Graceful violin playing and leaden conducting from Zukerman with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

By Lawrence Budmen

Pinchas Zukerman conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Monday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Pinchas Zukerman conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Monday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

In recent decades many classical star soloists have tried their hand at conducting. Some have succeeded admirably through sheer talent and musical intelligence (Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim). Others have shown little flair for ensemble cohesiveness or interpretive nuances in the orchestral repertoire (Itzhak Perlman, Philippe Entremont).

Count Pinchas Zukerman in the latter group. While the violinist has done some effective performances of scores from the Baroque and classical eras with chamber orchestras, his readings of large-scale orchestral works have often been lacking in excitement or stylistic flair. Zukerman’s concert with the  Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Monday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach indicated nothing had changed.

On the positive side, the London-based ensemble was in great form. From the first bars of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, the orchestra’s plush string tone commanded attention and the warm timbre of the winds and spot-on horns were ingratiating. 

Not surprisingly Zukerman was most effective in the program’s two works for chamber-sized forces—Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, in which he doubled as soloist.

The Elgar work is a charming vignette in three brief movement. With the strings producing a silky smooth cushion of sound, Zukerman brought out the restless undertow in the lower strings beneath the violins’ melodic paths in the initial Allegro. The Larghetto is one of those essays in romantic nostalgia that Elgar excelled at. This type of music is in this orchestra’s DNA and Zukerman led a spacious traversal that avoided bathos, A nicely proportioned final Allegretto with an effective reprise of the opening thematic figure capped a lovely performance.

Zukerman is an old hand at soloing and leading Mozart concertos. In the 1970’s he recorded an outstanding set of all five Mozart violin concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra. His technique is still strong and intact, his tone rich without  overdoses of sugary excess. The orchestra really dug into the opening tutti of the first movement, playing with smooth corporate gleam and incisive articulation. Zukerman’s violin entrance at a slow tempo added a note of musical suspense before the fleet Allegro section. 

There was momentum and tight cohesion throughout the movement’s contrasting episodes. The Adagio formed the peak of Zukerman’s reading, in which he shaped the melodic curve in one long span of almost otherworldly beauty. There was both grace and fire in the concluding Rondeau. Zukerman displayed his virtuosic zest in the Turkish interlude and impishly added a quote from a Bach partita during one of the movement’s transitions.

In the Egmont Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, however, Zukerman emerged as more of a time beater than podium force. The introduction to Egmont was sluggish and the ensuing fast section limped along amiably bereft of any real intensity or drama. Zukerman’s dynamic range was generalized, the orchestra basically playing at moderate volume without much variety. There were sudden exaggerated slowdowns along the way, sapping the overture’s forward drive.

The fussy phrasing in the Poco sostenuto introduction to the Seventh Symphony did not bode well and the Vivace merely lumbered along. Despite exceptional wind solos, the orchestra’s excellent playing was consistently neutralized by Zukerman’s ponderous beat. He seemed to mistake the Allegretto for the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, so slow and leaden was the pace. 

The Scherzo brought a needed dose of energy to the performance, buttressed by bright wind timbres. Then it was back to heavy-handed pacing, exaggerated ritards and little differentiation of loud and soft in the Allegro con brio finale. 

Mercifully no encore was offered.

Pinchas Zukerman is soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7  2 p.m. Tuesday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Zukerman and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra perform Weber’s Der Freischütz Overture, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7  8 p.m. Wednesday at the Arsht Center in Miami.


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Tue Jan 16, 2018
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