January 26, 2014

One Pair of Shoes: Conductor and Violinist Bows Beethoven

By Niels Swinkels

Pinchas ZukermanLondon’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra wrapped up its three-week concert tour through the U.S. with an all-Beethoven program at Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday. Not planned as such, it nevertheless made a nice addition to the recent Beethoven love fest by Michael Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony, which had also included music by Mason Bates.

RPO’s all-Beethoven concert was one of four programs that the orchestra brought along on its American tour, to places like Louisville, Newark, and Kansas City, and on the West Coast to Santa Barbara, Palm Desert, and San Diego, to name a few. Aside from Beethoven, the other programs included music by Bach, Brahms, and Schoenberg.

Leading the RPO tour was Principal Guest Conductor Pinchas Zukerman, who also functioned as violin soloist — on Sunday night, in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61, from 1806.

The performance opened with Zukerman conducting a neat, but slightly tepid version of the overture to the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 (1800–01), which served as an excellent way to gauge the tonal colors of the orchestra.

The Royal Philharmonic has formidable woodwinds and brass, and its string section possesses a broad, dark-hued low register. The high strings have a certain brilliance in their tone that is very obvious, but also hard to describe; it’s as if there’s a small acoustical spotlight on them that makes them shine just that little bit extra.

Until Sunday’s concert, my primary association with Beethoven’s sole violin concerto was, unfortunately, established a few decades ago in the Netherlands, as a result of the dealings of a hapless advertising art director, who had the ungodly idea to use the opening theme of the final Rondo: Allegro in a television commercial for Dutch cheese. 

The high point of the concerto was the middle movement, which has the texture and transparency of white lace and seemed to be produced in one prolonged, soft whisper.

By contrast, with his interpretation of this violin concerto, Zukerman managed to break that link; there was nothing paltry about his view of this monument of violin literature. Henceforth I will be more than happy to use Zukerman’s version as my main association with Beethoven’s piece.

Zukerman’s tone carries a rich and vivid vibrato and is somehow quite precise, but his general approach to the music is rather casual. As a soloist, he doesn’t shy away from a little drama, and he takes all kinds of liberties with the tempo; whether or not the orchestra follows him perfectly is excitingly irrelevant.

The high point of the concerto, and perhaps of the entire performance, was its middle movement, the meditative Larghetto, which has the texture and transparency of white lace and seemed to be produced in one prolonged, soft whisper emanating from both orchestra and soloist.

After intermission, Zukerman continued to deemphasize tempo and rhythm in the Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, in favor of a richness of sound and a flowing pulse to carry Beethoven’s melodies.

The audience’s appreciative standing ovation was rewarded with an energetic and spirited rendition of Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.