At last night’s second concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Davies Symphony Hall, presented as part of the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony, Pinchas Zukerman served as both conductor and violin soloist. He performed as both in the concerto offering, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 219 (“Turkish”) violin concerto in A major. This was the last of a set of five such concertos that Mozart composed in Salzburg in 1775, this one completed about a month before his twentieth birthday. This turned out to be the high point in an evening where the only other significantly arresting moment did not come until the encore.
Zuckerman’s solo work was clearly the product of much consideration. His rhetorical toolkit was endowed with a generous supply of nuanced approaches to phrasing, allowing each musical gesture to take on its own gracious identity. As a conductor he kept his string section to a reasonably modest size, although there were still times when they would mask the two oboes and two horns, which Mozart presumably added for the sake of more colorful sonorities. Nevertheless, for the most part the technical assets outweighed the technical liabilities.
The deeper question, however, was whether or not this was a Mozart performance. As James M. Keller observed in the program book, Mozart probably composed all five of these 1775 concertos for his own use. Bearing this premise in mind, along with his age at the time, it is reasonable to suppose that Mozart wrote these concertos to demonstrate that he could be as much of a “show-off kid” on the violin as he was behind a piano keyboard. The closest Zuckerman got to that show-off spirit was in the cadenza that Fritz Kreisler wrote for the final movement. (There are enough anecdotes to suggest that Kreisler was a kid at heart throughout his life.) Credit for the other two cadenzas was given only as “a gift by a close friend;” and they were almost painfully heavy-handed. When the music was Mozart’s, Zukerman definitely knew how to apply a light touch but never seemed to acknowledge that such lightness was the surface structure of a deeper sense of play.
One might say that, while Zukerman knew how to make any individual moment a compelling one, he never managed to be so convincing with the concerto taken as a whole. This was even more evident during the second half of the program with his performance of Edward Elgar’s Opus 36 “Enigma” variations. If some of Robert Schumann’s music could be classified as bipolar, Elgar’s Opus 36 is a virtual gallery of wildly different personalities, as well as the composer’s thoughts about those personalities. (The title comes from the fact that each variation has a cryptic title, which must be “decoded” to identify the personality behind the music.)
Unfortunately, Zukerman’s approach to this highly personal composition tended to be, at best, “by the book.” Similar to the case with his Mozart, he could take a disciplined approach to any specific passage; but there was never much sense that the overall half-hour experience amounted to any sort of journey. Indeed, to the contrary, Zukerman tended to overload each loud passage as if it were a major climax, thus not only undercutting the grandeur of Elgar’s finale but also detracting from the significance of the “Nimrod” variation (the ninth of fourteen) as a “second-order” climax.
Far more effective was his approach to his aforementioned encore selection. This was the second movement from Elgar’s Opus 20, a three-movement serenade for string ensemble. Even with the full weight of the entire string section summoned to perform Opus 36, Zukerman performed this movement with a quiet poignancy in which even the slightest of moments reverberated with significance. Each of the lines of counterpoint was always kept at just the right level of balance; and Zukerman summoned so much attentiveness to this relatively modest piece of work that one could hear a pin drop (even with members of the audience deciding that they did not want to stay for the encore).
Would that he had brought such attentiveness and balance to the beginning of his program, Ludwig van Beethoven’s overture for his Opus 84 incidental music for a production of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Egmont. This was a heavy-handed reading, all of whose weight was concentrated on the strings and brass, leaving the winds to fend for themselves as best as they could (which was with relatively little impression, except for the six tweets from Helen Keen’s piccolo in the final five measures). The impact of Zukerman’s encore made it clear that his comfort zone was with a chamber orchestra; and it is a pity that he did not bring those sensibilities to bear with the transparency of more limited (and historically informed, at least in numbers) resources for his Beethoven.