London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra packed Zellerbach Hall Sunday afternoon, near the tail end of their packed three-week American tour. With daily performances in Davis, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, and Orange County, the over 70-person group must be, if not exhausted, eager to get home, at any rate. But there was no sign of fatigue in their Cal Performances gig, led by the distinguished violinist Pinchas Zukerman, RPO’s principal guest conductor.
The RPO is one of the more traditionalist orchestras in London. No surprise, then, that the program featured three classical chestnuts.
The opener was Beethoven’s fiery Egmont Overture, a powerful assertion of one individual’s attempt to resist tyranny in the Spanish-dominated Netherlands of the 16th century — doomed, but inspirational (especially in view of current events in our capitol).
The closer was the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, romantic to the max, full of pathos — gripping and irresistible music built on a motive that, repeated in each movement, itself signals the irresistible grip of fate. The gorgeous second movement (Andante cantabile) was the highpoint — achingly lyrical and unabashedly heartfelt, especially in the horn and clarinet solos.
In between, for a break from romantic intensity, Zukerman brought out his violin to play and lead Mozart’s elegant and quirky Violin Concerto No. 5 (“Turkish”). A reduced orchestra was nicely balanced with the soloist, whose sound was dazzlingly clear and whose playing simmers with controlled energy. Zukerman’s cadenzas were both witty and lyrical.
Zukerman conducts with minimal gestures; on the podium, he is no showman, and seems content more to trust the sections of the orchestra than to dictate to them. At least from the audience perspective, his beat can sometimes seem barely present, and as a result, he might be leaving the orchestra a little high and dry as to tempo. In the Mozart, with considerably fewer players, a chamber-music attitude made it evident that players didn’t need a lot of direction — Zukerman could simply wave his bow in the air and the orchestra would respond aptly. But in the larger pieces, particularly the massive Tchaikovky, loaded with frequent shifts of rhythm and affect, a more directive beat would have helped propel and structure the piece.
The Tchaikovsky Fifth is large in scope and volume. The orchestra consistently opted for a correspondingly ample sound, and had the forces to do so. The string sections, large in number and positioned close to the front of the stage, produced a fortissimo that packed a wallop. But with the addition of the powerful brass sections, the resulting “wall of sound” too often felt overwhelming. The big tunes — often in violins or brass — were given free rein at the expense of inner voices; winds and horns, playing from the back rows were often hard to hear.
In London, the RPO’s home venue is Cadogan Hall, a repurposed church with only 900 seats; I have not heard them there, but by all accounts it is a much more balanced hall, with better acoustics and more intimacy than Zellerbach. Working with the acoustics of venue after venue on tour must be difficult; I realize that there is limited time for checking the sound, adjusting the seating and finding the best settings for the electronic acoustic enhancements. But such adjustments are crucial, most particularly for a touring orchestra.
Cal Performances deserves accolades for bringing out-of-town orchestras like the RPO, the Mariinsky, and — coming up in March — the Rotterdam Philharmonic. An orchestra on tour gives Bay Area audiences a chance to listen to classical music with refreshed ears; we can’t all travel to London or St. Petersburg. But touring orchestras, it seems, play mostly chestnuts. It’s understandable: Touring is expensive, and the orchestra needs to rely on proven ticket-sellers like Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and the “Emperor” Concerto (on the program from the Rotterdam Phil). Still, perhaps the next British orchestra to visit could bring us something a little less well-known, perhaps a contemporary British composer. Let’s use occasions like the RPO’s welcome visit not just for the chance to hear a different orchestra, but also for innovative programming: sounds we don’t usually hear and works we would otherwise miss.