This piece was updated at 6:07 p.m. Oct. 29 to reflect new information about a canceled Zukerman concert that was supposed to take place at Carnegie Hall in January.

At what point do we cancel or boycott, and at which point do we forgive?

Those were the questions that stirred through my mind when I heard that world-renowned violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman would be performing with the Jerusalem Quartet on Wednesday, Nov. 3 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

The program, which includes cellist Amanda Forsyth (who’s married to Zukerman), is presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, the county’s longest-running music organization.

Violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman. Credit: Photo courtesy of PSOC/Cheryl Mazak

In case you didn’t hear, the controversy involving Zukerman took place in June, when he was leading a virtual master class organized by the Juilliard School in New York. In the class, two Asian American sisters were playing their violins together.

According to Laurie Niles of violinist.com, who watched the event unfold live online, Zukerman started his response by saying, “It’s almost too perfect, I mean that as a compliment.”

He then said, “A little more vinegar — or soy sauce! More singing, like an Italian overture.”

The sisters, who were born in New York and are of partial Japanese descent, played their instruments some more.

“Too boxy — have fun!” Zukerman commented. “Sometimes if you have a question about how to play it, sing it. I know in Korea, they don’t sing.”

Really, they don’t sing? What about K-Pop, which may be the most popular type of music in the world right now? You know, BTS, Big Bang, Blackpink and EXO?

What about pansori, the genre of Korean singing and storytelling that’s a huge part of the culture and has been around since the 18th century?

Hearing Zukerman’s comments, one of the sisters spoke up and said, “But I’m not Korean.”

Zuckerman rather forcefully replied, “Then where are you from?” That kind of question often offends people of color in the U.S., especially those born here.

The young woman explained that she is of half-Japanese descent, and Zuckerman interrupted, “In Japan, they don’t sing either.”

Really, again? What about kabuki, the classical form of Japanese dance/drama that dates back to the Edo period (1603-1867)? Kabuki involves a storytelling type of singing that can be described as folksy or theatrical.

What about biwa, shigin, hogaku, gagaku (court music) and shomyo (Buddhist chanting)? What about karaoke, which originated in Japan and has spread like wildfire across the globe? What about a veritable host of talented Korean and Japanese (and Korean/Japanese American) opera, choral and classical music singers?    

At the end of the master class, Zukerman doubled down, saying, “In Korea, they don’t sing. It’s not in their DNA.”

Is an Apology Enough?

Zukerman’s remarks sparked outrage among Asian and Asian American musicians, who took to social media and shared stories about being stereotyped over the years as too technical, unemotional and mechanical.

The hashtag #boycottZukerman even made the rounds on social media for a couple of months.

The master class took place on a Friday. Juilliard decided to withhold the video from public broadcast and issued a Sunday statement instead: “Unfortunately, we will not be posting the video of Friday’s master class with Pinchas Zukerman, who in the course of the class used insensitive and offensive cultural stereotypes … we sincerely apologize to all attendees and again extend a personal apology to the recipients of those comments.”

On Monday, Zukerman apologized, issuing the following 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 apologize. 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.”

Zukerman did face some heat on social media, and the incident and apology were published in the New York Times and other publications. But the Israeli American violinist has only faced one cancellation so far, a rather high-profile gig with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, originally scheduled for Jan. 29, 2022.

Outside of that, Zukerman will take on a new role with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in November as artistic and principal education partner for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons. In this role, he will play and direct chamber orchestra concerts with the DSO, appear as a violin soloist with the orchestra and collaborate with DSO musicians in chamber music performances, as well as lead intensive chamber music coaching and instrument tutoring sessions in partnership with Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, according to a statement on the DSO’s website.

This position was announced in April, and will start as planned next month, according to Denise McGovern, vice president of communications at the DSO.

So why hasn’t there been more outcry or protest? Is there a difference between saying something “culturally insensitive” and then apologizing, as Zukerman did, and crossing the line with bad behavior, as Plácido Domingo reportedly did, forcing his resignation from L.A. Opera in 2019?  

Have classical music fans decided that cancel culture has gone too far, and it’s time to forgive?

Culturally Insensitivity vs. Ignorance

Zukerman’s comments have come during a time of increased anti-Asian rhetoric and violence against Asians and Asian Americans. In addition to negative stereotypes about their performing, Asian musicians also have to deal with the threat of something ugly happening to them while they are onstage.

Plus, his comments are just flat-out false.

“The idea that either (Korean or Japanese) culture doesn’t have a singing tradition is patent nonsense,” said Oliver Wang, professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach. “Perhaps it’s not the same singing tradition as exists in the European tradition, but regardless, it’s not like they don’t sing!”

Wang specializes in popular culture and music, race and ethnicity, and identity and community formation. He has a particular interest in Asian American music and culture.

“Anyone who’d come away from those comments thinking, ‘Huh, I guess Asians don’t sing’ isn’t the type of person likely to be swayed by evidence contrary to that,” Wang said. “It already bespeaks a level of ignorance to even entertain such an obvious overgeneralization and example of cultural supremacy.”

The Upcoming Concert

Though requests were made, Zukerman was not available for a comment on this piece, nor was Tommy Phillips, president and artistic director of the Philharmonic Society since September 2018. According to a Philharmonic Society spokeswoman, this concert was booked years in advance, well before the June controversy, and postponed once due to the coronavirus pandemic. Presumably, it was kept because of prior arrangements, tickets sold, and no one else has canceled.

Zukerman will play with the award-winning Jerusalem Quartet, which was formed in 1993. Canadian cellist Amanda Forsyth, who once served as principal cellist of the Calgary Philharmonic and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, will join them onstage.

Jerusalem Quartet with Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3

Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Tickets: Prices start at $23

Information: 949-553-2422 or PhilharmonicSociety.org

The program will consist of Bruckner’s “Adagio” from String Quintet in F major, Dvorak’s Sextet for Strings in A major, Op. 48, and Brahms’ Sextet for Strings No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18.

A pre-concert lecture by Brian Lauritzen, a classical music broadcaster on KUSC (91.5 FM), will begin at 7 p.m., and the concert will start at 8 p.m. 

People are imperfect, and Zukerman has apologized and pledged he “will do better in the future.” Perhaps we’ve reached a point in our culture where people can be forgiven for their mistakes, especially if they apologize, admit their shortcomings and promise to improve.

But even one more mistake like this one could mean the end of a decades-long career for an accomplished artist and musician, no matter how famous, talented or wealthy he is.

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.

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