Monday, January 22, 2018

Pinchas Zukerman plays and conducts a concert by touring Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The Royal Philharmonic made its second visit to the Palladium Sunday.
One of the most colorful figures in 20th-century British music founded the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946, and an international star of similar celebrity to Sir Thomas Beecham is its 21st-century principal guest conductor.

Pinchas Zukerman was center stage, on and off the podium, for the RPO's concert Sunday evening at the Palladium. The Israeli musician, long identified as a major concert violinist and violist, has followed the path of many aging instrumentalists adding to their reputations by picking up the baton. (A younger fiddler of special interest hereabouts, Joshua Bell, has twice appeared at the Center for the Performing Arts with split responsibilities in front of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.)

This is the second time Zukerman and the RPO have visited Carmel. The program had the same concentration on the Austro-German mainstream in 2014. I cited Zukerman's "pearly tone and ingratiating flair" in reviewing his performance of Brahms' violin-cello concerto with his wife, Amanda Forsyth. This time, unlinked to a lesser player, Zukerman as soloist was able to stand out all the more.

To Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, he brought the same kind of smoothness and blithe mastery. A few of the rapid figures seemed a little offhand, but Zukerman mostly stayed on the good side of casualness. He imparted a kind of youthful vigor and unpretentiousness to this product of the 19-year-old composer that even much younger violinists sometimes miss.

Mozart supplied no cadenzas and "holds" (Eingaenge is the German word, indicating brief unaccompanied passages for the soloist leading back into the score). I couldn't identify Zukerman's, but they were cogent and, where appropriate, florid. There was a puckish Bach quotation in the Eingang leading back into the minuet just after the Rondeau movement's "Turkish" episode. The latter, by the way, was treated with less exoticism than one sometimes hears, but the contrast with the main body of the finale was still well-defined.

The orchestra was a sympathetic partner throughout the work, which brought the concert up to intermission. The program began with an extra-dramatic account of Weber's Overture to "Der Freischütz." The pauses were richly suspenseful, especially the one before the exciting conclusion in the major mode. After a brief early burble, the horn section was superb.

The concert's second half consisted of Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D minor. Several commentators lavish praise on the work, and I have to respect more knowledgeable observers than I. Sunday's performance was enthralling, it's true, and Zukerman elicited the sort of emotional warmth from the score that's so characteristic of the Bohemian composer.

But much of the piece seems merely workmanlike. In the finale, despite the blend of dark and light feeling (the latter represented by a theme with charming folk elements) the impression of filling out a pattern often threatens to dominate. The best stuff is in the Scherzo; in this performance, the springiness of the ensemble, with its trenchant accents, was especially attractive.

I have to be grateful, at least, that Zukerman and the RPO didn't feel obliged to present a greater masterpiece from Dvorak's symphonic oeuvre — the "New World" Symphony. Visiting European orchestras have a long history of regarding the Dvorak Ninth as an obligatory hostess gift when they travel to America. Leave it at home, please: we know it pretty well here.

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