essays called In My Mother’s Closet.  For over two decades she was the arts correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning, for which she interviewed diverse artists and performers that include Seiji Ozawa, Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, Helen Frankenthaler, Al Hirshfeld, Paul McCartney, Dame Maggie Smith, David Hyde Pierce, Mikhail Barishnikov, Savion Glover, Daniel Barenboim and Isaac Stern. 

In addition to these pursuits, she is an effective and adventurous arts administrator whose career includes thirteen years at the helm of the illustrious Bravo! Vail festival, where she made innovative changes such as bringing in major symphony orchestras – including the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra – for residencies along with renowned soloists like Yo-Yo Ma and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Shortly after the advent of the internet, she founded ClassicalGenie, which provides video content to the classical music industry for use on their websites, and she has developed many vlogs for the Musical America website. She has also taught at New York University and The Hartt School and given master classes at conservatories throughout the world. For these accomplishments, she has received an Emmy nomination, a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Open University of Israel in NYC, a Woman of Achievement Award from the National Hadassah Organization, and an Exceptional Achievement Award from The Women's Project.

Ms. Zukerman is a beautiful, elegant, gracious and thoughtful person – whom I have long admired – and it has been my honor to know her for many years and to have performed with her at summer music festivals. We met most recently while she was still Artistic Director of the Bravo! Vail festival, where I played several chamber music concerts. A few years ago, she began to struggle with memory issues and was ultimately diagnosed as having cognitive decline, which has also affected several maternal relatives. Her most recent book, Like Falling Through a Cloud, was published in November 2019 and relates her struggles and fears – and great courage – in adapting to a new reality and is ultimately an inspiring testament to her estimable inner strength. Interviewing such an accomplished individual is daunting, but she has kindly agreed to share some of her life’s story with Stay Thirsty.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You have enjoyed a remarkably varied and successful career in the arts, as a performer, journalist, television correspondent, and artistic director – and I’m sure this list is far from complete. How did you become involved in these pursuits? Let’s start with the flute.

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: When I was ten years old, the Hartford Symphony sent some of its players to my school [Beach Park Elementary School in West Hartford, CT] to demonstrate some of their instruments, and I fell madly in love with the sound of the flute. I ran home and asked my parents if I could take flute lessons. Very musical themselves, they were delighted to find me a teacher. Carl Bergner of the Hartford Symphony became my teacher and I loved my lessons with him. I was also involved in school plays as an actor – I was Lola in Damn Yankees – and when I went to college in New York City, I also performed in off-Broadway productions.

Eugenia Zukerman

[In 1980] I was fortunate to have been noticed by Shad Northshield of CBS Sunday Morning and he hired me to be the arts correspondent, which I was for more than twenty years. I remember my formative years in the arts as a totally exciting time, and I’m so grateful for the opportunities I was given. I was also so fortunate to have been chosen [in 1998] to be the Artistic Director of the Bravo! Vail Music Festival, which I was for thirteen years. As a young mother, juggling all of these things was complicated, but I think that all of these endeavors helped me to grow as a musician and writer and organizer. 

STEPHANIE CHASE: In addition to the flute, which you studied at The Juilliard School, you studied English at Barnard College, and you clearly have a love for language. You have written two novels as well as creating groundbreaking video blogs for arts organizations. What are some of the differences between expressing yourself in words and through music? 

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: I’ve written and published more than four books and I think that my experiences with performance and writing have helped me to understand how writing helps my performance – because it’s a different language – and how language strengthens my understanding of music. It is all somehow reciprocal.

STEPHANIE CHASE: In your work for CBS Sunday Morning, you interviewed hundreds of artists that included major classical musicians, actors, dancers and visual artists. What were your goals in bringing the work of these artists to a television audience?

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: I feel so privileged to have been the arts correspondent at CBS because I was able to ask questions, and thereby educate myself about subjects I might not have encountered otherwise. My goals in bringing those artists to TV audiences were to educate myself and to delight, to intrigue, and to enjoy what the extraordinary artists had to say, to show and to explain. And I was privileged to learn so much from these generous artists.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You are lauded for your adventurous concert programming and are a champion of contemporary composers, including Jake Heggie, whose music I performed a couple of seasons ago at the Newport Music Festival and found very beautiful and compelling. How do you learn about these composers, and what qualities do you seek in their music?

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: I am indeed a champion of new music, and because I’m a performer, I often worked and performed with some of the most extraordinary artists, which was one way to learn about them. I have been and still am amazed by the depth and beauty and energy of the best of these musicians. I think that the greatest musicians and performers are also the most curious, eager, alive and generous with their gifts.

STEPHANIE CHASE: And so many of the best modern composers have a unique language in their music writing, such as with Heggie, while eliciting remarkable emotional expression, and these are what endure. For instance, Antonio Salieri was enormously influential in his era, but his music is now a concert program novelty – why perform mediocre music when you have Beethoven!

It’s hard to believe, but you also have found time to be an arts’ administrator and were the artistic director of the Bravo! Vail Festival for over a dozen years, which is where we last met. Bravo! Vail presents major orchestras as well as chamber music concerts. What are some of the challenges in presenting such a prominent, large-scale series? The fundraising alone must be daunting.

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: Actually, I enjoyed the fundraising, and I still do. I want people who love music and who are curious to hear new things to come to our concerts. I am currently the Artistic Director of Clarion Concerts in Columbia County – a wonderful organization, with a superb following. Upstate New York has a dazzling amount of ancient, new, contemporary music, and I feel privileged to be part of this musical haven.

Eugenia Zukerman

STEPHANIE CHASE: I love that region – it’s so beautiful, and the local arts scene is amazing. They’re lucky to have you. 

Your most recent book, Like Falling Through a Cloud was published this past November, and it is described as “a lyrical memoir of coping with forgetfulness, confusion, and a dreaded diagnosis.” The dreaded diagnosis was cognitive decline – and I was very saddened to learn of this. But in reading your book, I find great courage and inspiration alongside the anxiety and frustrations you experience. You have chosen to write it in the form of a series of poems, which I believe is a new form for you, at least in terms of what you’ve previously published. Is there a reason for this?

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: I’ve written a lot of poetry, but I didn’t plan to write in poetry for Like Falling Through a Cloud – I had just returned from being assessed for cognitive decline, and when I got home, I sat at my desk, stared at the wall for some time, and then, for some reason, I picked up paper and pencil and began to write, and it all came out mostly in verse – I didn’t plan it. I was in a state of shock. I did not tell anyone I was writing something, but then when I had penned 25 pages, I asked my daughter Natalia to read it. “Is it anything?” I asked her, and she said it was wonderful and I should just keep going. Which I did.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Are there currently effective treatments for this condition?

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: There are many hopeful treatments, but none of them have definitively positive results. The Alzheimer’s Association is in almost every city in America, working night and day to find a treatment that will work. They are coming close, and I believe a cure will be found, but not for some time – yet it’s important to be hopeful.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You describe the difficulty in finding words at times, only to have them come later when you have ceased the effort. Most musicians seek perfection – or as close as we can get to it – in performing our music and, incidentally, the first time I ever took a yoga class I was chastised for “trying too hard.” Is letting go of perfection helpful?

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: I have never tried for perfection. I think that’s a hopeless dream. I just have always tried my best, and always want to feel that I’ve tried my best.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Has your relationship with music changed in recent years?

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: Certainly. As a flutist, the muscles of the face are important, and strangely I find I’m less concerned with perfection. I’m concerned with always trying to improve. I am enjoying practicing more than ever.

STEPHANIE CHASE: I’m usually practicing in anticipation of a concert, but often find it to be quite therapeutic in that it forces me to focus and generally results in noticeable improvement pretty quickly, and the music itself is often very inspiring. Being able to escape the rest of the world while practicing is also a plus.

You have a supportive husband, to whom you refer as the love of your life. How can family members best help their loved ones who have memory issues?

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: Family members need to be patient, kind, encouraging. It has to be very difficult for family members to “be there” – but it’s important to try. And there are 24-hour hotlines for help at the Alzheimer’s Associations.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You and your husband now live principally on a small farm in upstate New York, with several animals, and several of your poems refer to nature and the beauty that surrounds you there. A few years ago, my husband and I bought an 18th century farmhouse in northwest Connecticut – not far from Norfolk – and I find that it is a welcome retreat from New York City, which is currently experiencing a widespread alarm over the threat of a coronavirus epidemic.

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: I think it’s a mistake to panic or equate the coronavirus epidemic to living in New York City. We don’t yet know enough about this threatening disease and can only hope this pandemic will not flourish. Just take precaution. Be aware. Wash your hands. Try to sleep enough and take good care of oneself.

STEPHANIE CHASE: I, for one, am avoiding the subway these days, but a lot of people do not have that luxury, and I find that spending time in nature is comforting, especially in that it now also feels safer.

Are you continuing to write, in addition to your work for Clarion Concerts?

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: I’m not yet writing another book. But I am very much enjoying the book reading and signings that I am traveling to do. And thank you so much for your interest in this.

STEPHANIE CHASE: It is my privilege, thank you!

(Eugenia Zukerman photos credit: Angela Jimenz)



Stephanie Chase

Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as “one of the violin greats of our era” (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with 200 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their “elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination” (Boston Globe), “stunning power” (Louisville Courier-Journal), “matchless technique” (BBC Music Magazine), and “virtuosity galore” (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Recent concert appearances include music festivals in Newport, RI, Mt. Desert, ME, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Bargemusic, Music in Context (Houston), and as soloist with the New York Scandia Symphony.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.