With Zukerman and Forsyth as star power, Israel Philharmonic shines with warmth and elegance

By David Fleshler

Violinist-conductor Pinchas Zukerman, one of the stars to emerge from Israel’s intense classical music culture, came to Miami with Israel’s finest orchestra Wednesday for a program that brought some rarely heard works to the concert stage.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1936 by the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, as it became clear that prospects were darkening for the Jews of Central Europe. Toscanini conducted the first performance, and since then the orchestra has grown into an ensemble with a worldwide reputation and a history of carrying on through the county’s most challenging periods. (At a performance during the first Gulf War, as Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles fell on Israel, audience members famously attended wearing gas masks.)

Zukerman led the orchestra at the Arsht Center in a program that was admirably unusual:  A Haydn symphony, a rarely heard concerto, a couple of cello works that almost never get played and only one work that regularly shows up on concert programs, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasie-Overture. Appearing as solo cellist was his wife Amanda Forsyth, principal of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, which Zukerman presides over as music director.

The orchestra has sometimes been criticized for a lack of precision, but there was little evidence of this shortcoming Wednesday in Miami. Although a couple of rapid string passages in the Haydn could have been cleaner, the orchestra’s playing was generally clear and accurate. In the Tchaikovsky, the strings ripped through the swift runs of the feud section with dash and elan. Horn playing, a sore spot in many orchestras, was flawless. And the ensemble’s tone was one of warmth and elegance throughout.

Zukerman played Haydn’s Violin Concerto in C Major, a work that usually loses out in programs to the more popular concertos of Mozart. At 61, when some violinists start to lose their edge, he still possesses a formidable technique. His bowing was assured and immaculate, drawing rich sounds from the instrument without any unsteadiness or extraneous noise, and intonation was close to perfect.

Although the Haydn concerto offered none of the technical challenges of its big 19th and 20th century successors, his glossy, effortless playing showed he was still a master of the instrument. Imagine an authentic, period interpretation of this concerto and you have imagined everything this was not. Zukerman played with a big tone, lots of vibrato, a wide dynamic range and more interpretive ardor, possibly, than this unpretentious work could handle. And his playing of the slow movement was as romantic as anyone could get away with in a Haydn concerto. But this was a living, committed performance that did full justice to Haydn’s music.

Wearing a hot pink gown, Forsyth was a striking, very blond presence in front of the dark-suited orchestra. Her rapport with Zukerman was apparent, with lots of glances and smiles through the performance, and a kiss at the end. She played two obscure pieces by Max Bruch, the German Romantic now known primarily for only one work, his G-minor violin concerto.

Forsyth played Bruch’s Canzone for cello and orchestra and his Adagio on Celtic Melodies, tuneful, richly orchestrated works that are immediately recognizable as being from the pen of the composer of the G-minor violin concerto. Both works showed off Forsyth’s tone, a golden, singing sound, urgent and dramatic as the occasion demands. The Adagio on Celtic Melodies, in particular, was a wistful, picturesque work with instantly memorable melodies reminiscent of the composer’s Scottish Fantasy for violin, and Forsyth deserves credit for leaving the trodden path of the usual concertos to unearth these pieces.

The concert opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 83, known as The Hen. Although it begins darkly, Zukerman favored lightness over drama. The orchestra played with technical precision and buoyant spirits, particularly in the playful third movement.

The performance of the Tchaikovsky was warm and velvety smooth. Zukerman took a slow pace — except in the fast feud sections — that milked this familiar work for maximum tension and drama.

Pinchas Zukerman, Amanda Forsyth and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra repeat the program 8 p.m. Thursday at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. Call 561-572-8471 or go to www.kravis.org.

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Thu Dec 17, 2009
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